Home

Biography

Compositions

Pictures

Reviews

Blog

Contact

 

Malebolge

"O frati", dissi "che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l'occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia
d'i nostri sensi ch'è del rimanente,
non vogliate negar l'esperienza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza".

Dante Alighieri Inferno XXVI 

I have long loved the speech with which Ulysses urges his companions to seek new worlds, a peroration that sends them to the Antipodes and to their doom. That voyage towards the unknown, the ensuing calamity and their leader's subsequent journey locked in a tongue of flame for all eternity, exert a tidal pull on the imagination and they were the impulse that sent me on my own journey with this piece.   A journey but not a linear one: explicitly narrative music, as a mature form, had its day a very long time ago and I see no point in writing "about" La Divina Commedia - not even the picturesque squalors of Hell.  If the relationship between music and literature is to satisfy, it must be more abstract - an intellectual construct, an emotional topography or perhaps a communality of of gesture. This, then, is not a depiction of the Malebolge, the "evil ditches" that form the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno.  Rather, it is an abstract work whose core material was conjured into being by elements in the poem.

Though it is played in a single span, Malebolge has many of the characteristics of a classical symphony - indeed the violent central allegro conforms closely to the conventions of sonata form.  The work has a slow prelude and postlude which use the same music (Hell is circular, after all) a slow movement in the form of a loose passacaglia upon which a scherzo is superimposed and what in a conventional work would be the first movement comes third.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the slow movement passes through the scherzo. Certainly I imagined the boats passing through shoals and mists, the sea life dancing around them.  My days off in Trinidad were always spent in the mangrove swamps, and I think the sense that I had of life teeming around my canoe has found its way into the music.

Composition is a monastic trade.  I work in silence (save my own grumbling) at a table.  There is no piano, much less a computer.  When I hear something in my head, I snatch it and pin it to the page with the point of my pencil.  It follows that before anything can be written down accurately, it must sound clearly in the mind; like many composers, I am severely synaesthesic and a word, a colour, a smell or a gesture can easily suggest a musical idea.  This was the case with the themes of Malebolge; the swirls and scrolls that an oar makes in water suggested the passacaglia theme, the monster Geryon's tail and the whips of the demons prompted the lashing violin theme in the introduction and in much of the orchestration you can hear the bubbling of boiling tar - as you can in the original poem whenever it is mentioned.

I cannot account for the persistent sarabande that characterises much of the piece.  Certainly it is a rhythm that - for no reason that I can explain - I find sinister and in The Secret Agent it was a leitmotiv for suicide bombing.  It is there - because it is!  One night during the early stages of the piece I was badly troubled by a dream of millions of souls dancing a sarabande.  A small voice beside me in the dark said go downstairs and write it down and since such things are indeed better put on a page than left rattling around in one's head, I did as I was told.

European art often introduces an element of fun into the business of eternal torment, a gleeful industry on the part of Satan's followers. I particularly like David Teniers's Rich Man Led to Hell with its band of devilish musicians, and in my favourite Last Judgement, over the west door of Ferrara cathedral, the demons who boil the damned sport orthodontically broad grins.  If Ulysses had been confined in another part of Hell (in fact I think it very unfair of Dante to have put him there at all) we should have had a different title, but humour is amost unique to the Malebolge section of Inferno, which contains - unless a better scholar can correct me - the only fart in the whole of Alighieri's work.  Dante is not a comic poet: nevertheless his gaggle of incompetent tar demons, the Malebranche, are a splendid burlesque act.  You'll hear them - or something that might be mistaken for them - in the music.

The climax of the piece was written at a single sitting: the violence of it was a logical outcome of the developmental process and at the time of writing I had no thought of anything beyond the notes on the page.  Next morning it struck me that fanciful souls might imagine it sounds like a shipwreck.  Well, if they want to, I don't mind: half the fun of being a composer is the unexpected things that other people find in your work.  Actually, Dante's destruction of Ulysses is prosaic: even at the moment of doom he is content to tell us that a shipwreck happened and leave it at that.  If you want terror on the high seas, I suggest you turn to the first part of the Aeneid: Dante's mentor Virgil makes a far better job of drowning his characters!  Whether or not this has anything to do with Malebolge is a question that I respectfully leave to my audience.

Every new piece is a journey: a wise composer makes no predictions about its outcome when he starts - and the process isn't ended until the work has been performed.  If it amuses you to do so, you can see this one as a metaphor for a voyage, though emphatically not a description of one.  Ultimately, however, a piece of music is about itself, a slice of sound, an abstract object that lodged in my head one day and wouldn't leave me alone until, many many pencils and headaches later, a pile of papers sat on my desk ready for the copyist.  That was the most interesting journey but alas it is one that I cannot for the life of me describe. Perhaps I should have told you what it felt like to be composing such an angry piece as Malebolge at the same time as a gentle comic opera about a bakery - because it was a very strange experience - but that, as they say, is another story.  At any rate, I hope my hot hellish little piece may warm you this Winter's evening.  If not, it is at least quite short and you'll be outside in the fresh air a lot  quicker than any of Dante's damned will be.  Or, since he puts it rather better than I ever could:

Lo duca e io per quel cammino ascoso
intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo;
e sanza cura aver d'alcun riposo,
salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch'i' vidi de le cose belle
che porta 'l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

Home      next      back