gravest one
for solo cello
Programme note

Inspiration for gravest one—the second composition i have written in memory of my late Father—came from a poem by E. E. Cummings, No. 61 from his 1963 collection 73 Poems, charting the steady descent upon a gravestone of a snowflake. My Father's ashes are interred within a garden of remembrance, and the poem invoked memories of numerous occasions spent in that garden, contemplating his death and attempting to grapple with the bereavement. The title draws on the final words of Cummings' poem, deliberately ambiguous between the obvious reference to the physical stone, and the less obvious metaphysical reference to oneself, the person grieving in the garden, the ‘gravest one’.

The piece opens with a single, long bar of slowly descending melody, very simple designed to evoke the gradual, graceful descent of the snowflake described (and visually depicted) in the poem. An important pitch throughout is D-flat; the melody begins on this note, as a high natural harmonic, and ends on it, a metaphorical ‘impact note’—the point at which the snowflake symbolically strikes the stone. From here opens up the body of the work, a series of three ‘scenes’, each exploring an aspect of the coming-to-terms with bereavement, using one third of the original snowflake melody, reversed and inverted.

The first scene, ‘gravitas’, is concerned with the religious connotations associated with death, of funeral rites and ceremonial reverence. Something palpably forced often frequents these occasions, something that—though part of the grieving process—usually does not remain true to the person who has died, failing to speak of them as they truly were or, worse, ostensibly beatifying them. The music is therefore both rhythmically simplified and melodically ornamented. The original rhythms betray their presence, however, in a separate pattern of bowing, out of step with the melodic rhythms.

graven’, the longest of the three scenes, focuses on our futile attempts to preserve the deceased person's memory, to ‘keep them alive’, and the temptation to see everything in their life through rose-tinted spectacles. The music is broken into three discrete strands of melodic material; the first contains the original material—now played ‘as though every note and gesture is imbued with utmost significance and profundity’; the second takes fragments of this material and obsessively repeats them, with increasing wildness and desperation. The third strand is altogether different, ‘inscrutable and translucent’, containing glimpses of the original snowflake melody, reversed so that it ascends from whence it came.

Played with a heavy metal practice mute, the third and final scene, ‘grave’, expresses something of the abject grief and sense of loss death inflicts. The music is unyieldingly melancholic, reduced to barely a quarter of the original tempo, and fragmented with pizzicato notes. Within all this is a single ‘strenuous but ardent’ attempt by the cellist—through the use of acutely embedded note divisions—to drag the tempo back to its original speed, to no avail.

Interspersed between these three scenes is a series of ‘resonances’ or ’ripples’ emanating from the original D-flat impact. The last of these, at the conclusion of the work, becomes a moment of apotheosis, where the impact of death becomes the transcendence of the afterlife. Therefore, within the painful final scene lies a quiet acceptance of death, combined with the joyful rising into paradise. This is heard through increasing glimpses of the reversed snowflake melody, which ascends to its starting point, where it hovers, before passing into the beyond.

“The scordatura technique in Simon's piece is very fascinating […] you find new harmonic possibilities, new colours, new timbral dimensions of the instrument which you will never find in the traditional tuning.”
Arne Deforce, Pre-concert talk, 28 November 2002
“This piece is very successful […] what you hear is something which is flowing and organic […] the way in which the cello is used is extremely forward-looking.”
Richard Barrett, Pre-concert talk, 28 November 2002