Tag Archives: The Hermes Experiment

Creative: Alex Mills on his new piece Saṃsāra

Sourcing texts for Saṃsāra – my new piece for The Hermes Experiment

“The tears we’ve shed while wandering this long, long time are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

I find one of the biggest challenges about writing a new vocal piece is deciding what text(s) to set, if it’s not immediately clear from the outset. It’s made even trickier if the main idea for the piece comes first and then texts are needed to bring it to life. This was the case for my recent piece for The Hermes Experiment, called Saṃsāra, premiering at Cafe OTO later this month.

‘Saṃsāra’ is a Sanskrit word used in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism to describe how the human soul wanders through endless cycles of birth and rebirth, transmigration and reincarnation, before it eventually achieves enlightenment. According to these religions, we are all in a state of saṃsāra: we have been here many times before, and will be back many times again, on an never-ending journey of rebirth, life and death. The subject fascinates me both for its profound and spiritual dimension but also for its connection to the mundane: the seemingly endless cycles and patterns of behaviour we drift in and out of in our everyday lives, sometimes against our better judgement.

On my quest for suitable texts to set, I turned to religious scriptures that discuss the notion of saṃsāra. I discovered many beautiful passages in Hindu and Buddhist texts, in particular the translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But the problem with many of these extracts is they felt perfect just as they were; beautifully written and translated to be spoken or read, not set to music. During the search, I also came across some particularly inspiring translations of Buddhist texts by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of Metta Forest Buddhist Monastery in California, and I asked him for guidance on navigating the Buddhist canon that deals with saṃsāra.

The only way to contact the monastery is by post or phone, which is answered during one hour a day. After exchanging a series of voice messages the abbot very kindly sent me a collection of suitable texts and translations for me to draw upon. By this point, I’d also realised that I really wanted this piece to bring something new to the exploration of saṃsāra, both in the music and in the words. So in parallel to my communications with the monastery, I’d also asked the poet Konstantinos Papacharalmpos if he would be interested in writing a new text especially for the piece.

Konstantinos and I had met a while ago and I remember being instantly struck by his playful and original approach to structure, shape and meaning. Together, we developed a loose structure for a poem that would trace one complete cycle of rebirth, life and ‘re-death’. Konstantinos then worked his magic, creating four contrasting worlds exploring a soul’s journey as it wanders through saṃsāra and using water as a metaphor to convey cyclicality and transience.

The final text for the piece uses three key sections of Konstantinos’s new poem (the poem is printed in full in the score), interspaced with a refrain taken from The Tipitaka – the collection of texts that form the foundations of Theravada Buddhism – that the abbot had drawn my attention to:

“Many times, have you experienced the death of a father… the death of a mother… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter. The tears we’ve shed while wandering this long, long time are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

Much of the piece is written without a definite pulse or time signature, giving it a free, wandering quality. Instead, arrows in the score indicate moments of synchronicity while other decisions about timing are left to the performers. The refrain, which is worded slightly differently each time, represents the inevitable cycles of saṃsāra. The music is underpinned with a sequence of chords that repeat over and over, but in different guises and transformations. Finally, a single crotale, a shaker and bass drum beaters for the harp strings create a ritualistic atmosphere as the music unfolds.


Merry Christmas from The Hermes Experiment

The Hermes Experiment wishes you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year!

We’ve been very busy in the past two months with performances at the Union Chapel as part of the London Jazz Festival, in St Petersburg, with composer Jethro Cooke (picture below) and at Spitalfields Festival, premiering a beautiful song cycle by composer Josephine Stephenson as well as a new piece that we had devised.

Heartfelt thanks to the wonderful people who made it all happen, in particular Ben Eshmade, Rachel Caccia, André de Ridder, everyone at Spitalfields Festival, our funders for the Russia project – RVW Trust, Sound Ways International New Music Festival and the Future of Russia Foundation, and of course all of you audience members for your continued support!

