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Richard Ayres (1965) – No. 50 (The Garden) (2018)


Richard Ayres’ website contains the curious menu item ‘biographies’. There are in fact four of them: ‘Regular,’ ‘Short,’ ‘Long,’ and ‘Imagined.’ The last of these is far and away the funniest and perhaps tells us the most about Ayres as a composer.

© Martha Colburn

For the sake of completeness, here is an extract: “The former England cricket star Richard Ayres was born in Cornwall in 1965 and at the age of fourteen ran away from home to become second cabin-boy aboard “The Redshank”, a merchantman exporting china clay from the Central American Realquetas Islands. Under the critical guidance of the enlightened Captain James ‘purple inch’ Stanshaw, the crew formed an experimental arts group that avidly read and analyzed books such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and, most importantly for Ayres, performed the music of John Cage and works by composers associated with the Fluxus movement. It wasn’t long before Ayres and other crew members attempted to write their own music, and the Redshank Collective’s performance of 336 Piano Deconstructions (for two pianos and cliff-divers) in Acapulco was considered by many in the audience to be one of the highest achievements in the field of performance art.”

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. That Ayres is interested in James Joyce, John Cage and Fluxus is definitely the case. And in the extraordinary sport of cricket. For instance, he wrote the chamber opera No. 39: The Cricket Recovers based on the stories of Toon Tellegen, transformed into a libretto by composer and poet Rozalie Hirs. This opera is not only about sport but also about crickets. The ‘imagined’ biography also tells us that Ayres doesn’t take things too seriously, or rather that he takes jokes seriously and attaches great importance to humour.

The more factual biographies are also enlightening, above all the short one: “Richard Ayres was born in 1965. He composes music and lives in a house (in Holland).” Can’t argue with that. Nonetheless, the ‘Regular’ biography adds some new information. About his education, for example: in 1986 Ayres followed Morton Feldman’s classes at the Darmstadt summer school, and as a result of this experience he decided to make music a full-time occupation. He studied composition at the University of Huddersfield and postgraduate composition with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, graduating in 1992. The ‘Long’ biography tells us more about the musical aspect, for instance that in Huddersfield he studied electronic music and trombone, but also that a series of ‘NONcerto’s’ for solo instrument and ensemble or orchestra form the bedrock of his oeuvre, in which every work includes a number in its title.

This biography does not fail to mention that theatricality plays a large part in his work. No. 36 (2002), the NONcerto for horn and ensemble, requires staging to allow the soloist to run between two ‘mountain peaks’ and to provide a narrative projected behind the musicians. No. 42 In the Alps (2007-8) for soprano and chamber orchestra is described by Ayres as an “animated concert”, and in his own programme note he says the following about it: “It combines many of the subjects that fascinate me: the relationship of text narrative and musical narrative, the history of opera, early cinema, and the theatrical practices of the nineteenth century.”

These fascinations can also be found in No. 50 (The Garden). On his blog (raria.tumblr.com) Ayres writes that there is a connection between the two pieces: “In most of my music I want to create a sort of cinema between the ears, or imaginary theatre. ‘In the Alps’ took this a stage further and used intertitles in the same way directors of silent films used them when they needed to extend the narrative beyond perhaps what was obvious using only images. In this new piece I will do this but also add other non-musical ways of influencing what the audience follows as a story.” It is what he calls an “annotated concert.” These non-musical ways consist of texts and animations by Martha Colburn. In a short message on his blog Ayres writes about her: “I have been watching everything by this film-maker. I’m a fan. The spirit is what I want to come close to in my electronic music.” Another returning fascination, which features in the pieces No. 36 and No. 42, is the theme of mountains, or perhaps more the climbing of them. But first we must descend into a garden – in other words, The Garden.

This is no common or garden type of garden. It is a garden of delights – Jeroen Bosch’s, to be more precise. It is also hell, as found in Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1320). At any rate, the garden is the point of departure for a journey to hell undertaken by the main character in The Garden. A man is dissatisfied. In his garden he starts digging a hole to reach the centre of the earth. There he meets all kinds of creatures: Mindekapp the lightning worm, a fossil, the Ghost Soldier and a basilisk, to name but a few. Many more strange creatures pass by. After this the man embarks on an equally strange but enlightening journey to heaven. Although Dante’s characters are different – historical figures, devils and other creatures – in The Divine Comedy he descends into hell in a similar manner, accompanied by Virgil. After this he climbs the Mountain of Purgatory, then continues his journey to heaven with Beatrice. The man in The Garden also ascends into heaven, although this is a different journey from Dante’s. How does it turn out? That’s up to the spectator/listener to decide.

As varied and surreal as the story is, no less so is the music. It features a kind of disco tune, a broken harmonium, failed techno, Baroque-like counterpoint, electronics, a chorale, harmonies from a synthesizer, and so on and so forth. Ayres does not allow himself to be restricted in any way. This is what he has to say about his music in the booklet of the CD Richard Ayres Composers’ Voice Portrait (2003): “At some point I came to see all sorts of holy truths as totally ridiculous: ‘Thou shalt be original, thou shalt never repeat thyself, thou shalt write no consonant tones, thou shalt, thou shalt…! Now I’m able to use consonants and dissonants, melodies, textures, elephants, clouds, snowballs or whatever, wherever and whenever I wish to. The only restrictions which can be imposed on me are the limits of my own imagination.” And: “I often rearrange things which have been available for ages. I feel myself attracted to the very sounds and musical gestures which many people banish from their music. For me it’s all about the awkward, spurned and lost things.”

The animation is in the hands of artist Martha Colburn, whose world is a strange one. She also works with things which have been available for ages. She draws directly onto an existing filmstrip, for example for the number Stille by the Orquesta del Tiempo Perdido band. She often applies analogue techniques, for instance stop-motion (a film technique in which an object is placed in a different position per frame). Take her film Metamorfoza (2013) about the Siege of Leningrad, created for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, with music by Juan Felipe Waller. Here she combines various materials, from tin soldiers and marbles to drawings and existing films. She uses dolls and a miniature film set and constructs a surrealistic world. A selection from the film’s events: a doll plays violin, is sucked into the TV and ends up in the turmoil of battle in Leningrad, changes into a caterpillar, and emerges as a butterfly.

For The Garden Colburn uses drawn animations. “It is certainly not a film in the traditional sense,” she explains. “The film I have made is in conversation with the ideas and the music on the stage. It can only be experienced in the context of the whole performance.” She has made hundreds of ink and watercolour drawings which, when glued one after another in a sequence, produce an animation. She explains why: “The Gardenis not set in a particular space or location, and these floating paintings work very well in that context. My impression is that no single line in The Garden is a solid one. I do not assume that anything is as it seems, or that it is fixed in space and time.”

The combination of Ayres and Colburn creates a magical world consisting of animations, text and music. Colburn presents a surrealistic world in images and Ayres does the same in sound.


Written by Jan Nieuwenhuis for the premiere of this work during the Opening Concert of the Gaudeamus Muziekweek 2018 in the main hall of TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht.

Performers: Asko|Schönberg, Bas Wiegers (conductor), Martha Colburn (visuals), Joshua Bloom (bass-baritone)

The Garden was made possible thanks to the Performing Arts Fund NL (FPK). Martha Colburn’s contribution to The Garden was made possible thanks to the support of the Amsterdams Fund for the Arts (AFK) and the Mondriaan Fund.