SWON are delighted to be performing the premiere of ‘In Sunshine or In Shadow’ by David Loxley-Blount in our Autumn Concert of 2022. David performs in our orchestra, and we were delighted to sit down with him to discuss his inspirations for the piece.
What was your inspiration for In Sunshine or in Shadow? Do you have a connection to Northern Ireland?
The iconic traditional tune known to most as Londonderry Air is a melody with which I had wanted to do something for quite a few years. What that something was I was not quite sure, it is often best to wait for the right opportunity to present itself. All composers generally have a long list of things they would like to work on, but have not managed to get around to yet, or the ‘right’ opportunity has not come up. However, when I saw that using Londonderry Air as the basis of a theme and variations form was listed as one of the set options for Sebastian Thompson’s Angels of Creation Composition Competition in 2019. Instantly I knew it was the option I would go for, and would probably enter the competition, although in the end it was a bit of a dash finishing the piece by the competition closing date.
I do not have a strong connection to Northern Ireland where the melody originates from, but my mother worked there for a bit at the height of the troubles in the early 1970s. Not very many years after the Good Friday Agreement we stayed with a friend of hers in Belfast. I was only about 10 and Belfast still seemed pretty dangerous for someone not used to that kind of environment. So I didn’t get to see or do much. We were not there long as were stopping off between the Republic of Ireland and Scotland on a family holiday, we did visit the Giant’s Causeway on the way to the ferry though. I have not been back to Northern Ireland since, but hope to sometime in the future.
This piece was originally titled Londonderry Air: Theme and Variations, but the week I was finalising the parts of the wind orchestra version was the week that the Queen died (before SWON’s first rehearsal of the term). This left me feeling maybe the piece should have and needed a less functional and bland formal title. The new title is lifted from the most commonly associated words, Danny Boy, and carries an additional in memoriam dedication and a reference that Londonderry Air is often used as an unofficial anthem of Northern Ireland above the original ‘for the Symphonic Wind Orchestra of North London’.
To so many, even outside the UK in non-Commonwealth countries, she was just ‘The Queen’. You said ‘The Queen’ to someone and people instantly knew who you meant, despite there being a number of Queens in-post concurrently around the world. She was there in sunshine or in shadow; at the brightest moments that we all shared, and also at some of the worst and most difficult moments too. We will feel her shadow for a long time to come I feel. As a composer, I feel it is important to reference national events, when possible, sometimes subtly like this, regardless of what you think about the monarchy.
With the new title it is equally valid to engage with thoughts of someone who or something that was, or is, special, significant, or important to you. Maybe they are not around anymore, or your interactions are now fleeting. Or it could be something you do not do anymore but helped to make you who you are today. I feel we all have these moments, interactions and experiences to draw on within us. There are always ‘sunshine’ and ‘shadow’ moments is so many things, I mean life, not just music. Another advantage was that the new title better reflected the differing and changing moods of the piece as you progress through the variations. The piece is in a way much like a cloudy day in our British weather. Where the sun pokes through every now and again, and one minute can be quite different to the next; the variations are each about a minute long.
In Sunshine or in Shadow started as a piece for solo organ, what were the challenges in adapting it for a wind ensemble?
Yes, the organ version came first and was awarded 3rd Prize in the Angels of Creation Composition Competition in 2019. It is not unusual for orchestral pieces to start as keyboard instrument sketches which then need to be orchestrated. The slightly more unusual thing is maybe that the keyboard instrument version has been played in public. Having the pedals to play extra material vs piano with only two hands does provide scope and capacity for the extra musical line/s that the composer may wish to accommodate. Sometimes I have notes in both feet at the same time to get everything harmonically needed into a chord where I want it to be. It works well for solo organ, but I always felt the piece had more symphonic tendencies that an organ could not do alone. It could and would always need to be unpacked and orchestrated later. After orchestration the versions are not 100% identical, there are some extra layers that would just not be possible in the solo organ version. Interestingly I got into a conversation with the American composer Nico Muhly at an event last week hosted by the Cathedral Music Trust at Southwark Cathedral and we both mentioned how we enjoy the possibilities to write in an orchestral way for a single organ and organist. In some ways enabling us to try things out with only one player when a large ensemble would not be realistic or viable for various reasons. There is a reason why the organ is sometimes referred to as the ‘king of instruments’. Organ is the only instrument where it’s possible to make so many different types of sounds at the same time with only one player and without using the assistance of software or electronics to layer musical lines on top of each other. This all depends slightly on the organ of course, as no two organs are identical. The organ version of this piece is suited more towards a medium to large organ, rather than a smaller organ.
There is also a Brass Band version (as yet unperformed) which was one of my early Covid-19 lockdown projects having started learning to play the cornet at the start of 2020 (I was trying to do ‘a new decade, a new musical challenge’, but then the pandemic arrived). Brass Band does not quite have the variety of instrumental colour available that a symphonic wind orchestra does though. One of the challenges of adapting it for Wind Orchestra was that I started to work from the Brass Band version and adapt that, in hindsight starting again fresh with the orchestration and going back to the original and working directly from that might have been better, which for parts of the piece I did end up doing in the end.
How do you normally start composing a piece? Tell us a bit about your process.
It really varies from piece to piece for me, in the past, I have written full orchestral works into full score without hardly touching a piano, but most of my pieces start life on an instrument; organ, piano, saxophone, or using the internal instrument we all have; our voice (often singing in my head not out loud though).
This piece started with taking the Londonderry Air melody and re-harmonising it at the piano. If I’m working with a pre-existing melodic line this is often how I initially proceed as it then instantly gives me harmonic material that is my own creation. The re-harmonisation, presented at the opening of the piece as the theme, is not a wild one, but it is not the one you will find in any hymn book either. If the tune I am re-harmonising is contained within a hymnbook or elsewhere I often work with that open in front of me when exploring ideas of what I may do, so I actively try to avoid subconsciously lapsing into the known and often still in copyright harmonisation already out there.