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Fire in Salisbury

Posted on 27 May 2012

My piece Fire was always going to be something of an experiment. Part of the idea was to try to create a non-religious 'spiritual space', a contemplation of fire and our relationship with it. In Choristers' Green next to the great cathedral of Salisbury we posed a ridiculously ambitious question - could we create a non-religious version of that simultaneously awe-inspiring and contemplative atmosphere that visitors to the cathedral take for granted? I think it's part of the English tradition to be wary of overly earnest ambitions, and part of me spent the last few weeks of rehearsals in a quiet terror that the whole thing would be a hideous embarrassment. People praise artists for 'taking risks', but no one actually wants to be there for the failures.

The first full run-through with the Salisbury Community Choir (conducted devotedly by Jeremy Backhouse) and the excellent Horns Aloud a couple of weeks ago was a dispiriting disaster. Having learned the piece in the rehearsal room, it was suddenly rather overwhelming for the choristers to find themselves in a giant circle, struggling to see the two conductors (who themselves were struggling to co-ordinate), not helped by the hideous weather causing the conductors' scores to go flying, and the choristers' umbrellas flailing in all directions. The thought of adding in a rowdy crowd, fire, and darkness...well, the whole thing seemed like it would be just one big mistake. I haven't had such a feeling of dread since my student days!

Such dark days are however often turning points, and it certainly galvanised us all into doing whatever we could to make it work better. A couple of weeks later, with various tweaks to the set up and the score, more concentrated rehearsals, and with somebody very clever organising truly perfect weather conditions, what happened really was a (non-religious) miracle!

Around 9.30pm, a huge expectant crowd gathered, even before the planned post-concert audience emerged from the cathedral. The first unison notes from the horns silenced the crowd and the choir gave it their all (having already spent the entire day rehearsing and recording the piece for a Radio 3 broadcast later in the year). To my delight, the audience did what we hoped they would - they stood focussing their attention on the central mass of flames, while the sound from the encircling choir enveloped them from without. The atmosphere was as silent and contemplative as the Wigmore Hall. Everyone seemed to just get it.

As the piece finished and returned to the quiet unison horn notes, a gust of wind caught the flames and the fire roared and danced as if to say 'look at me'. The timing was so exquisite, I would claim divine approval if that wasn't contrary to the entire non-religious spirit of the piece!

So, it was an eccentric experiment, but I think we pulled it off. I suddenly felt - perhaps for the first time in my life - that I had been a very English composer. What could be more English than choral-eccentric-mysticism performed in the shadow of Salisbury cathedral?!

Setting up

The setting was next to Salisbury Cathedral in Chorister's Green

The crowd gathers

Waiting outside the circle as the flames are lit

And the view from within. Huge credit to The World Famous for their beautiful installation.


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