We have some very exciting announcements to make in the new year, so keep your eyes peeled…

Keep warm, eat lots, and see you all in 2018!
The Hermes Experiment




16 Jan: workshop with composition students from Royal Academy of Music
31 Jan: workshop with composition students from Trinity Conservatoire of Music and Dance
1 Feb: Trinity School, Croydon (running our Scotland Tour programme)
5-11 Feb: TOUR TO SCOTLAND (6 concerts & 1 workshop)
13 Feb: NightMusic at St David’s Hall, Cardiff
18 Feb: Foundling Museum, London
8 March: Royal Academy of Music, performing new pieces by RAM composition students, on poems by Gillian Clark
18 March: Plumstead Peculiar
29 March: Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, performing new pieces by Trinity composition students
24 May: Cafe Oto, London, with works by John Cage and new commissions from Mira Calix and Alex Mills (tickets will be on sale soon).

All details on our dates page HERE

The Hermes Experiment & Jethro Cooke in St Petersburg, 23 November 2017


CREATIVE: Timothy Salter on his new piece for Revolutions-Reactions

The subject of revolution and the revolution of 1917 in particular can but evoke an ambivalent response; the balance between improving and worsening the plight of whole populations is so fine that a philosophical distance seems the only appropriate one for the commentator. Hence the texts in The blood-dimmed tide range from an impassioned cry for the downtrodden man in Markham’s The Man with the Hoe to the cynical quatrain of Yeats’s The Great Day. I purposely chose authors from a wide political and geographic spectrum: American, Anglo-Irish, Polish-British and Russian.

The texts are a combination of extracts from poems and political or philosophical statements. The blunt directness of the statements makes a stark contrast with the reflective and allusive nature of the poems. Accordingly the statements are set in a recitative-like manner interspersed with the more lyrical poem settings, a pattern that provides the structure of the whole piece.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

[Edwin Markham, from The Man with the Hoe]

The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement – but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.

[Joseph Conrad]

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of[the Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also a prophecy.

[Edwin Markham, from The Man with the Hoe]

…nothing to lose but their chains…

[Vladimir Lenin]

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

[Thomas Jefferson]

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

[William Butler Yeats, from The Second Coming]

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny. They have only shifted it to another shoulder.

[George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman]

…nothing to lose but their chains…

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

[Yeats, The Great Day]

…nothing to lose but their chains…

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands
How will the future reckon with this man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings –
With those who shaped him to the thing he is –

When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

[Edwin Markham, from The Man with the Hoe]

‘The blood-dimmed tide’ will be premiered at Kings Place on 16th February


New Dots Reviews

We had a great time working with new dots last month. The programme featured new works by Andrew Thomas, Jia Chai,  a new song cycle by Freya Waley-Cohen and poet Octavia Bright, and a new piece devised in collaboration with poet Ali Lewis. The programme was completed by Josephine Stephenson’s tanka and Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Below are the links to some lovely reviews and photos from the concert – many thanks to everyone who came!

“Fine work again from The Hermes Experiment tonight. All new music presented with real commitment and panache.” Classical Music Magazine (on twitter)

“Demonstrating boundless versatility and dexterity, ‘Lexicon’ was as much a showcase of new creative talent as it was of this gifted and exciting quartet” The Cusp Magazine – full review HERE

“All four of the Hermes Experiment shows great talent and virtuosity as well as being imaginative and provoking” Stephen Loveless – full review HERE

“All in all an excellent concert from a broad range of composers, masterfully performed by an excellent ensemble whom I’ll certainly be seeking out again” Alex Gowan-Webster – full review HERE

Facebook album available HERE – all photos by Cathy Pyle.


Some lovely reviews from our Nonclassical gig last week:

“The virtuosic skill of each member of the group was on display from the start” London Jazz News

Full London Jazz News review available HERE

“an ever-strengthening set from the Hermes Experiment ” The Prickle

Full Prickle review available HERE

Thanks to all who came!

Creative: Kate Whitley on her piece for Sonic Visions

“I chose to set Nadine Tunasi’s beautiful poem My hands because of its directness and understated power. I wanted to reflect her words in the same way as the image of the glove and plant printed alongside them – strength in the face of displacement and adversity. I found it in a selection of poems created as part of the writing group ‘Write to Life’.”

Kate Whitley


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Kate Whitley’s piece will be premièred at The Forge (Camden) on 16 February 2016, 8pm.

