"No Man’s Land follows on from my very positive collaboration with Christopher Reid on Alphabicycle Order 2 several years ago. The origin of the work was a call from Richard Hickox in November 2008, full of his usual bubbly enthusiasm and proposing a Proms commission to celebrate the City of London Sinfonia’s 40th birthday in 2011. Like everyone, I was shocked to learn of his sudden death three days later. Richard conducted my first ever Proms performance, in 1983, and clearly the work had both to be written in his memory and take a different direction from his original suggestion of a celebratory work. I have been obsessed with the First World War for many years, long before the centenary of its outbreak came into view (one reason being that my maternal grandfather died on the Somme). But it is no easy subject to treat musically. Although I set Edmund Blunden in Aftertones I have avoided trying to set other war poets, particularly with the example of Britten and Wilfred Owen in mind. When I asked Christopher Reid to provide the text for this work I suggested the concept of a soldier in the midst of war, almost unaware of what he’s found himself a part of. In the event his sequence of poems provided something both different and unexpected: we hear the ghosts of two soldiers hanging on barbed wire in no man’s land. ‘To pass the time, we let the wind/rummage in the hollows of our skulls/for memories and scraps of song and wisps of rhyme’. Although there are elements of dialogue in the piece, and towards they end they sing together, they see the war for the most part through different eyes. The reflective Captain Gifford is contrasted with the moredown-to-earth Sergeant Slack both by language and by the music they sing, with the sergeant’s music embracing both an invented vernacular and original songs and marches from the period, including recordings made in 1914."
Colin Matthews © 2011/2014