21 May 2018

Music of Today: Christian Mason


21 May


This May, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents a showcase of music by British composer Christian Mason, featuring the world premiere of a newly-commissioned work, Man Made. Watch the free performance on Thursday 24 May at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Mason's music and his inspirations.

Poetry is an important thread in Christian Mason’s music. Although he didn’t write his first vocal work until On Love and Death – 5 Rossetti Songs of 2009–11, lines of verse appear as titles for many works, from at least as early as his orchestral From Bursting Suns Escaping (2006), inspired by words by David Gascoyne. The movement titles of the violin and piano duo Learning Self-Modulation (2011) even make up a six-line stanza of Mason’s own creation.

The poems themselves offer clues about Mason’s artistic preoccupations: in particular, ideas of revelation and wonder. In the texts, these are often conveyed through images of light and dark – Aspects of Radiance (2005), Clear Night (2007–08), The Years of Light (2013–14) – which Mason’s music translates into resonant, enveloping sonic spaces, punctuated by chant-like melodies, dancing instrumental exchanges, and bright, piercing timbres (chimes and harmonicas are among his favoured instruments). His works often move through stages of transformation, as though passing through successive rituals or stages of knowledge and awareness. In Learning Self-Modulation, for example, the violin is gradually detuned until the penultimate movement, when the violinist takes up a new instrument altogether, strung with four G-strings. “Once this sounds”, writes the composer, “we find ourselves in a new world”.

Layers of Love (extract)

Layers of Love does not find inspiration in a poem; at least not so far as the composer openly acknowledges. Instead, he says, it is inspired by a sometimes-felt desire for something “invisible, unknown and (inevitably) unattainable”. Written in gratitude to the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, whose composer prize he won in 2015, it offers “maybe a glimpse of the possibility of beauty and transcendence from within the midst of a world where such things are generally granted little importance”. The piece uses a unique instrumental layout to create distinct and overlapping musical spaces – a violin duo, a wind duo (later trio), a central septet. The passage through them is articulated by a flugelhorn, beginning off-stage, who takes up the role of wanderer/wonderer through each layer in turn.

Seeking, grasping, enjoying and possessing: the idea of personal fulfilment through awe-inspiring experience is inverted in Mason’s new work for the Philharmonia, Man Made. This does return to poetry, and specifically three poems by David Harsent, who has worked with Sir Harrison Birtwistle (for whom Mason has served as assistant) on several pieces, including the operas Gawain and The Minotaur. Ocean, Rainforest and Icefield were written in 2014 to accompany photographs by his son, Simon Harsent, as part of an environmental campaign by the World Wildlife Fund.

Icefield, by Simon Harsent

Ocean begins ominously. Among interlocking string harmonics, soft vibraphone chimes and sustained wind tones, the soprano describes a watery Day of the Dead, when the bodies of the drowned return to warn of the finite limits of earth and sky and sea. In contrast, the animated Rainforest tells of a wondrous, rare plant that flowers only once every 100 years, and that no one has ever seen. Mason’s score uses short repeated motifs in free tempo to give the impression of chaotic profusion of life, and at one point includes the performance instruction “gradually accelerating like vines around a tree in a forest-scene timelapse”. Yet Harsent’s text bitterly repurposes the famous Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest with nobody listening: “One press of the boot, one cut of the saw, and who would know or care or count the cost?” The rainforest that Mason shows us is but a backdrop to our duty of care. This warning only sounds more urgently in the work’s final movement, Icefield. Simon Harsent’s WWF photograph is of a majestic ice cliff, filling almost the entire picture frame. His father’s poem, and Mason’s music, however, offer a bleaker outlook, as Arctic silence and whiteness are reconceived as absence, loss and catastrophe. “The water rising fast”, ends the poem, strings and wind anxiously rising with it, “and the music lost”. If Mason’s earlier music exults in beauty and its discovery, particularly natural beauty, Man Made seems to acknowledge our responsibility towards it and the impact that we – still hungry for experience – are having.


© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: