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The greatest happiness principle (1997) by English composer David Sawer (born Stockport, 1961), is inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) -- 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' -- which Bentham also applied in practice to the design of public buildings such as Millbank Penitentiary, in which a single watchtower was surrounded by a circle of cells. This became a seed for Sawer's compositional process, with eleven descriptive sections of music, traversing the circle of fifths, representing the cells of the prison. 'I'm not saying that the greatest happiness principle exists', Sawer says, 'or that the music presumes to demonstrate such a thing, but that it is a situation to which it aspires.' Sawer's music is expertly and tightly constructed, with minimalist-sounding looping, sometimes sounding angry and alarming. A final, aleatoric, unconducted section, before a concluding soft chord, perhaps gives us a clue to where Bentham's policies might eventually lead!

John Metcalf (born Swansea, 1946) is both a UK and a Canadian citizen, and he runs the Swansea and the Vale of Glamorgan festivals. His music is varied and distinctive and, always interested in taking an active role in society as a composer, he has organised creative music projects in schools throughout Wales. Three Mobiles (2001) was commissioned by the Machynlleth Festival for Irish saxophonist Gerard McChrystal and pianist Dan Moriyama. Later, McChrystal asked Metcalf for an orchestration, first for strings, and then for strings and harp, which is the version McChrystal played here. The music is diatonic, and the short first movement light, busy and fast, with bouncy strings and creamy, confident soprano sax playing. The slow central movement is pure romance -- a beautiful, intricate, floating melody for the soloist, and connections with the sound worlds of Barber and Copland. A violin solo begins the final jazzy movement -- the most modern-sounding of the three, which has a throw-away ending.

Matthew Hindson at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Photo: Keith Bramich
Matthew Hindson at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Photo: Keith Bramich

The 2003 Vale of Glamorgan Festival made a feature of the music of controversial Australian composer Matthew Hindson (born 1968), and it was a concert of six of Hindson's pieces that took place at Cardiff Airport a couple of days earlier, to a rather mixed reception by the press. SPEED (1996) is mesmeric, fast, and gave me a slightly giddy car-sick feeling. It's a kind of brash Aussie minimalism, a reflection of modern life, mainly loud and brassy, using a MIDI drum kit, repeated sliding trombone notes, and heavily influenced by hard-core techno music. You would never describe this music as subtle, but it certainly takes the symphony orchestra somewhere new!

Copyright © 29 September 2003 Keith Bramich, London, UK











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