Samuel Messer, composer
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Works List


two, undertone (or five as aura) (2021)
for five players:
clarinet, piano, violin, viola, cello
Duration: c. 8'
This piece was written out of a fascination with both the resonances of quiet rooms - the way in which disparate sounds faintly emerge & disappear, colouring & forming the ambience of the space - and our relationship to them. The title refers to two conceptions of the relationships between the players, and hence two ways of understanding the piece:
 
undertone - to speak in undertones (a low or subdued utterance or accompanying sound);
 
aura - the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.
thanksong (2020)
for orchestra:
2.2.2.2 / 2.2.0.0 / Timp / 8.6.4.4.2
Duration: c. 8'
Royal Northern Sinfonia Young Composer's Scheme
 
This piece, written for Royal Northern Sinfonia as part of the Beethoven 2020 celebrations, takes as its starting point a tiny snippet from the 'Heiliger Dankgesang', the third movement of his String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132.
 
As listeners (and hyper-critical citizens of the modern age), naturally our focus is on what Beethoven leaves behind, for good or ill. Through this wonderful music, full of craft & vision, we might suppose that we are familiar on some level with the composer himself – but, separated as we are by time & culture, the prickly ‘unknowability’ of Beethoven seems to me to be an equally fascinating topic. This intrinsic distance can be felt keenly in Beethoven’s “conversation books” – documents where visitors to the almost entirely deaf composer would write down what they wanted to say (his responses are not recorded, though can often - vividly - be imagined).
 
The idea of engagement with the past as a kind of ‘one-way traffic’ was the starting point for the treatment of the material in thanksong, whose incessant chattering drives the work forward with little room for perspective or reflection, upon either itself or a secondary figure felt but rarely glimpsed in the second violins.
 
Only in the coda, as the material settles into something of a 'call' (with a response left to our collective imagination) do we start to approach a kind of clarity - though here, too, a secondary figure emerges in the distance, and the spontaneous 'dropping-out' of individual players complicates things, a communal mass dismantling Beethoven's music one part at a time.
three spaces for David Berman (2020)
open score for ten or more players
Duration: c. 10'
Royal Holloway New Music Collective commission
 
There are two parts to the design of this piece, functioning simultaneously in opposing and complementary fashion, like a pair of intermeshing cogs. On the one hand, the structure is tightly-controlled: the ensemble loop together through a fixed set of durations, and the three sections are clearly defined (falling into the pattern “aggressive-sustained-quiet”). On the other, individual players are given freedom to choose both when they move onto the next section & the material which they play. This flexibility contributes to a sense of spontaneous looseness, with the musicians' choices forming a tangible part of the work, for which no two performances will be quite alike.
 
If this suggests a fascination with the way that groups function – the way in which their overall character & direction may be generally consistent despite the disparate movements of the individuals within – then that tells part of the story. Certainly, the musicians here are like a shoal of fish, moving both alone and together to create the work's shape – but my interest is also in how it feels to be one of those individuals, torn (as we all are) between a sense of ourselves as both central- and peripheral to the world around us.
 
In the score to three phases, the performers are occasionally asked to “accept the end result, regardless of success”, a feeling I think David Berman (who died in late 2019) would recognise. In his poem “Self-Portrait at 28” he intertwines a mental attitude (of accepting, not pushing) with a notion of the day as space. So here it is, and here is the piece:
 
“I'm just letting the day be what it is:
a place for a large number of things
to gather and interact --
not even a place but an occasion
a reality for real things.”
 
 
scolorire (2019)
for symphony orchestra:
2.2.2.2 / 2.2.2.0 / Perc(2) / 12.10.8.6.5
Duration: c. 5'
 ‘scolorire’ (v. trans. ‘to fade, to discolour’) opens with a series of flickering, indistinct musical shapes. Over the course of its short duration, we will hear these gestures combine, stretch, collapse, fade, realign – a series of splintered recollections, as if refracted through a constantly shifting prism. In time they may seem – however gradually – to become familiar, as these glimpses of sound reveal themselves as facets of a single musical object. However, no sooner has clarity begun to assert itself than the gestures start to pale, to lose definition, before gradually collapsing into blankness.
27 duets (2019)
for flute & cello
Duration: Variable
stray (2018)
for solo horn in F
Duration: c. 4'
Written for 2017-18 Psappha 'Composing For French Horn' scheme
for Andrew Budden
 
Composed over a period of six months, stray represents my first attempt for many years at a piece for a member of the brass family. Whilst not wanting to under-play or devalue the great beauty of the instrument's mellow, clear tone - the classic 'horn sound' - I was keen to find a timbral palette which showed a richer, more complex side of the french horn. As such, the frequent cutting between types of material and the gradual move towards distant, sustained & simple tones found here is perhaps akin to the process of composition - a sorting & weighing of different timbral possibilities, before arriving at a clearer (though not uncomplicated) understanding of the work itself.
 