Funding bodies supporting our project this year

We are extremely grateful to the RVW Trust and the Britten-Pears Foundation for supporting our project METROPOLIS – more dates for 2016 will be announce soon so stay tuned!
We are also very pleased to announce that both The Nicholas Boas Charitable Trust, Britten-Pears Foundation and Hinrichsen Foundation will be supporting our concert SONIC VISIONS at The Forge, Camden on 16th February 2016, featuring new commissions by Kate Whitley, Soosan Lolavar and Giles Swayne.

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CREATIVE: Ewan Campbell on his new piece for METROPOLIS

“London, he felt fairly certain, has always been London.”

By Ewan Campbell

More than almost any other city, the London of today is inseparable from the many, many Londons that have existed. When I decided to write a piece evoking the city, it seemed futile to me to strive for a singular and personal response to this plethora of Londons, and instead I decided to compose a sort of London-soup.

The title is taken from George Orwell’s 1984 and is one of the myriad texts used in this piece, which have been taken from novels and poems inspired by the many faceted London. These include quotes from novels, such as Dickens’ description of Pip’s disgust at arriving at Charing Cross, or Woolf’s evocation of London’s excitement in Mrs Dalloway (“what she loved; life; London; this moment in June”), and even a quote from a Samuel Pepys’ diary about the great fire in 1666. There are extracts from poems: Wordsworth’s sunrise reverie on Westminster Bridge; D.H. Lawrence’s pre-war discovery of ‘the outcasts’ under Charing Cross bridge; the well-known folk-song “Oranges and lemons”; and several extracts from poems by Will Hatchet (Elephant and Castle: “At London’s gate it rose, democratic and utilitarian”).

The various texts are fragmented, both by the manner in which they are set to music (part-spoken, part-sung), and by the way that many of them are actually divided up and interspersed amongst their highly contrasting counterparts. This leads me, suitably tangentially, to an explanation of how the score is made up: in each performer’s part musical fragments (ranging from 2-20 seconds) are spread out over a 2-dimensional map-score, in which the performer has, at any given moment, freedom to choose which musical fragment follows which. This is a genre of composition that I have been exploring for some time, but for this piece I decided to base the score on the map that is most often associated with London: the underground map.

I wanted the four members of the Hermes Experiment to have autonomy to choose their own paths, independently of one another. Inevitably it is then impossible to predict not only what fragments will follow one another in one performer’s part, but also which of those will synchronise with those of another performer’s part. A composer like John Cage would take a philosophical approach, embracing the random sonic results. Unfortunately I find myself, not content with this, and instead embarked upon the lengthy process of making sure that every choice each performer can make at each junction is musically interesting. Then, in order to achieve some sense of unity between the parts, I sought inspiration from an unusual source: Terry Riley’s In C, in which the vast majority of the notes are (as you’ve guessed already), in C major. Those that are not from C major, are from suitably related keys, and the piece thus avoids anything more difficult than the very softest of dissonances.

I am not interested in the complete avoidance of dissonance, indeed I enjoy the full range of harmonic colours and flavours, but also want to prevent dissonance from overwhelming a piece, and perversely resulting in something bland. So, like Riley, I limited myself to a subset of notes (a slightly altered Phrygian mode on F, if you are interested), but also allowed myself a few alterable pitches (much like the deviations found in the melodic minor scale). The result will be unpredictable, made anew every time, and hopes to be more than just this composer’s subjective response to London.


The piece will be premiered at The Cockpit on 27th October: tickets are available here.

Creative: LOVESCAPES 5 – Josephine Stephenson on her new piece ‘tanka’

I was struck, in the photo of Thurstan’s I chose to set, by the careful superimposition at work. My original thoughts had been to write a wordless piece playing with a similar technique translated into music, with contrasting layers of sound waxing and waning in and out of focus and of each other. But I quickly decided to bring further meaning by introducing a text, and for this I called on my wonderful friend and collaborator Ben Osborn (Ben and I wrote an opera together last year). I gave him free rein, and Ben’s response to the photograph came in the form of a beautiful tanka-like poem describing the interaction of light and the shadows it creates throughout the day. Tanka is a form of classical Japanese poetry made up of five units (or five lines when romanised), and translates into “short song”. I had fun playing around with Ben’s words, realising that they could be effectively interchanged – which felt all the more appropriate when he admitted that the process of writing had involved a lot of swapping around!

