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Piece for a Dark Place


Photo credit: Will Roberts

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations this season, the orchestra wanted to commission a brand new work by Sheffield-based composer Chris Noble that would sit alongside Strauss’ ‘Death and Transfiguration’ and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony in our concert on Saturday 16th March.  The new work is titled ‘Piece for a Dark Place’ and is made up of three movements, lasting about 15 minutes overall. As well as learning the notes in our rehearsals, we wanted to ask Chris about the new piece in a bit more detail in order for both us and our audience to have some further insight into the new piece, a bit of behind-the-scenes of writing it and a chance to get to know Chris’ musical life a bit better. 


HS: On behalf of Hallam Sinfonia - we are so excited to play your brand new work, ‘Piece for a Dark Place’. Can you tell me a bit about how you started writing it and what inspired it in the first place?


Chris Noble: The piece actually originated as a sketch that was written towards the end of my PhD right back in 2008-ish, when I started to experiment with a style that was not as overtly Jazz as previously.  What emerged was sometimes quite bleak, but in an exciting way, to use a contradiction in terms.  Hence the name.  It wasn’t necessarily that I was in a Dark Place (although the world isn’t looking its best at the moment). I look back on some of the other stuff I wrote then and a lot of it is basically the jazz language shoehorned into a ‘classical’ form; now I still take jazz harmonies that intrigue me but fuse it with a slightly more angular style, and that’s what you will hear here.  The piece became a wind quintet last year; after which I combined what I had there with some of the earlier orchestrations, plus new bits and bobs, and reworkings of that material.  So it’s a real patchwork of an origin story.


HS: Do you have a specific method of composing your works? Where do you normally begin? 


CN: Normally, I’ll start ‘vertically’, that is to say chords first, melodies later.  I suppose that method of working stems from being a Jazz pianist.  However, this was very much a horizontal starting point - it’s more a tapestry of interwoven themes.  The motifs that become clear in the first few bars are rejigged and reused throughout.


HS: As well as composing, you are also known for your jazz arranging, such as your work for Jazz trombonist Dennis Rollins MBE, the Royal Welsh College of Music and your very own 18-piece big band Straight 8s, among others. Do you think your composing is influenced by your jazz background? 


CN: Undoubtedly! It always seeps in. The Jazz finds a way. Just on this occasion, you have to dig a little deeper.  But in all honesty you usually don’t have to look too far to find a 7th chord, for example. It’s not just the harmonic language, though; it can worm its way into the scoring too - chunking out blocks of ‘soli’ writing in the woodwinds, for example.  I’m always thinking of the strings as the rhythm section; the chordal base on which everything is based, although I’m aware that’s not a totally novel idea.


HS: Who or what are your influences in your music-making? Was it different for ‘Piece for a Dark Place’ ?


CN: It’s a weird cross-pollination of mainly C20th/21st contemporary art music and Jazz.  I’d say that Bill (and Gil) Evans and Herbie Hancock are just as important to my style as, say, Richard Rodney Bennett and Mark-Anthony Turnage.  I don’t think I drew on anyone in particular to help shape Piece for a Dark Place, although I do think there are perhaps bits of Schnittke and Shostakovich somewhere in there.


Photo credit: Charlie Hardwick

HS: Putting your composition aside for a second - what kind of things do you like to do when you’re not composing or arranging?


CN: I like doing nerdy things.  I collect (and play on) all manner of old games consoles - I will chat for hours on that.  I play chess and I go walking and I go to the pub.  I also play football every Wednesday.  I’m proud of the fact that my body still functions reasonably well afterwards despite being into my 40s.  I’m pretty gregarious, so I like seeing friends and being nerdy together.  Nerdy things are pretty mainstream now, so maybe I’m not actually a nerd after all.


HS: Back to ‘Piece for a Dark Place…’ the work is made up of three movements; ‘Surge’, ‘Ire’, and ‘Process’, with the second being only for Brass and Contrabassoon. It’s not often the case that the strings get to have a movement off like this - why did you choose to write it like that?


CN: The three movements are named after the stages leading to or comprising a ‘Dark Place’ event.  The second, ‘Ire’, deals with anger once the initial shock has subsided.  I thought that a chorale-style brass ensemble was best suited for this - undistilled power and immediacy.


HS: This concert that your premiere is part of has overall quite dark themes, including coming to terms with death and emotional challenges. Did this affect how you approached your composition? 


CN: To be honest, I thought from what I already had with the wind quintet from which it was based, is that serendipitously I already had the makings of a perfect fit for the tone of the concert.  There isn’t too much musical ‘sorbet’ but the third movement, ‘Process’, does at least show some light at the end of the tunnel.


CH: How do you envision our audience connecting or interpreting your piece? And are there any particular moments they should listen out for? 


HS: I’m hoping that each listener will find a different corner they can relate to.  There’s quite the gamut of emotions.  I don’t want to put a finger on what especially any one moment might mean to any one person, though.  I think as soon as you do that the listening process becomes prescriptive.  This is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favourite film.  Who knows what’s going on in Kubrick’s brain.


HS: Do you have any general composing tips or insights you can share for any budding composers coming to the concert? 


CN: The last piece of advice I dished out to a composer seemed to go down well; don’t write what you think other people want to hear, just what you want to write.  And don’t listen to Einaudi.


HS: No comment! Lastly - what else have you been working on recently and else is coming up for us to look out for?


CN: My occasional partners-in-crime and fellow collaborators Platform 4 have just booked the Upper Chapel for a concert in June. Watch this space.  We’re hoping we might put on some of our rep from the last ten years, write some new chamber music, and put it alongside some of the fun stuff we performed in the University’s Arts Tower last year.


CH: Thank you so much Chris, we cannot wait to perform your piece now! It’s already gone down very well with the players in our rehearsals, especially the Brass!


CN: Thanks so much for putting it on!


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