the cmrc blog

Writing a Portrait


This coming weekend I shall be lucky enough to hear the second performance of my marimba piece graceful/full of grace, written for and performed by Zoë Craven. I was thrilled to be asked by PercusSing to write this piece—and love the marimba—but, as with all my work, it was the performer I was keenest to capture.

When an artist paints a portrait the subject sits for them. Often for hours at a time, over weeks, even months. So a relationship is formed. From stillness and close scrutiny the artist paints a two dimensional image, whilst aiming to communicate four dimensions. As well as the sense of space the person actually takes up we, the viewer, always speculate as to the sitter’s character; their soul. Think of the Mona Lisa.

So what of Zoë’s soul?

A musician doesn’t sit still in silence, without moving a muscle. Far from it. They are active, dynamic, slippery. And there is something between the artist and the subject: their instrument.

Percussion music can be particularly flashy. There are many angles and many notes. It can be breathtaking. The performers can end up running about. With tuned percussion the arms become wings, stretch, fly, skim. It is balletic, comedic, athletic. A marimba is big, a simplistic piano, the player Lilliputian in comparison. They have to try to grow, be everywhere at once.

When I first spoke to Zoë on Skype I noticed her hair. It is long and she played with it. Pulling it into a smooth ribbon under her chin. It was a graceful movement, a simple moment. This relationship with her hair becomes a theatrical gesture in the piece; grand and preparatory at the outset, intimate and tender by the end. Zoë sweeps her hair back and to each side and these movements punctuate the music. Alongside the hair I saw a mixture of youth, beauty and vitality, but also focus, calm and simplicity. It made sense to try and ‘paint’ these qualities in my portrait of her.

And so the piece was born; a journey from something outwardly beautiful and impressive to something stripped back, resonant and thoughtful. Hopefully. But a painting takes time. The first performance was great, but a second, and future ones, means that time can be taken to tinker. To add more detail, or take it away. To look from a different angle.

I decided to take more time over the beginning, but add more decoration. This takes the form of tremelo and a slower tempo. The result is a sparkling, and physically Zoë can be more open to the audience. This glitter gradually fades and enables the spine of the piece to be revealed. Dead space from later on is culled and more movement added. It suddenly became visually clear what was needed. Homophony becomes polyphony. A fanfare becomes a lullaby. Or a prayer.

As well as the hair gesture Zoë puts down her sticks, one at a time. They are abandoned, the beauty of the hand is considered. She embarks on a journey which takes her physically closer to her instrument, eventually she caresses the wood with her finger. Nothing is in between anymore.

As I write this a few more ideas need to be added to the piece. And after Saturday’s performance I expect even more. However, graceful/full of grace will never be a fixed thing. This portrait is not a painting. I will continue to consider Zoë further, look more closely, from another angle. So next time I can try to reveal a little more.

PercusSing perform a Late Music lunchtime recital: ‘Songs and Miniatures’ this Saturday at 1.00pm, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.


One response to “Writing a Portrait”

  1. Roger Marsh says:

    Really looking forward to seeing this again, Morag, and seeing how you have developed it. What are your thoughts about a piece which is so performer specific? What if Zoe cuts off her hair? Is that the end of the piece? I assume you have plans for a definitive video: is that the answer?

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About the author

Morag Galloway is a composer, performer, director, lecturer, workshop leader and photographer, living in York. She has recently completed her composition PhD with Roger Marsh, has an MMus in Composition from Goldsmiths College, where she studied with Sadie Harrison and Roger Redgate and a First Class BA in Music from the University of York. Morag…

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