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Ensemble with string orchestra works

Glass Tears

Duration: 15 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

The shakuhachi (bamboo flute) has intrigued me for many years and in particular its breathy, almost human quality - a vulnerable, fragile sound, especially in its middle and lower register. The koto on the other hand seems to combine aspects of the harp, zither, harpsichord and cimbalom and is capable of adding a metallic glint to the texture. Bringing these contrasting colours together with a string orchestra was a fascinating challenge compounded by my decision to write a piece that was not simply contemplative, which the shakuhachi might initially suggest, but contrasting in both mood and tempi.

The score opens percussively - the kotos drumming, the shakuhachi using mura-iki (essentially the sound of expelled air) while the strings tap with the wood of their bows (col legno) before gathering deep below the surface to build into an emerging and ascending strand of sound. The shakuhachi and violins vie for the high ground, triggering the bass into a running line that soon envelops all the players.

This quick and at times gleeful music is contrasted by a slow second half in which the shakuhachi and violins have lachrymose lines - glissandi falling away from repeated, almost chanted, tolling notes. It was this section that prompted the title. Glass Tears (which can, of course, be read with two meanings) compliments a pair of earlier pieces for oboe and piano with the generic title Fierce Tears, words taken from a line in the famous Dylan Thomas poem Do not go gentle into that good night. At the close the percussive sounds return to, as it were, snap off the current.

Glass Tears is in one continuous movement and lasts around 15 minutes.

© Michael Berkeley