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Simon Holt

Publisher: Chester Music

a table of noises (2007)
Commissioned jointly for Colin Currie by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
28 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Solo percussion
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Programme Note
Simon Holt a table of noises (2007)
A percussion concerto in six movements, with five brief instrumental 'ghosts' interspersed.

During the percussion concerto, 'a table of noises', the percussionist will, for the most part, be seated on a cajon (a box-like instrument most often used in flamenco). At other times he will play the xylophone and finally the glockenspiel, but all the other instruments will be laid out on a table in front of the soloist; hence the title. The piece is based on my memories of my great uncle Ash (Ashworth Hutton, from my father's side of the family) who was, amongst many other things, a taxidermist. The movements are as follows:

1] 'Jute' is a rough material with which my great uncle Ash would stuff the animal skins. This movement is essentially full of the material used throughout the entire concerto.

'ghost one' is a brief orchestral interlude (the soloist remains silent throughout all the ghost interludes), and is scored for alto flute and cellos. The ghosts are visitors to the scene. Who they are is open to question.

2] 'fly' was the name of Ash's dog who used to fall asleep stood up, staring into the fire, hypnotised by the flames. This movement involves a virtuoso xylophone part for the percussion soloist.

'ghost two' is a brief, purely orchestral interlude, scored for oboe, contra bassoon and violas.

3] 'a drawer full of eyes' (often when we would visit Ash, his bed would have to be changed and on one particular occasion, in searching for fresh bedding, my mother opened a drawer in Ash's bedroom tallboy and discovered thousands of false eyes for foxes, kingfishers, stoats, etc. staring back at her).

'ghost three' is the next orchestral interlude, scored for brass and the 2 orchestral percussionists on glockenspiels.

4] 'Skennin' Mary' (this lady was one of my great uncle's neighbours. She had a glass eye which would spin when she got angry. The percussionist is again on xylophone only. It comprises a wild, swirling scherzo of manic intensity.

'ghost four' is scored for the two piccolos and the double basses playing only harmonics.

5] cadenza: 'table top'. Ash's parlour table was covered with items essential for his existence. He was severely crippled in one leg and walked everywhere on a crutch swinging his gammy leg about him and so needed everything to hand. This is an extended solo for the percussionist but the fifth 'ghost' pays a visit in the form of a bass clarinet.

6] 'under glass'. A lot of his stuffed animals would end up displayed under a glass dome, usually with photos of loved ones propped up against them. He once gave me a stoat with a grass snake wrapped round it, which I kept on my bedside table for years through my early teens.

c. 28 minutes

© Simon Holt

Click here to listen to Colin Currie talk to Edward Seckerson about his percussion commissions including 'a table of noises'

Score preview:

