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Photo © Alice Williamson
Giles Swayne occupies a highly individual position on the British musical scene. Out of alignment with the avant-garde, with minimalism and with diehard traditionalism, he still belongs anywhere but the middle of the road. His music is driven equally by his passionate beliefs and by his close involvement with the practical business of music-making. The latter can sometimes lead to apparently flippant but meaningful performance directions, such as ‘crunch-time’ for a double-stopped string climax, or in a narrative wind quintet ‘take BASS CLARINET and prepare to be BAD’. Yet for all the idiosyncratic humour which pervades his scores, and occasionally even their titles, his approach to the process of composition is always serious and meticulous. The late Susan Bradshaw, a long-time friend and mentor, wrote in the New Grove Dictionary of his ‘fascination with structural design’ and the ‘detailed planning’ that goes into all of his diverse works.
Swayne was born in Hertfordshire in June 1946, and grew up chiefly in Liverpool and Yorkshire. He played the piano from an early age, and also began writing music, encouraged by his composer cousin Elizabeth Maconchy. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Harrison Birtwistle, Alan Bush and Nicholas Maw, and later in Olivier Messiaen’s composition class in Paris. During the 1970s, he spent some time working as a répétiteur and as a teacher, but he also composed prolifically. His works from that decade include two substantial orchestral scores, the engaging
and the dazzling
. And he enjoyed great success with
, an epic ‘hymn to Creation’ for 28 voices, amplified and electronically treated, which was first performed in 1980.
draws on ideas from the music of Africa, but it was only in 1981/82 that Swayne made his first visit to the continent, a study trip to Senegal and The Gambia. Later, he spent much of the 1990s living in Konkonuru in eastern Ghana. African melodies and interlocking rhythms play a part in some of his works, including his two popular choral pieces
. But more importantly, his sojourns left him with a burning desire to emulate the traditional role of music in everyday African activities and rituals, and an abiding anger at the degradation of so many human lives, and of the natural world, by carelessness, intolerance, war and greed. This is reflected in many of his works, above all
’s darker and more complex companion-piece,
Over the years, Swayne’s music has shown considerable stylistic variation. The mid-1980s saw a drastic simplification of his musical language, which he later described as ‘washing my ears out’. But he went on to adopt a less restricted manner of modal writing, producing a new density of texture and incident – as in the unjustly neglected
The Song of Leviathan
, for large orchestra. Sadly, his catalogue lacks a full-scale dramatic work: a projected Hamlet opera in the 1990s fell foul of operatic politics and for now remains unfinished. But there are works for orchestras of different sizes, including valuable concertante pieces for organ and guitar. There is a wide range of choral music, including as well as the pieces already mentioned the moving threnody
The Silent Land
and the thrilling
, and numerous shorter items (some usefully gathered in a pair of volumes). There are chamber and vocal compositions ranging from the abstract to the highly theatrical, and many solo instrumental works, including the series of monologues called
, which offer rewarding technical and musical challenges. And through all this variety of means and styles, Swayne’s compositional voice remains distinctively, uniquely his own.
Anthony Burton © June 2008