Blog Post: Hen harrier-inspired music

This week we’ve got a guest blog from Laurence Rose, former RSPB Northern England Director and a composer, who talks about his hen harrier-inspired composition, Skydancer.   I first saw hen harriers skydancing in the late seventies.  It was in the Forest of Bowland and the memory of the birds, and the place – which I came to know intimately in later years – is still vivid.  I remember watching the effortless and buoyant flight of a male harrier and noting how it seemed to trace a gently undulating line that matched the shape of Tarnbrook Fell.  Then a sudden burst of energy and a rocketing flight as a female appeared from nowhere.  Both birds rose to describe a sharper curve, she twisted, he swerved and a speck of prey flew between them.  Then, a serene separation as sudden as the dance itself. On another occasion, I was walking Clougha Fell, across the valley.  It was June and the air was still and warm and peat-scented.  My path took me past a gritstone outcrop where I was greeted by a sudden wind that threw ice crystals in my face before subsiding back to nothing.  For years I was fascinated by these lines and rhythms.  The shapes of the fells against the sky, how they change with the light.  And the patterns of energy as the wind plays around the rocks or the birds play along the wind.  As a composer, I never stop thinking about line and rhythm.  Seeing it in a landscape is half way to writing it in a score:  just add notes!    Last weekend the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra (LCCO) premiered my Skydancer , a short piece that is a direct response to the grandeur and the minutiae of the fells and their inhabitants.  For me, the most important rhythms in music are the big ones, the ones that define the structure of a piece and the flow of energy across its span:  the landscape.  Rhythm at a smaller scale, like the movements of birds or the sounds of the weather, characterise the moment.  The LCCO had asked for a piece “playable by a good amateur orchestra.”  I knew Skydancer would be borderline.  I needed it to progress in gradually-shifting, hazy harmonies; no block chords to signpost the route.  Bursts of energy had to be in the form of complex cross-rhythms, as they always are in nature.  Difficult stuff, but “good amateur orchestra” turned out to be an understatement: it was an impressive performance. I just don’t write music that is about something, or so I always tell people.  The decision to give this piece a title that even hints at what composers pompously call an “extra-musical idea” wasn’t easy.  My music is supposed to be what it is and no more – notes on a page, or in the air if someone actually plays it:  abstract music, like in the old days.   But I heard that the RSPB Skydancer project had been nominated for (and has now won) this year’s national Lottery Award for Best Education Project.  At the same time, momentum behind the inaugural Hen Harrier Day was picking up, while news of yet more atrocities against this wonderful species continued to filter through. Having written a piece that owes so much to my early experiences of fell-walking in what remains of England’s hen harrier country, I couldn’t really not call it Skydancer .