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The Island

If you insist on being technical about it this is a very condensed four-movement symphony with its movements in the wrong order. After a noisy, brief scherzo we hear a dance-like finale, then a developmental “first movement”. The slow movement comes last. At the time of writing I was preoccupied with Jose Saramago’s fable The Tale of the Unknown Island, whose thirty pages contain the most perfect love story that I know and also a wonderful examination of Donne’s proposition that No man is an Island, entire of itself. I was considering it for an opera libretto, but if you search for a telling of the story in The Island you will search in vain. I have, however, borrowed an emotional shape from the book: the music starts loudly, stays loud for quite a while and then becomes gentler, the slow intense minuet dissolving into extreme stillness before the piece sets sail to the accompaniment of distant nocturnal noises. As with most of my work, the whole is constructed from a small set of themes stated at the very beginning and for all its dance-like character is furiously contrapuntal.

I wrote most of The Island in Paramin, a hilltop settlement that lies to the north of Port of Spain in Trinidad. It's a friendly enough place but very alien to a European; the night there is full of noises and not all of them are sweet – steel pans, cries, car horns, reggae beats. This perpetual charivari seems to have crept into the composition, as have the natural swagger that is so characteristic of the Trinidadian people and - I hope - at least a trace of the rum, allspice and woodsmoke that perfume that magical, troubling island.

The Island was commissioned by the Tönhalleorchester Zürich and premiered by them in June 2009.

Programme note: German

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