  • Ensemble
    Halle Orchestra
    Chloë Hanslip, violin; Colin Currie, percussion
    Nicholas Collon
    NMC Recordings:
...there was much to admire about Holt half-hour concerto...
Nick Shave, BBC Music Magazine,29/07/2010
...a table of noise is beyond criticism.,27/07/2010
The subtlety and variety of Holt's musical material - much of the piece is quiet, though reguarly uneasy and occasionally manic - held the attention easily over its 30-minute span.
George Hall, Guardian,27/07/2010
...fascinating work...
Michael Church, The Independant,27/07/2010
Holt has a marvellous talent for registering those flickering emotions of night-time, when the mind fabricates spirits in the shadows.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegragh,27/07/2010
‘Very intimate, very tender, very moving’...‘Simon [Holt] took the idea of the percussion concerto and stood it on its head. He’s approached it with the idea that small is beautiful. There are moments of intense virtuosity, but most of the time my job is more to take care of the balance and texture, as if being part of a chamber ensemble. It’s a very well-rounded and beautiful piece of music.’
Colin Currie, The Proms Guide,26/07/2010
Holt’s 28-minute percussion concerto, entitled, in his characteristic lower case, “a table of noises”, was written for the impressive Colin Currie, who premiered it with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins at Symphony Hall. It is an unusual work, not least in being systematically autobiographical. The title refers both to the table on which Holt’s Lancastrian great-uncle, Ashworth Hutton, a taxidermist with limited mobility, spread out the equipment of his trade, and to the Peruvian mesa de ruidos, a box with guitar strings, better known as a cajon, used in the flamenco music of southern Spain, where Holt lives. He wanted to avoid the reckless flamboyance of many a percussion concerto and decided that the soloist’s instruments should be few enough (glockenspiel, whistle, block, bongo, klaxon, cowbell) to fit on a table, though he also has a xylophone and sits on his cajon. The restraint pays off. One can follow the solo line, unpitched though it mostly is, more clearly than often in such pieces. In other ways, the music is unbridled, favouring the sonic extremes of piccolo and contrabassoon, and dispensing with the normative presence of violins and violas. The arresting opening is a raucous duo for the percussionist and a pair of spiky piccolos, and the 10th of the 11 brief movements is a bass-clarinet solo, one of five interludes called “ghosts”. This overlaps with movement nine, “table top”, a cadenza where the soloist chooses freely among his instruments. The titles of the main movements all relate to Uncle Ash: the first movement is “jute”, the stuffing for the animal skins; the third “fly”, the name of his dog, “who used to fall asleep standing while staring into the fire”. Here, the soloist plays an elaborate, “spectral” xylophone part, gently backed by two orchestral xylophones, and the striking combination is used again, more equitably, in the frenetic “skennin’ Mary”, about a neigh-bour whose glass eye was wont to spin when she was angry. Uncle Ash’s supply of such appurtenances for animals provides the lurid title of “a drawer full of eyes”, a brittle scherzo. Uncles, eccentric or otherwise, make good subjects for artists, for they can be observed in close-up, like parents, but without the blur of Oedipal tensions. Holt has produced one of his most likeable and subtly coloured scores.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,25/05/2008
Even by Simon Holt's idiosyncratic standards, the inspiration for his new percussion concerto, A Table of Noises, given its outstanding premiere by Colin Currie with Martyn Brabbins conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony, is an unexpected one. Holt's great uncle Ashworth was a taxidermist who, because he had severe disabilities, worked at a table with all the tools of his trade close at hand. Memories of this uncle, who sounds like a character from a Lancastrian version of Last of the Summer Wine, gave Holt the idea of confining the percussion instruments for his new concerto to those that could fit on a table, and provided him with his movement titles. The work itself gets its name from one of the instruments included, the Peruvian cajón, a box with guitar strings whose other name translates as "a table of noises". There are six movements, all vividly characterised, and separated by sparely scored interludes called "ghosts", though the fifth of them overlaps with the fifth movement proper, a solo cadenza, in which the precise selection of instruments is left to the soloist. It is a concerto full of vivid, prickly textures, drawn from an orchestra without violins in which extremes predominate, and with a pair of antiphonal piccolos often giving the sound a brittle sheen. Much of the solo writing is a model of restraint. The technical demands are high, yet there is none of the wham-bam virtuosity that disfigures most percussion concertos. What one takes away from the work is a delicacy, in the sense of the sounds all being drawn from that fund of memories; it ends quietly, nostalgically, the final tempo marked "as slow as trees".
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,19/05/2008
Recalling scenes from the life of the composer's one-legged taxidermist great-uncle, Simon Holt's A Table of Noises is an important addition to the small repertoire of percussion concertos. A co-commission from the CBSO and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust for the award-winning young percussionist Colin Currie, it is structured in six main episodes, quirkily titled, separated by five short, subdued interludes each scored for a different combination of instruments from within a generally low-timbred orchestra. An exception from this tessitura is the use of a pair of shrieking piccolos, ranged high up on either side of the orchestra, and spectacular in effect. The solo part is virtuosic, but never flashily so, commentating upon and shading each memory of this anecdotal character, and eventually moving to a cadenza where, though the rhythms are notated, the choice of instruments is left to the soloist. Its premiere from Currie was fluent and assured, the complexities memorised and encompassed with impressive confidence. And under Martyn Brabbins the CBSO reminded us once again just how adept it is in mastering new scores...
Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post,16/05/2008
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