Charlotte Bray’s ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ at the BBC Proms 2021

‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ (given its UK premiere by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2021), is an evocative meditation on climate change, inspired by a trip to Iceland’s Disko Bay where according to the composer, the icebergs appeared to ‘dance’.

Although the pre-performance introduction made clear that the piece wasn’t a literal depiction, Charlotte Bray’s trademark musical language created a haunting atmosphere with an uneasy stillness. Repeated deep bass notes ushered in spread chords across the orchestra which seemed to momentarily suspend time. In the opening section, towering shapes were sketched out, with high decorative woodwind phrases giving just enough detail for jagged edges.

An up-tempo middle section consisting of agitated phrases tossed around the orchestra provided an unexpected drive. There was a hint of a rhythmic pattern that might be developed towards the end of the middle section, but the opening material returns just before that sense of development can bed in. When the original idea returned it seemed to take on a slightly different feel – what was first unsettling is now reassuring, elegant, and beautiful. The image dissappears into the mist as the music fades away.

Its highly efficient writing and scoring means this surprisingly short piece that leaves me wanting more. A good thing then that Charlotte is working this into a larger piece for future performance.

That’s something to look forward to because Charlotte Bray’s musical language works really well with large-scale forces. The combination of pitch extremes (for example here in the basses and the violins) creates vistas in which epic drama waits to be played out. At the Speed of Stillness from 2011/12 is a highly recommended listen. Frenetic, urgent rhythmic patterns contrasted with brief moments of quiet. Also on the same album, Fire Burning in Snow (Moonshot) with Lucy Schaufer shows how really quite sparse writing for a handful of instruments can yield similar vivid imagery.

For a multi-dimensional demonstration of that same musical language Germinate for solo violin, cello, and piano with accompanying orchestra (see below with the Philharmonia Orchestra back in 2019) shows the same musical language used in two separate groups of players – chamber and orchestral.

Listen to ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ via BBC Sounds

George Lewis’ Minds in Flux at the BBC Proms 2021 with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Not for the first time this Proms season I find that listening is paying unexpected dividends. George Lewis’ mix of electronics and live acoustic instrumentation in his meditation on decolonisation ‘Minds in Flux’ provided much-needed distraction and focus.

Billed as a work exploiting the considerable physical space on the Royal Albert Hall, you’d think it might have been lost in a radio broadcast. I’ve listened to it three times on-demand and found it utterly absorbing as a piece of live radio.

In fact, I might even go a step further and say it’s my favourite listening experience this season.

Some background might be helpful here.

Over the past few weeks three distinct challenges in my personal and professional life have coalesced: work; family; and money. I have as a result found myself frequently quick to anger. Not the impatient kind, rather a sense of rage in response to injustice or ineptitude.

Or rudeness. Laziness. Passive aggression. Snobbery and entitlement, ignorance, or controlling behaviour. Contrivance has been a reliable old pal too (see The Bright Orange Trainers debacle a few weeks back).

And even closer to home (and my heart) the dissonance between how we’ve all of us automatically praised the NHS (some even standing on a front door step to applaud invisible healthcare staff), and the level of care a close family member of mine has received (or not) during her prolonged and worrying stay in hospital.

Bringing up the rear … the inability of recruiters and recruiting managers to communicate with the applicant or interviewee brings out my inner foot soldier.

The rage that lays underneath all of these is real and it’s powerful. And I’m happy to admit it’s scared me a great deal.  

And then I hear something like George LewisMinds in Flux’ and feel like I’ve walked into an art installation. I see colour. I feel reassured. Blank spaces enclosed by sharp black lines and angular shapes are now coloured in. The rusty hinges have been oiled and are now squeak free. The shattered glass has been replaced. The fear, the self-loathing, and the momentary loneliness disappears in an instant. Organised sound heals.

My only slight concern is that the reason I’m enjoying it isn’t necessarily why Lewis originally wrote it for. Minds Flux is a work about decolonisation. I derive pleasure and reassurance from hearing what strikes me as a musical rendition of when things are both disassembling and reassembling all at the same time. Magical, visceral, and awe-inspiring.