The music reflects my interpretation of both Thurstan’s photo and Ben’s poem. It is slow, dreamlike and mysterious, and also somewhat bittersweet: a sound world inspired by the picture’s stark contrast between the warmth of the lovers’ embrace and the industrial backdrop against which it is set, two worlds made strangely yet beautifully at one by Thurstan. There is no narrative as such; instead the piece strives to be -like the photograph- a fixed moment in time, which expands as the words become confused. The voice is at the centre of the piece in its two outer sections, with the other instruments providing it with a setting and colouring the text, occasionally imitating and interacting with it. It becomes more instrumental in the short, textural and fragmented middle section. Finally, the beautiful parallelism between the cranes in the photo inspired a lot of the harmony’s movement. I can’t wait to hear The Hermes Experiment bring this little piece to life.

tanka will be premièred at Crypt on the Green on Saturday 20th June.

Creative: LOVESCAPES 3 – Freya Waley-Cohen on her new piece ‘Oyster’

For me, the hands at the centre of this photograph instantly make it a very tactile image. They give a sense of the rough texture of the bricks they are superimposed on at the same time of as the tenderness and urgency of the way they grasp their lover. The way that the photo seemed to bring a very intimate moment to a public space –  an East London street – inspired the subject and nature of Oyster. I turned to poet Octavia Bright, sharing both Thurstan’s Lovescape and my thoughts about it with her. Her sensuous poem Huit(re), which explores moments of sexual pleasure from a female perspective, was adapted especially to relate to this photograph. Oyster weaves together delicate melodic counterpoint and playful dance-like passages, as well as building textural fabric from within the unusual and fascinating instrumental ensemble to support Octavia’s words.

Oyster will be premièred at Crypt on the Green on Saturday 20th June.

Creative: James Brady on his new piece ‘A Joyful Noise’

It was both exciting and daunting to be asked to write for The Hermes Experiment – exciting, because, after a few years of writing almost exclusively in a jazz idiom, it was a chance to reconnect with the world of contemporary classical music, and daunting, because I had not written for a ‘classical’ group for some time. As a jazz performer, I was also excited to write for musicians who could improvise, but were not jazz musicians. From seeing them perform in November 2014, I had an idea of the Hermes Ensemble’s improvisational skills, and I knew from the off that I wanted improvisation to play an important structural role in my work for them.

The idea for the piece began with an exchange with the group on Twitter – I joked that I would write them a piece of purest, darkest misery and call it A Joyful Noise.  What started as a weak pun led to a real aim for the piece – to make something which was truly joyful, embracing elements of freedom and ‘roughness’ valued in jazz and in folk music. As a teenager, I had intended to become a ‘new music’ composer, but had found myself feeling constrained by the language of the music I encountered into writing pieces that sounded miserable and negative. The more time I spent listening to and playing jazz, and later Latin American, Middle Eastern and African music, the more my compositional language opened up and I felt more able to express positivity in my music, without feeling like I was rehashing or imitating old styles.

In A Joyful Noise, I have set out a sequence of musical events, but for certain sections left the timings of these and the detail for the musicians to improvise. Other parts are set and give the piece landmarks from which to hang the freer stretches. As a composer I enjoy the process of collaborating with performers, so rather than setting everything out for them in advance, we had a workshop in December 2014, to which I brought the kernels of the final piece’s three sections. This gave me the opportunity to test how well my ideas translated onto the group, but also to see how well the musicians could balance the individual freedoms of their parts with the need to listen carefully to the others in order to synchronise events. Fortunately, they were well up to the task, and I knew I could give them a finished piece which still left them a lot of freedom.

My recommendation to the listener would be not to try and work out what is improvised and what is not, but rather to keep an eye out for the interaction of the musicians. This is, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of seeing a great jazz group (or for that matter any kind of music in which improvisation plays a key role), and my aim with A Joyful Noise is that The Hermes Experiment and I can bring some of this spontaneity back to contemporary music.