The start of work on a new guitar concerto coincided with the first national lockdown in the spring 2020. The piece had been on the back burner for a while but the national peace and quiet afforded by the lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity to have a composer’s retreat at home. Like many composers, I’ve often found myself saying ‘if only I had a bit more time for composing…’
This new-found ‘time’ wasn’t quite quite the luxury I’d always imagined it would be. As days stretched into weeks, the extra composing time morphed into doubting time. I found days at my composing desk crippled with a sense of doubt usually kept in check by the business of a freelance musician’ s schedule. However, one bright light in these days was the poet Emily Dickinson. Writers and poets have been a thread of inspiration running through my work and early on, I’d thought about using her work as the basis of a guitar concerto. There’s something about the intimate voice of her poetry which chimed in my mind with the quiet and intimate ‘voice’ of the guitar.
Despite the confines of our four walls during lockdown, the keenness to travel and explore opened a world beyond Dickinson’s poetry thanks to the miracle of the internet. Dickinson research continues to grow and I was delighted to be able to leaf through Dickinson’s own Herbarium, an extensive catalogued of pressed and annotated botanical specimens which she made while at school. Leafing through this volume offered a very tangible glimpse into her lifelong obsession with plants and gardening. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:4184689$1i, something also reflected in a beautiful by Marta Macdowell published in 2019: Emily Dicksinson’s Gardening Life https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Emily-Dickinsons-Gardening-Life-by-Marta-McDowell-author/9781604698220
Dickinson’s passion for gardening was equalled by her enthusiasm for music. She was an accomplished pianist and improviser who, according to her family would sit up late into the night improvising heavenly music at the top register of the family’s box piano. A glimpse through her bound collection of piano music and songs gave me a real feel for Dickinson’s America with it’s collection of ballads, patriotic songs, dances, plantation songs. https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/emily-dickinsons-music-book-edr-469/
The online development of the Dickinson museum at Amherst gives us the opportunity to snoop round the Dickinson’s residence room by room, a kind of historical episode of ‘through the keyhole.’ Emily became increasingly reclusive as her life continued and would ‘receive’ visitors the other side of a crack in a minimally-open door. I wondered how she would feel about visitors from all over the globe enjoying a virtual tour of her home? https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/the-museum/our-site/the-homestead/
The Albaster Chambers, a guitar concerto inspired by Dickinson’s life and work, will be premiered by guitarist Craig Ogden with the BBC Concert orchestra