Composer Ned Bigham on a visit to Staffa and the role of Sussex in his work
PUBLISHED: 10:06 31 October 2017
From Bignor Park to the closing concert at the 70th Edinburgh International Festival, Ned Bigham's music has gone on a long journey, as Duncan Hall discovers
Mendelssohn’s 1829 Hebrides Overture was inspired by a very queasy boat trip to the natural phenomenon Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
When West Sussex composer Ned Bigham visited the island to create his latest multimedia work his experience was totally different. “My visit to Staffa was lovely and sunny,” he recalls from his music room at the family seat of Bignor Park, near Pulborough. That unlikely weather scenario in the north of Scotland forms just one third of the multimedia work he co-created with film-maker Gerry Fox for 2017’s Edinburgh International Festival. Ned penned a piece for orchestra, two harps and celeste which is designed to be accompanied by three giant screens displaying a trio of Fox’s drone-shot films of the titular island in sunshine, Scottish dreich and storm. The resultant piece ran in a loop in the National Library of Scotland with recorded music played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, before a live performance as part of the closing 70th anniversary concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.
“The weather through April and May can be fierce,” says father-of-two Ned, 51. “On the last day of filming there was a force seven gale and they had to abandon it for the day. The drone pilot wouldn’t let them fly!”
A big challenge for his music was to write for three very different scenes simultaneously. “We wanted to work in tandem,” he says. “I didn’t want the films to drive the music, or the music to drive the films. I would write some music and send it to Gerry to give him ideas for editing, or he would send me some cut sequences. I almost had to close my eyes to the films and remember the images in my head to write music which conjured up the music of the island.” The resultant structure is, in Ned’s own words, the storm before the calm – beginning with thunderous dark gothic passages before gradually releasing into a more pastoral atmosphere.
His accompanying album Staffa, featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has an island theme running through it. “As a composer you want to transport the listener into a different world,” he says. “I suppose islands offer the isolation you try to achieve when you listen to a piece of music. The idea started with Staffa – this beautiful Hebridean island a few miles off the west coast of Mull.” Each track, especially the opening archipelago dance Halmahera, is pushed by a driving rhythm from piano or strings – perhaps nodding back to Ned’s origins as a drummer for Neneh Cherry and co-founder of acid jazz band D-Influence.
Landscape – particularly the “panoramic quality” of the downs – has always played a major role in Ned’s work. “I’m so lucky to be living right at the foot of the downs,” he says. “These amazing vistas of beautiful Sussex countryside are just around the corner. I try to create a panoramic effect with music. Orchestras provide so many different palates with woodwinds and brass – there is so much depth of vision.” He creates much of his orchestral work using a computer programme called Sibelius which helps arrange the sounds he hears in his head or plays on his piano. But nothing compares to working directly with the orchestra. “You can learn so much from musicians,” he says. “I had written an incredibly fast piece for a contrabassoon which is a very cumbersome instrument not suited for that. We were able to switch it to bass clarinet which delights in doing fast passage work. Part of the excitement is learning from your mistakes. The danger with a computer programme is you can get lost in the sound. If you expect an orchestra to be metronomic in time it loses its humanity and human touch.”
As well as the surrounding landscape Ned takes inspiration from the orchestral sounds of 1950s Hollywood and Broadway as well as the moments when jazz meets orchestra in the work of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington. He also enjoys exploring the English pastoral tradition of Purcell, Tallis, Elgar, Britten, Vaughn Williams and John Taverner. Perhaps this is the reason why his music runs counter to what most people think when they hear the phrase “contemporary classical”. It’s accessible, melodic and rhythmic – designed to resonate with listeners. “A lot of contemporary classical music is really challenging – you need to have a degree in composition to appreciate it,” he says. “I don’t want people to have to do homework to listen to my music – I want it to connect and resonate. There are enough trials and tribulations on this planet – what a lot of people are looking for in music is an escape, not something that’s going to be hard work. I’m not interested in writing a pastiche or very safe music – I want to engage myself and the listener by trying to access what’s in their head or their heart.”
It certainly seemed to work with the Staffa installation, which received 400 visitors a day over ten days. Ned hopes he can take the installation to other festivals and art galleries around the country. “Some people would sit and listen to it five or six times and let it wash over them,” says Ned. “You can’t see it like a movie with a beginning, middle and end, it’s about the three screens interacting with each other. Gerry and I saw the screens as being soloists in the orchestra.”
Although Ned’s attention in recent months has been on northern Britain he has still kept his close link to Sussex both through musical projects and managing his 1,100-acre estate. And in Bignor Park he is surrounded by some impressive stories. “It’s been our family home for four generations since the 1920s,” he says. “It was originally part of the Arundel estate and the medieval deer park.” The original Jacobean house was built by Richard Pellatt of Steyning and was later the home to romantic poet Charlotte Turner Smith – an inspiration to both William Wordsworth and Jane Austen. “She wrote the first confessional poetry,” says Ned, adding that she is gradually being put back onto the literary map. “She made a living from her writing which was unusual for a writer of that time, especially a woman.” The current house at Bignor Park was built between 1826 and 1829 by Cornish tin miner John Hawkins using Belgravia architect Henry Harrison and landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin. In recent years the Bigham family has worked to restore many of the original landscape features and stables, as well as making the whole estate organic. Ned is particularly proud of restoring a rare heathland habitat for field crickets, as well as a wildflower meadow and wetlands. Gardener Louise Elliott has worked to ensure the formal gardens are kept bright and colourful with flowers between April and October.
The grounds played their part in October 2015 when Ned penned a new work, To The Valley, which premiered in the gardens of Bignor Park as part of the Town To Earth festival. “I chose a poem by Edward Thomas about coming home which felt very relevant,” he says. “Rebecca Askew who runs the Shoreham Community Choir helped me find the right theme. It was quite challenging with lots of different parts at the same time which doesn’t often happen in community choir work but they found it really gratifying.”
As for the future, Ned is working with violinist Andrew Bernardi on a new piece commissioned for next year’s Shipley Festival. And he is exploring Gaelic folk songs as well as hoping to add to his bottom drawer of compositions.
“The downs inspire me,” he says. “Even if I’m not looking through the window of the music room I know they’re there – and that’s important to me. We are so lucky in Sussex to have this incredible network of footpaths so we can go out into the countryside – some of which are hundreds and thousands of years old.
“Elgar lived in a cottage outside Fittleworth for many years and [Petworth Festival founder] Robert Walker lived there in the 1980s and 1990s writing a lot of music. We have a tradition of the Sussex countryside inspiring composers, and it doesn’t get any better than Elgar.”
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