Barbican Complex, 2008

The first in a series of solo works, each one concerned with structure. Not only structure in the physical sense, but also with regards to emergent patterns and relationships between objects/entities, hierarchy, temporality and order, as well as musical form and organisation.

It’s the Barbican Complex in London which gave impetus to this solo flute work. Rising from the ashes of a World War II bomb-site, there’s an atmosphere about the 35-acre Barbican estate which is at once unsettling and tranquil.

A visit to the Barbican Center in 2008 seemed only to confirm this paradox. I was there to see Wayne Shorter perform with his quartet, but having arrived uncharacteristically early decided to amble around this sprawling series of structures: an abundance of concrete coupled with the oddly out-of-place lake and gardens; the artistic and cultural in awkward relief against the business, administrative and financial; luxurious residential towers growing out of decaying council properties. Yet, in spite of all these strange pairings, I was struck by an unlikely sense of harmony.

None of these things belong together, but a visual uniformity and pattern bind them regardless. Architecture so outrageous and uncompromising in design that it conceals the diversity within; a macrostructure serving to conform and bring these disparate elements into compliance. There is a peacefulness—certainly—but it is imposed.

Still, there’s no denying the harmony. But how curious that it’s really nothing more than a facade.

Okay, okay. I’m the first to admit that all this may seem a bit unconvincing, or even spurious, but that’s beside the point. The crux of the matter is that these subjective observations were potent enough to bring about a framework for exploring pattern, anonymity, imposed form and structure, harmony, peace versus unrest, and music. I already knew I had a working title.

Just prior to the concert, as I was walking across one of the Highwalks (the Complex is full of these Metropolis-style raised walkways) something caught my eye in the twilight. Through a concrete-framed window into a harshly lit room I could half-see, half-hear someone playing flute. I realised this must be a Guildhall School of Music practice room. The music was unmistakably J. S. Bach and the robustness of the composer’s notes were stubbornly prevailing over the cold fluorescent glow and Brutalist design. It was symbolically perfect.

The concert itself was was an overwhelming experience. Wayne Shorter ever masterful in his ability to harness chaos and bring it all together in spontaneous structure. Pattern and process emerging before the audience’s very eyes. Abstract lines and blocks of sound as imposing as those high-rise towers outside. Fragmented, two-note motifs developing and blossoming in an almost fractal fashion. Sublime.

And so, in the echoing wake of practice-room Bach and that Wayne Shorter gig, I knew I had also found my palette.

As usual, a few other things seeped into the mix. I was here with my sister who I hadn’t seen for a while, so there are aspects of her character in there. Claustrophobia and paranoia features also—in no small part due the enclosed nature of the Complex, almost jail-like in its anonymity to the outside world. The fact that I was writing this piece for Aisling Agnew, who had also studied at the Guildhall, meant there was a cyclical, canonical thing going on, also leading my thoughts to lineage and heritage (a theme I expand upon in a later work, Non-lieux Ties).

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