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Transplanting Heartsease into Music

For this new composition for violin and cello, inspired by James Oswald’s Airs of the Seasons, my chosen flower is Heartsease (Viola tricolor). As I read about this plant, I was fascinated in its cultural history and rich assortment of common names. I noticed that in their variations, these suggest a range of intonations and rhythms. Entwining together the flower’s names, my score will be an invitation to play these, abstracting words into sounds, transplanting language into music.

The names, mostly associated with love in its many forms, journey the length of the British Isles and carry local folk meanings. I love the way they veer from sacred and romantic names, to suggestive or bawdy ones. They have a vernacular sprightliness to them that lends itself to sound. The music picks up this interplay between the sexual and spiritual, and, after the French root of our name Pansy from Pensée, literally meaning ‘thought’, I make reference to the troubadour songs of courtly love.

My usual practice is to work by means of vocal demos, which I overlay and then translate into a score. Here, rather than writing musical notes, I am applying the names directly onto the stave. The final notation will be visual – other recent pieces have emulated spinning wheels, birds in flight – and this score will resemble the shape of the plant, like the heart-shaped score by the Medieval French composer Baude Cordier. The form of the violin and cello also resembles the Viola tricolor, which share a common etymological root.

The piece is still to be work-shopped – the material isn’t yet in a fixed form – and the musicians and I will speak the names over together out loud. I’m interested in the degree to which they can suggest words and phrases in their bowing – physical gestures assuming the forms of speech. Or perhaps we will be reminded of a bee buzzing in and out of flowers. The atmosphere is one of gentle longing, as if the bees and flowers desired one another, or the desire was played between the strings and the hands playing. I envisage the finished piece as a dialogue between violin and cello, with each section arranged like a petal.

This miniature has been commissioned by the North Highland Initiative supported through the Wildflower Europe Project (July 2012 - June 2014) as funded by the EU Culture Fund

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