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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Portrait II (2000)
commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Novello & Co Ltd
Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
13 Minutes

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Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Portrait II (2000)
In spite of the implications of the word, I only decided to call this piece Portrait II somewhat after the fact - that is, I had nearly completed the piece when I realised that it fulfilled the task I had set myself when I wrote the first Portrait: namely that it was a portrait not of a specific object or person, but a "portrait of an idea". (This term comes from the artist Mark Rothko, who used it in relation to the abstraction and absence of subject from his canvases from the mid-1940s onwards).

In the first piece, that "idea" was the extreme suppression of violence, the denial to the listeners of their need for release, which is also a feature of much of Rothko's work. In Portrait II, I was playing a sort of game with the instruments and their various ways of transforming the same basic material.

The idea was that whichever instrument(s) were in focus at any given point would be "followed" by the rest of the group, but eventually all would be overtaken by something bigger, as if they had only been led around a few corners until they realised they were back on the street they started on, albeit seen from a different angle. Each time the new "leaders" take over, they head off in a different direction and it becomes increasingly difficult for the others to follow, until eventually the sense of where the original street lies is more or less lost. Here the piece breaks free of the "something bigger" for a while (although it is not forgotten!) until we hear only snapshots of where various different threads have reached, while the marimba tries unsuccessfully to move forward; but withhout the support of the others behind it, it merely trails off into the distance…

This sort of "game" should not be taken too literally, of course…but it illustrates the main principle of the piece: that of the containment of different strands of material within one framework. Again borrowing from Rothko's ideas, the materials within the work develop along their own lines as "characters in an abstract drama", but can never actually leave the context of the work to which they belong.

© Stuart Macrae

  • 22 NOV 2003
    Tramway, Glasgow
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Ilan Volkov, conductor
  • 26 JUN 2001
    Portrait II World Premiere
    St Magnus Festival
    St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Scotland
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Martyn Brabbins, conductor

Its confidence of character, and the ease with which MacRae controls the sharp shifts of mood, from indefinable mystery to brittle exhiliration, signal a distinct growth in stature of the [BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra]'s Inverness-born associate composer. The strong and lucid voice that has lurked threateningly in recent works has well and truly surfaced.
Kenneth Walton, The Scotsman,01/01/2001
"...makes sensitive use, at the end, of aleatory freedom: it is a portrait of an 'idea', one about the dispersal of material."
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,01/01/0001
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