Composer Ian Wilson Releases 'Stations' Album

Innovative composer tackles the crucifixion story in 'demanding' new recording featuring English pianist Matthew Schellhorn

‘It’s not capital u, capital t as such, but that’s how I’m thinking of it.’ Ian Wilson is referring to the so-called ‘Ulster trilogy’, the three pieces he wrote during what eventually turned into a four-year residency as associate composer of the Ulster Orchestra in his home city of Belfast.

Two of these, 'The Stars, the Seas' and 'Flags and Emblems', were premiered in 2011 and 2012 respectively. In aiming to reflect ‘the history, culture and geology of Northern Ireland’, Wilson scored the pieces with notable imagination, incorporating parts for choir, piano and flute band into the conventional symphony orchestra.

Part three of the trilogy, 'Causeway,' received its world premiere at an Ulster Orchestra concert under outgoing principal conductor JoAnn Falletta in March 2014. In its use of sampled electronic material, it was arguably boldest of all three compositions.

‘The inspiration for the piece was ideas about how our land was formed, particularly regarding the shifting of tectonic plates, which caused seismic and volcanic activity,' Wilson explains. ‘I always try to do something slightly different and innovative, in terms of my own work anyway, with every orchestral piece, but I’ve never written on this scale using electronics before. It seemed like a very do-able thing, given the advances in modern technology.

'In the past, when a composer wanted to write with electronics, the conductor would maybe have to use a stopwatch, or some kind of click-track and headphones. But for some time now we’ve had the opportunity to use samples, and trigger those samples so that they become part of the score, and are as flexible as the rest of the score would be under the conductor’s baton.’

The samples, in the case of 'Causeway', were triggered by the Ulster Orchestra’s percussionist using a MIDI drum pad controller, and were the result of a protracted process of collaboration with Chris Ryan of the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University, Belfast.

‘The samples were based on natural sounds. Obviously we couldn’t throw a microphone down into the tectonic plates themselves, but Chris was recording rocks grating on rocks, for instance. He’s manipulated and modified those sounds, so that we do have something similar to earthquakes, shifting tectonic plates, or volcanic eruptions.’

On to those primordial raw materials – the ‘sonic and material foundation for the piece’, Wilson calls them - the composer grafted the sounds of the modern symphony orchestra, with featured solo parts for flute, oboe, horn and trumpet at the heart of the music.

The result was a single 15-minute movement that Wilson describes as a ‘complex yet fluid’ structure, ‘exploring the various possibilities offered by the combination of different types of sample with the vast array of timbres and colours attainable within an orchestra'. The challenge, says Wilson, was ‘to find a musical language which would allow the samples to still sound a natural part of the sonic texture'.

'Causeway' was, confirms Wilson, a reference to the extraordinary rock structures visible near Bushmills, on the North Antrim coastline. The dropping of the word ‘Giant’s’ from the piece’s title was deliberate, however, and aimed at encouraging broader resonances in the mind of listeners.

‘I didn’t want to be completely specific, like Mendelssohn with 'Fingal’s Cave', or something like that, because if you give a listener too much information, you find oftentimes that their own imagination is somehow constrained. Whereas if you give them a little information they’re much freer to make their own response to what they’re hearing.’

Wilson’s Stations features a similar truncation of title. A major cycle of movements for piano based on the Stations of the Cross narrative from Christian iconography, it was recently released as a complete recording during the Easter season.

Once again, Wilson sees the piece as potentially possessing much broader significance for listeners than a straightforward musical illustration of the Passion story, which Wilson emphatically insists Stations isn’t.

‘I first had the idea for it back in 2004-05,’ he recalls. ‘I thought it would be a really exciting challenge to write a piece on the scale of over an hour. And once you start thinking about that, you start realising that you need some architecture in order to be able to do that convincingly.

‘So I looked at the Stations of the Cross as an architecture, as a dramatic structure, upon which I could pin some musical ideas. I certainly wasn’t setting out to re-create the imagery of the Stations.’

There are, nonetheless, moments in the music which are unmistakably descriptive of the physical events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion. Wilson draws attention to movement 11, which relates to Jesus being nailed to the cross, where there are what he calls ‘these very strong hammer-blow chords'.

More broadly, however, Wilson is adamant that Stations is not a religious work as such, and he is keen to stress its broader relevance. ‘The reason for not even titling the Stations, and just numbering them 1-14, is to try and get a little bit of distance between the music and its inspiration.

‘If you look specifically at the narrative of the Stations of the Cross, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see ourselves and our own experience of life, human experience in general, in a dramaturgy like that. I think it can become something that we can all relate to.’

Wilson concedes that the finished version of Stations, at over 70 minutes, is ‘very demanding’, both technically and emotionally, for Matthew Schellhorn, the Yorkshire-born pianist who gave the public premiere and has made the new recording.

It was also, unsurprisingly, extremely difficult to find a record label prepared to release an album of contemporary classical music for solo piano, hardly a mainstream commercial proposition. ‘I think people are very unwilling to take a chance on what some might see as quite a niche work, and especially a work of this size,’ observes Wilson ruefully.

The Dublin-based Diatribe Records, however, eventually embraced the Stations project, and Wilson is delighted with what they have made of it. ‘In the end we were very lucky that Diatribe came on board,’ he says. ‘They were very positive about it. The whole thing looks lovely and sounds good, I think. It’s been quite a labour of love, to be honest.’

Stations is out now on Diatribe Records.