Inspiration is a funny business. An idea or influence can gestate for years under the surface of an artist’s work while other things come and go, apparently impervious to the big idea waiting to burst out: and then, when it finally does so, we look back and see everything that came before in a different light. When Graham Fitkin returned to his native Cornwall around a decade ago, the effect on his music was not immediately apparent. ‘I work in a room,’ he says, ‘and the room could be anywhere.’ Cornwall is good for breaks – you can get up from your desk and go for a walk without having to fight against traffic and noise – but, at least until recently, he never consciously set out to write a piece influenced by his environment.
And indeed, Fitkin’s musical language has always seemed strikingly urban, in its energetic rhythms, jazzy harmonies and sectional structures built on clear contrasts. In common both with American minimalist composers like Steve Reich and with his teacher, the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, Fitkin seemed from the beginning of his career to have made a break with the traditional predominance of string instruments in ensemble music. His pieces tended to favour instruments which don’t play a major role in a standard orchestra: keyboards, electric guitars, saxophones. Often, he wrote for multiples of a single instrument – Stub, for saxophone quartet; Hook, for four percussionists playing only marimbas and drums; and numerous works for multiple pianists, whether four players at two pianos (his own ensemble The Nanquidno Group, founded on his return from the Netherlands in 1986 and active until 1990) or Piano Circus, the group of six pianists which commissioned three pieces from him in 1990–91.
Many of these pieces were written for ensembles in which Fitkin himself was involved as a player, or for performers with whom he had a close working relationship. How is the experience of writing for orchestra different? The BBC Concert Orchestra had played Fitkin’s music before commissioning Tidal, and Fitkin emphasises how helpful it was to be writing for an orchestra that he already trusted with his work. He also felt he knew the orchestra well enough to write certain specific things that he knew would suit them. Nonetheless, he says, writing for orchestra is a very different exercise from composing for a small ensemble in which one has a chance to know each player as an individual.
As for the orchestra’s more variegated colour palette, has Fitkin lost faith in the homogeneous ensembles that were such a mainstay of his earlier work? Not on the evidence of MULTIPLIER, the recent series of concerts he has curated at Kings Place, featuring a number of such groups in both his own music and others’. So why this shift of emphasis in his own recent work? It’s partly a matter, having created a style, of allowing it to evolve. It’s also partly a matter of learning to feel at home with the orchestra – finding ways to write differently for different ensembles while still producing what feels like a worthwhile musical statement. Fitkin points out that there was a time in the twentieth century when it was radical and interesting for visual artists to be working with straight lines and simple geometric shapes. Now, he suggests, computer graphics have made that so easy that an artist wants to do something else – not necessarily to do away completely with such shapes, but to build on them in complex and unpredictable ways.
Perhaps such thoughts were in his mind when deciding to explore the particular combination of predictability and unpredictability, structure and freedom, that underpins the present piece. Fitkin had long been fascinated by the movement of the tide around a particular sandbar near his home in West Cornwall, and when the orchestra asked for a work with a specific extra-musical connection he seized the opportunity to translate this fascination into music. Central to the project was the presence of visual artist John Keys. Fitkin has often worked on multi-media projects and collaborated with artists from different domains. Tidal is different, in that what Fitkin has written for the BBC Concert Orchestra is a substantial piece of purely acoustic concert music. But the working process was intensely collaborative – Fitkin and Keys spending intensive seven-day periods working together on the shore, observing and notating the movement of water on sand – and the separate but mutually influenced works that the two artists have produced may be combined in future in mixed-media presentations.
As well as time spent observing the sea meet the land, paying close attention to the way tiny variations in the shape of the sandbar or in the depth of the water moving over it are magnified into surprisingly noticeable differences in the sound made by the waves, Fitkin studied scientific charts mapping out long-term tidal cycles, and became fascinated by how the tides can be accurately predicted many years in advance but their local effects will remain unpredictable, subject to the precise formation of the land. This is a paradox, of course: it is the movements of the water that shape the sand, which in turn re-shapes the movements of the water. Tidal consists of four sections of music each lasting around 7 minutes. Within these sections are precisely calculated rhythmic and structural patterns inspired by the tidal charts. But compared to the clean lines of his previous music, Fitkin says, his use of the orchestra here is more subtle, open to vagueness and blurring as well as clear delineation of sounds and events. Does this freedom of local invention reflect the unpredictable effects of the land on the sea, in contrast to the underlying strictness of rhythmic cycles? ‘Maybe,’ he says, tentatively. ‘Sometimes, you just write music!’