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Composer Tansy Davies speaks to Paul Kilbey about nature, personal transformation, and Forest – her concerto for four horns and orchestra.
Forest is a strange beast: a composition for four solo horns and orchestra. Richly imbued with its nature metaphor, the concerto charts its four horns’ journey through a beautiful yet dangerous, forest-like orchestral landscape, and both the horns and the orchestra seem to emerge transformed. It was commissioned by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
This is such an unusual idea for a concerto – do you know what inspired Esa-Pekka Salonen to commission a concerto for four horns?
I think he wanted to initiate something that was over the top – something that could be really fun. And, as he and I both used to play the horn, he wanted to see what would happen if he asked a horn player to write a horn concerto. It’s the most majestic beast to play! Physically it’s very hard, because the harmonic series lies very high up on the instrument, so you have to imagine the sound and feel of the notes very accurately before playing them; a minuscule mistake with the lip muscles will cause a split note. The payoff is the incredible richness of tone you get by the instrument being built that way.
The link to the harmonic series is one of the ways in which the horn is connected to nature, right?
Absolutely – that was something I couldn’t really get away from when I started. And another thing about horns is they go a long way back through history; you can imagine it being traced back to blowing a conch shell. I was composing the piece down in the south west of France, a very rural spot: I guess there used to be cor de chasse [an early type of hunting horn] in the forests around me. I evoke the sound of the cor de chasse in the horn parts – it’s a very brittle, thin, blasty type of sound; I love it.
So I was thinking about the horn as an instrument of the forest, and I suppose the horns ended up as a representation of human intervention, and the orchestra as a kind of forest. I wanted to make a dialogue between them – it’s about two different beasts, in a way, the human beast and the nature beast. I wanted to ask the question: how could they begin to talk to each other again?
So they have a kind of dialogue – how does it unfold?
In a way it’s all about listening; it’s about reawakening a way of listening to nature. At the start, it’s as if you’re walking around a forest, and being noisy, as horn players are – but then there’s a kind of journey. The horns start off with this really rhythmical stuff, quite bombastic – but the forest sort of grows into them, in my mind. And when the horns begin to listen, they revert to a previous incarnation of brass instruments: they start to use the harmonic series, as if they were “natural horns” without valves.
At the end the earlier material comes back, but not quite the same: I like to think it’s been grown over by the forest.
How did you compose the different music for the two groups, the horns and the orchestra? Do they have contrasting musical languages?
Yes: I had two streams of music which I placed on top of each other – one for the horns, one for the orchestra – and harmonically they were both constructed in different ways. All that material meant that for every bar of the piece, I had about a hundred potential things I could do within it. It felt like I was tearing my way through a thick forest!
But those two layers were both spun from similar cloth, and there were lots of echoes that went across the two parts. At the march at the end, it’s almost like the orchestra’s eaten up the horns, and it’s come out in these weird trees, with horns on the end of them.
The horn also features in another of your recent works, the opera Cave, again using natural harmonics. And it seems to play a similar role to the quartet in Forest, acting as a kind of bridge into a different world.
I do think there’s an incredible wild quality to the instrument. I suspect it’s almost like hunting something – it’s a dangerous instrument, but incredibly beautiful as well; that’s what’s exciting about it.
The horn plays an almost shamanic role here. Shamanism is basically about respecting the power of nature. One of the spiritual journeys of a shaman is to imagine your way into the spirit of another creature – an act of empathy. It’s about diminishing the ego, as well as using the imagination as a fierce tool for personal transformation, which can potentially show something to other people as well. I think that’s what musicians do a lot as well – I do think of musicians as shamanic, because they take us on spiritual journeys all the time.
Your interest in nature comes up a lot in your work. Is this something that seems to happen naturally, or do you feel a kind of obligation to talk about the environment at the moment?
It’s a natural thing – I’m very instinctive. Something that really drives me forward when composing is having a kind of spiritual drive, a connection, a feeling that what I’m doing is serving some purpose. You could say, it’s enough if the music is beautiful – that’s actually a good answer. But it helps me if I feel I’m serving a greater cause than myself. It just helps me get the work done.
It’s strange reading about your music, because alongside the interest in nature, you’re also sometimes described as a very urban composer. Do you see that as a paradox?
No! I think it’s all the same thing, everything’s governed by nature’s laws. And we need nature in the cities. In fact, I think art is the nature of city life – we need to find our humanity wherever we are, and art can give you the same uplift as walking in nature.
Is that what you aim to provide in your music?
I try to provide a platform for an audience to go on some kind of journey. Listeners can step into the sea of my piece and take it in any direction they want. I try to create enough clarity that they will find their way into it – but at the same time, I’m not going to make it easy for people, because I really respect the complexity of every human being, and I think complexity is something we all need. I want to make an experience that is rewarding. And everyone will experience it in a different way.
Forest was commissioned by Esa-Pekka Salonenthe for the Philharmonia Orchestra, with the New York Philharmonic and Warsaw Autumn festival as co-commissioners.