43 musicians in 3 groups and tape electronics

  1. oboe, Bb clarinet, tenor trombone, 6 violoncelli, 4 double-basses (bass 1 & 4 scordatura tuning)
  2. 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 alto flutes, bass flute, cor anglais, 2 horns in F, 7 violins, 6 violas (tuned down 1/4-tone)
  3. Pianoforte (3 pedals), 2 harps (1/4-tone tuning), 5 percussionists: vibraphone, 2 glockenspiels, marimba, chromatic crotales, 2 hand-held crotales, 6 gongs, 6 tam-tams, claves, small Balinese gong, medium Chinese gong, bass drum, tongue drum (8 slots), maracas, small bell.

In the spring of 1997 we were witnesses to the remarkable sight of Comet Hale-Bopp in the night skies. In my piece I have attempted to evoke something of the awe and atmosphere of this silent event which I was fortunate enough to observe from deep in the countryside where I live.

My composition is not a 'tone-poem', but on one level it does chart a journey - the comet's journey through space towards the sun. At the same time, I am also attempting to capture the 'single moment', as in a photograph.

From the image of the comet I have posited some sonic equivalents: the opening 8'25" is electroacoustic tape alone. Here is suggested the journey of the comet through space before becoming visible from earth and is akin, perhaps, to a Bach organ prelude or an orchestral adagio. The entry of the ensemble can be read as the depiction of the comet now visible from earth, but it is not my intention to be overtly programmatic. The music develops by exploring the image with resonance decays, spatial sound diffusion and microtonality.

At another more detailed level my Comet Hale-Bopp has little to do with observations of the 'real' Comet Hale-Bopp, and more to do with a continuation of ideas and processes derived from the study of extraordinary sounds produced by, for example, the trombone in what are called multiphonics. The ability of some musicians playing instruments which usually sound ( - phonic) only one note at a time to produce several (multi-) at the same time, has led me to investigate these multiphonic sounds very carefully. (For more information see Research). The opening music of Comet Hale-Bopp is constructed from nothing other than a 5" recording of one such trombone multiphonic. Later in the piece a recording of empty gas cylinders outside my home is heard on tape joining the gongs and tam-tams of the orchestra in a celebration of the comet's radiance. The bell and gong-like sound of these gas cylinders have, like the trombone multiphonics, been studied and are prefigured and echoed in some of the harmonies played by the specially tuned ensemble.

Comet Hale-Bopp is written for spatial sound projection with the ensemble of 43 instrumentalists divided into 3 groups. Group 1 on the left consists of single oboe, clarinet and trombone with six 'celli and four double-basses. Group 2 on the right consists of six flutes (including two alto and a bass), cor anglais, two horns, seven violins and six violas. In the centre is Group 3 consisting of piano, two harps and five percussionists.

I am grateful to the Scottish Arts Council for the award of a bursary to enable the composition to be written. The piece has been shortlisted by the SPNM for possible performance.