Seven Rocks

- Written for the Magazine 'Comet' - the journal of the Norman Nicholson Society. reproduced with permission. 

I did not know the work of Norman Nicholson before I embarked on ‘Seven Rocks’, my interpretation - for string trio or string quartet - of his suite of poems on the landscape that he knew and loved.  Naturally, the first step was to read and get to know his work, not in an overly analytical way, but rather to get an idea of the essence of his voice and his spirit as a person.  Nicholson makes the ordinary vivid and beautiful through a poetics of description. He draws our attention to the inherent beauty that is around us in a warm and considered way that doesn’t shy from literal representation and straightforward language. The fact that this set of poems is in the order of their geological formation appeals to me, there is something honest about that.

Nicholson prefaces ‘Seven Rocks’ with Diversions on a ground from Dante’s Inferno. 

            Noi salivam per una pietra fessa

            che si moveva d'una ed d'altra parte

            sì come l'onda che fugge e s'appressa.

I had this translated by my good friend and fellow composer Alfredo Caponnetto, revealing how it perfectly sets the scene.

            We were climbing a cracked boulder

            which moved from one side to the other

            like the wave which escapes and approaches

The performance of Seven Rocks was always intended to be punctuated by the poems themselves. In the following section I will outline the rationale of some of the decisions I made for each movement and relate it not only to the poem, but the associated geography.


‘Skiddaw Slate’

            Adagio, Slowly unfolding

Considering the long sharp edges of slate, I drew two lines that slowly diverged from a single note over the course of about three minutes. These lines are the contour that the viola and cello follow, resting deliberately on certain pitches. These pitches, C D E F# Bb are a reference to ‘Liturgie de cristal’ the opening section of Messian’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps which Messian describes as being “… surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills.”

I wanted to capture something of that shimmer and I was drawn particularly to the following passage of ‘Skiddaw Slate’.

            ‘The snow holds the colour of the seasons

            Spinning into white, and time is frozen

            A long shining icicle of light’.

The Sul Ponticello bowing technique (close to the bridge) produces a shimmering and bright sound by means of emphasizing the higher harmonics of the instrument.  It is a delicate sound, similar to the harmonics that Messian uses, however it is more robust and textured.


Skafell Ash

            Andante, deliberate but flowing

I was drawn to a particular image in this poem, that of the journey of water off the mountain.  Anybody who has spent time in mountains will know how special water is in the landscape and how apparent it is, from the micro view in the  ‘skin of the snow’[AF2] , to the macro scale in freely flowing water. This theme of amalgamation and solidification and from liquid to solid is reflected through the movement’s construction from three musical phrases that tumble against one another. An eight-note phrase that slowly emerges from viola and violin, a short but flowing melody and a fast run of semi-quavers that together build a solid but permeable texture.  There is an ambiguity in Nicholson’s descriptions of changes over time, enabling him to describe at once the long geological processes, the movement inherent in the landscape and our inner feelings of hope.  In thinking about this, I chose three phrases that are related to each other in a similar fractal nature.


Coniston Flag

            Adagio, warm and with rounded edges

This movement is a bit more biographical for me, insofar as I have walked up the Old Man of Coniston a number of times. The first time has particularly stayed with me as it was one of those days that the sun threatened to burn through the low cloud all day, giving glimpses of both the sky above and ground below (on occasion).  The poem here is rich in colour, which is why I used harmony based on the melodic minor scale that has a wider pallet of interval relations than, for example, the major scale. I was reminded of the faint colours that one sees within the greys of the mist and clouds on such a day.


Eskdale Granite

            Moderato, hard and cold

I once walked Scafell Pike from the Eskdale side, which, to be honest was a bit of a trudge. However, little did I know that the vividness of the ground against the sky on that walk would on that climb would become a useful memory.

Above the collar of Crags

The granite pate breaks bare the sky

Through a tonsure of bracken and bilberry.

Musically this movement is clearly split into two, ground and sky – it would have been too much to resist the double meaning of ground, just as Nicholson does in his preface.


Mountain Limestone

            Prestissimo, a bit gritty

I diverge a little now from Nicholson when thinking, in particular, about Duddon Estuary. I used the image and feeing of the sand of the estuary, and the particular textures of limestone as the catalyst for this section – cold – grains - abrasiveness. Even though this contrasts with the warmer nature of Nicholson’s poem, on performance I was pleased to find this contrast successful.  It was also a moment where consideration for the music as a whole had to be considered.  As the suite unfolds over the course of about twenty-five minutes I wanted to build and prepare for the energy of Maryport coal before settling quietly on St Bees Sandstone.


Maryport Coal

            Crotchet equal to 60 - 140, building and compressing

This movement consists of a repeated fifteen bar section, which increases in intensity ‘building and compressing’ as the coal itself was formed. The poem too has internal rhythms and great energy, which I tried to reflect in the music.

            They dragged deep in the fronded sea,
                        Deep in the rocking land; 
            They hooked the sun at the ebb of the green
                        And cast it on the sand.

Again, the form of multiple short stanzas is echoed in the larger scale form of this movement.


St Bees Sandstone

            Adagio, Delicate

This movement caused me the most problems, I had a very clear idea of the overall texture that I wanted, very ‘zoomed in’ and personal, like individual rain drops, or grains’:

            ..Pits and pocks the blocks like rain on snow.

            Slowly the rock un-knows itself

In the end I realised that the texture that I wanted was in fact very similar to the one I used in the first movement. The important difference is the quarter-tone detuning, which sets up an unsettling ‘beating’ effect, which I felt captured something of the spirit of this section. By imitating the first movement, therefore, the concluding line ‘Ashes to ashes, Sand to sand’ is endowed with a different association.

On a personal note I’d like to thank the Gildas Quartet, the Norman Nicholson Society and in particular Antoinette Fawcett. The composition and its performance would also not have been made possible without the generosity of the Britten-Pears Foundation.  My visit to Millom with the quartet was extremely enjoyable, the welcome we received was warm and the scenery stunning.  It is a very special corner of our country; I hope to return to soon.