The story of Island Symphony

In 1992 I took a holiday in Looe. I had gone there almost by accident, since another holiday I had planned had fallen through at the last moment. Like so many people before me, I became fascinated by St. George's Island after seeing it from the Wool Down. When I discovered that it was possible to visit the island, I lost no time in taking the boat trip from East Looe. At the time, I was composing a piece called The Way Things Are, which was proving rather difficult to complete, and I took the manuscript with me just in case I had any ideas during the day. Once I set foot on the Island a remarkable thing happened: the piece "wrote itself" in a couple of hours. I could not resist telling the island's owners, Babs and Evelyn Atkins, about this before I returned to the mainland. They were thrilled and invited me to come back to the island at any time in order to write music.

Evelyn's two books: We Bought an Island and Tales from our Cornish Island give the visitor a rich understanding of the magic of the place. After reading them, I knew I would return, and so eventually I spent time there as a "helper", during which I also composed a great deal. I spent so many happy days with the sisters, the other helpers and the various visitors who came to see the island. I remember in particular one September day when a friend and I took advantage of the one exceptionally low tide of the year to walk across the channel from Hannafore to the Island. There was just enough time to consume a bottle of champagne with the sisters on the beach before rushing back as the water level rose rapidly. We made it to the mainland with the sea lapping round our chests!

The sisters were enthralled and delighted by the work I was doing on their island, and one day Attie (Evelyn) said to me: "why don't you write us a Symphony?" Now I knew just how vast and complex a project a Symphony could prove to be, but despite this I instantly said "yes" and within a day I had the basic plan of the piece sketched out. It has taken over two years since then to complete, and even this would not have been possible without the funding supplied by South West Arts and Cornwall County Council, the support of Julia Gill at Project Explore, and most importantly a six month period of study-leave granted me by De Montfort University from August 1994 to February 1995, during which I relocated to Looe.

One of the first decisions I had to make was about the scoring of the Symphony. I knew that the sisters and I both wanted a proper, full-scale Symphony, but writing for Symphony Orchestra would have meant that the piece could never be heard on the Island and any performances would be likely to take place outside Cornwall. For a while I contemplated writing for a solo instrument, but this option seemed less and less satisfactory. Finally I hit on the idea of using a computer system and sampled sounds to create the piece. This enabled me to have the sounds of an orchestra at my fingertips, but also to incorporate natural sounds (some of them recorded on the island) and synthesized sounds too. With such a varied palette of sounds available, I felt confident that I could create a "map" of the island, in all its diversity.

One further aspect of this that I particularly liked was that it made my workstation and me into a compositional "island". By downloading soundfiles from the Internet, I was able to make musical connections across the world even though I was living in musical isolation in Cornwall at the time. I saw this process as similar to the way in which the Atkins sisters had, by apparently "retreating" from society, acquired vast numbers of new friends who come to visit the island from every corner of the world.

Technical Information

Island Symphony was created on an Apple Macintosh LC475 computer, with an additional 2.1 gigabyte hard disk (continuous data flow). Two software programmes were used: CuBase Audio, for sequencing; and Digidesign's SoundTools for audio editing. The samples were stored on a Roland S-760 sampler and were loaded from three main sources: Roland's CD-ROM sample libraries; Synclavier's CD-ROM sample libraries; digital recordings made by the composer, both in the field and downloaded from Internet sites. A Yamaha SY35 synthesizer was used as the controlling keyboard and for some sounds, and the master tape was recorded on to a Casio DA-7 Digital Audio Tape recorder. Monitoring was through a home hi-fi system, and this whole workstation represents a fairly portable "home set-up", rather than a fully-fledged "studio".


Movement I

(duration: 19')

This movement depicts the island as a physical object. There are three structural principles at work: 1) reading the silhouette of the island seen from the shore (east to west) as a graph with range/density along the y-axis and time (19') along the x-axis 2) alternating "inbreaths" and "outbreaths" of varying durations calculated by careful measurement of the inlets and outlets of the island's shoreline, as shown on a hand- drawn map 3) a series of soundscapes representing the various environments encountered during a brisk walk around the island (which takes 19'). One of the most striking features of this is the extreme proximity of wildly contrasting landscapes, for example: at the highest point one is on the edge of a rugged cliff, complete with seabirds; a turn and a couple of paces then plunges one into a forest, with woodland flora and fauna. The music reflects this, moving often quite abruptly from one sound-world to another, corresponding to: Little Island-cliff path ascent-ruined chapel (with Brazilian percussion blowing on the wind!)-forest-beach tour-path to house (via generator and craft centre)-flat path back to Little Island. The prime musical material consists of extremely rapid scale and arpeggio patterns containing all the 266 possible seven-note scale formations between C and C. From the slight changes between one pattern and the next emerges the harmonic, melodic and textural content of the piece.

Movement II

(duration: 29')

At the highest point on the Island are the remains of a medieval chapel. The Island was called Lammana during the 13th Century, and was a retreat for Benedictine monks. Augustinian monks based in Launceston laid claim to the island too, and a dispute arose which had to be settled by the Pope himself.

It is a curious feature of this part of the island that the wind echoes in the caves below sounding at times almost like an echo of distant singing. Whilst thinking about what to write for the second movement of the Symphony, I came across a text by the Italian writer Umberto Eco (whose name seemed appropriate!) in which he suggests that ideas of the medieval period are still around us as historical echoes. He identifies what he calls Ten Little Middle Ages. The second movement is therefore a set of ten variations on a medieval theme, each variation suggested by one of Eco's anachronistic descriptions.


The theme I've used is a lament by Peter Abelard (of Abelard and Heloise fame) entitled "Planctus David". This was composed in Brittany in the 12th Century. The opening of the theme is heard here and later variations explore this and subsequent strains.

1. Pretext

A pretext for a halting violin melody, leading to a brief operatic interlude.

2. Barbarism

This is the Middle Ages of shaggy heroes. The music here resembles film music for a medieval epic.

3. Ironical Revisitation

A pastiche of the compositional technique of the 12th Century School of Notre Dame, passed through a distorting mirror.

4. Romanticism

Eco uses the phrase "computers in the dungeon" to suggest stormy castles and contemporary space operas.

5. Philosophia Perennis

Formal and logical thinking are expressed through change-ringing, in a pastoral setting.

6. National Identities

This variation contains the national anthems of 95 countries, woven into a counterpoint around the theme itself.

7. Decadentism

A brooding and intense variation.

8. Philological Reconstruction

A wild organ solo, which builds up a single, dissonant, musical sentence.

9. Tradition

A grave and noble chorale, in the manner of the Rosicrucians and the alchemists.

10. Expectation of the Millennium

A variation containing 1,000 notes, drifting off uncertainly into the future. The millennium is both the medieval one and the one which faces us today.

Movement III

(duration: 10')

A gentle, contemplative movement, evoking the magic and mystery of time spent on the island.

Movement IV (People and Buildings)

(duration: 18')

There are only a few buildings on the island: the generator shed, a cottage, a small hall which doubles as a craft centre, some huts and the main house, and yet the place is full of life. In the summer months, visitors arrive daily, and there is a team of regular "helpers" who live on the island for short periods. And of course the Atkins sisters supply the spirit of the place.

The music begins with the sound of the island's generator. Powered by this, a driving "riff" emerges, constructed from musical motifs derived from the sister's names and initials: B-A-B-S and E-E-A. (B=B flat, and S=E flat, in German notation). From this central riff comes a variety of textures, rhythms, melodies and harmonies, and the Symphony ends on a joyful, lively note.