Duration: 25′

  • A cantata to celebrate the organic landscape
  • Text: Christie Dickason
  • Mixed chorus, oboe/cor, harp, string quartet,
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir, funded by Respect Organics and Arts and Business
  • First performance 18 November, 2006  |  Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir, musicians from Kokoro, contemporary ensemble of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra  |  Sherborne Abbey
  • Music by Cecilia McDowall, words by Christie Dickason
  • Chamber choir
  • Oboe/cor anglais, string quartet and harp

Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir with musicians from Kokoro, contemporary music ensemble of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

  • I The Shimmer
  • II Grading Eggs
  • III Grace Before Meat (Introit) The Darkening (Dies Irae)
  • IV Sheep in the Mist
  • V Dance for the Feast of Everything That Grows

Our brief was simply a “Celebration of the Organic Landscape”. But how do you go about writing a piece about “organic landscape”. There were no other prescriptions or rules, for either us or the farmers we visited on five residencies in May and June this year. “Is this what you want?” they asked. “Is this it?” All we could say was “YES! Everything is still possible. Everything is vital.” Our five, very different, research visits became a long, slow unfolding of generously given riches. We filled notebooks and cameras, and kept a joint journal. Our challenge: how to boil it all down into twenty minutes.

Before starting, we had thought we might have five movements, one for each farm, progressing through the arc of the seasons. Very soon, we found certain common concerns cropping up, regardless of the size and location of the farm. Our structure began to take early shape around these shared themes one afternoon as we sat in the warm afternoon sun beside Crab Tree Pool in Cumbria.

Though the two of us have worked together many times, the special collaborative nature of this project was unique. The farmers, with their huge early input, became part of the creative team. They gave us the crucial detail we needed to avoid a general response and to let their voices come through. The collaboration then continued with a rare chance for us to explore material at an early stage in a joint workshop with the Choir.

Cecilia and Christie

Writer’s notes

So much is now involved in managing the land organically -simple joy, philosophical principles, politics and funding, financial struggle, agricultural practice, education, conservation and preservation. The power of natural beauty still underpins our relationship to the landscape, but a mere lyrical celebration of beauty, tempting though it is, avoids urgent issues facing the organic movement. After visiting the five farms and hearing what the farmers had to say about the many issues, we finally settled, with great difficulty, on just a few themes which we nested within the framework of the dominating seasonal arc of the organic year. Our five seasonscorrespond roughly to spring, summer, autumn and winter, but with a centrally placed fifth season of the heart.

I The Shimmer

CD: Early spring. The most conventionally lyrical of the five movements, this first section shows the world at its natural best. The Shimmer is the reality we are struggling to preserve. Spring here is “another chance to get it right”, but that second chance is really for us.

CM: We found that the haunting, desolate cry of the curlew recurred on different farms and it was tempting to imagine the call being gently suggested by a distant oboe solo – a musical starting point. The curlew’s song opens the work and the voices emerge slowly, building to “Again, here’s light!” As with the spring, one stage of the movement unfolds from, and into, another. We both wanted to avoid the “pastoral.” For me, that meant making use of the bare fourths and fifths of the early music tradition, a style that combines a spare quality with the ecstatic.

II Grading Eggs

CD: The early summer scramble to keep up with work. We heard it everywhere “NOT ENOUGH TIME!” People spoke of the “rush” or the “surge” From a huge range of tasks, we chose grading eggs as our starting point after we were lucky enough to help prepare an order for seven hundred organic eggs. Our muscles began to understand as well as our heads.

CM: Christie gave me a vigorous and structured list of “tasks”to set, from which I made a musical scrambled egg. I wanted the pulse of the movement to urge the words relentlessly onwards. Moments of significance, such as a “small death”(of chick) or “pause to teach”, cut across the breathless “to do” list. Time waits, then mechanical clatter returns. “Small, medium, large”, in any order, define the path through chaos, until overtaken by “no time to do it all!”

III Grace Before Meat (Introit) The Darkening (Dies Irae)

CD: These two linked pieces are our fifth season, la saison en enfer or season in hell. At opposite poles from each other, they show the two extremes of man’s relationship with the land and animals in his care, at any time of the year. Grace Before Meat speaks for the mindful heart that strives to act with love and responsibility, but without sentimentality, when dealing with the paradox of both caring and killing. The Darkening cries out against our past lack of mindfulness. “Darkening” a Cumbrian word for “dusk” is extended here to include an underlying darkness that came up in conversation at most of the farms. Though this section uses images from the hoof-and-mouth epidemic, it opens out to suggest all hidden consequences of man’s mismanagement where gain has been put ahead of long-term concern for consequences and the present has been severed from the past.

CM: One of the special experiences of our farm visits was singing together with many of our hosts. Music was important to them all. I encountered for the first time, at Low Luckens Farm in Cumbria, Shape note music. Simple and unaffected, this style of singing gave heart to Grace Before Meat. It was an interesting challenge to write the Dies Irae for a small ensemble (without brass and percussion) and still to bring the urgency and intensity of the text into focus. The importance of the words is paramount. The Darkening closes with a recall of the song of the curlew, this time played by the darker-hued cor anglais, leading into . . .

IV Sheep in the Mist

CD: Autumn, and a gentle reply to the despair of The Darkening. In the falling energy of autumn, grazing sheep become an oblique poetic expression of continuity and respect for the past. A still beauty balances the relentless work pressure, offering a respite for the soul that seemed central to life on all five farms.

CM: “The tying thread as yet unspun” of the sheep that “graze forward” gives an underlying structure to Sheep in the Mist. The repeated note D, as a harp harmonic, threads its fragile course through the central section, returning once more at the end of the movement before disappearing into the misty ether.

V Dance for the Feast of Everything That Grows

CD: Winter. The title is from a Nepali festival, The Feast of Everything That Grows, when the Nepalese kill nothing, pick nothing, harvest nothing.It is an amnesty of respect for every living thing. Winter is a time to plan, to mend, and “to have time to talk.” And it is a time for communal celebration. Before starting, we had not guessed how much music we would find at the hearts at the farms we visited. We had to include a communal song! Dance for the Feast ends the cantata with a celebration of the tightrope act of sustaining the earth’S riches that gave us so much joy while working on the piece. Everyone we met was dancing “the Balancing Dance”.

CM: Scotland has always been associated in my mind with the vitality of the dance and the power of the song and in Dance for the Feast the Scottish folk tradition informs both the words and the music. In fact, the words just danced themselves a rhythm for me – all I had to do was find the right notes. After the distant stillness of Sheep in the Mist a slow elaborate oboe solo (bagpipes?) embellishes a line around a drone and then unfolds into a tightly rhythmic introduction to the verse, “Take the children to high places that teach you how to dance,” (sung by the women of the choir.) The subsequent verses and chorus, each with a little difference, steer a steady course to a full and exuberant conclusion. Hope, mindfulness and joy are brought together to celebrate what we have now and what we hope our children will have for their future.