The title ("to travel along a route that was not originally intended") is a kind of summation of the energy of the material, which forms a restless, constantly digressing line, a kind of stream-of-consciousness 'utterance'. Here, the surface of the piece shifts with such rapidity that meaningful connections are initially difficult to discern, though one gesture (a ringing, bell-like figuration) will become increasingly important as the work continues.
 
The act of composing a piece based on digression was difficult, and in many ways contrary to my usual way of working. This tension can be heard in the frequent lack of stability or certainty in the piece - ideas rise to the surface & sink as quickly as they came, and are rarely (if ever) heard in direct repetition. Even sections of apparent clarity are short-lived, and abrupt halts in the flow of material often suggest a discontinuous timeline - nowhere more so than at the work's close, a coda which seems only tangentially - but still, tangentially - related to that which came before.
several, both, several (2017)
for eight flutes:
flute x 3 (all doubling piccolo) alto flute x 3 (all doubling flute)
bass flute, contrabass flute
Duration: c. 12'
Written for 2017 Rarescale Flute Academy
 
Inspiration for several, both, several came in two distinct phases; the first, a period of time spent engaging with the ethereal sonic character of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute; and the second a six-day stay at Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire, as part of the 2017 Rarescale Flute Academy. 
 
In mid-2017, I became increasingly fascinated by the way in which the recordings of shakuhachi I listened to were able (via particularly proximate microphone placement) to capture the detailed, generally inaudible sounds which accompany the ordinarily-heard flute 'sound'. As such, large sections of the work are composed of breathy, unusually-pitched gestures - in these moments we are bathed in the combined sound of the eight instruments, which homogenise to create something akin to the sound of a single instrument writ large. 
 
The increasingly feverish character of much of the latter part of the piece owes something to the intense, spontaneous nature of my experience at Harlaxton Manor, as does the sense throughout that the players are 'islanded', interacting as a closed unit in (often intimate, often intensely lonely) ways - sometimes pulling together in an effort of collective will, sometimes pairing off, shying away from the group, sometimes setting out alone, only to end up enriching the experience & sound of the group as a whole. The central section of the piece carries with it an echo of the Harlaxton Manor bell, which rang to mark every hour of the day & night.
 
in negative (2017)
for alto flute, cello & piano
Duration: c. 5'
Written for 2017 Peter Reynolds Composer Studio
Vale of Glamorgan Festival
 
in negative (a short work written for the Marsyas Trio) takes as its form two distinct movements, each consisting of a freely-performed solo part superimposed upon a duo, who play together in strict time. The form and title of the piece naturally invite the listener to compare the two halves, and one strand of the work explores the splintering & displacing of connections between different types of material. 
 
In the first movement, the two instruments linked by a common pulse are the cello and piano, which share and decorate a bright melodic line. As this flowing, constellation-like series of figurations unfolds, we progressively become aware of the presence of the alto flute, whose shadowy gestures gradually unravel into a plaintive, folk-like melody. The second movement presents a different image: here the alto flute is accompanied by pizzicato cello, playing a melody which seems more closely linked to its opening material. Behind this, unnervingly distorted echoes of earlier gestures are heard in the piano. 
 
Other influences on the composition of the work were the quality of the light on the dim, cold mornings in early 2017 in which it was composed, and JunichirĊ Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, both of which suggested the possibility for beauty to be found in a different, more subdued luminescence. 
strange calligraphy (2016)
for alto flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello
Duration: c. 6'
Written for 2016 Cheltenham Festival Composer Academy
 
strange calligraphy draws inspiration from David Markson’s novel “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”, and shares its approach to form; fragments of material emerge from an uneasy backdrop, repeating & gradually lengthening until they take on a shaky significance. Analogous to this are the shifting relationships between the players – as lines move in and out of focus, smaller subsets of the ensemble emerge before being washed away. Though the closing passage suggests a return to the material of the opening, even here there is ambiguity as familiar gestures find themselves in subtly altered surroundings. We are left, as is Markson’s narrator Kate, searching for meaning in a landscape devoid of all but abstract signs:
 
“Here, when the snows come, the trees write a strange calligraphy against the whiteness. The sky itself is often white, and the dunes are hidden, and the beach is white down to the water’s edge, as well.”
 
bourdon (2016)
for bass flute
Duration: c. 10'
for Carla Rees
 
bourdon takes as its form a series of short movements, each separated from the next by a refrain. At the outset these refrains act as something of a 'punctuation' in the structure, marking the boundaries between sections (although their role becomes increasingly complicated as the work develops). 
 
The title suggests a number of things: an organ's bass flute stop, the drone of a folk fiddle or pipe, and (via Middle English) the word 'burden', here meaning a recurring chorus. All of these things make their way into the piece on one level or another, and at points an often fragile connection with music of the past might also be felt.