Composer/Project Lead: Kevin Malone
Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Robert Guy
Soloist: Andy Long (violin)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
A Day in the Life is described as a “project” rather than just a concert or a composition and, with Kevin Malone’s spoken introductions having hints as to the best way to listen to the pieces, the whole operation has a whiff of the research library and the lecture theatre as well as the concert hall.
Malone, originally from Buffalo, New York, now Reader of Composition at the University of Manchester, is a composer with an impressive track record in community music-making and in music for specific events and occasions. Both of these are strongly in evidence in A Day in the Life. Described as “an orchestral tribute for textile workers and Peterloo”, it consists of three new pieces, all dealing with different aspects of the lives of textile workers, two of them with strong links to the spoken or written word.
The central piece, A Day in the Life, lasts precisely and pertinently 24 minutes: it follows a day in the life of Robert Blincowe, employed as a child in early 19th century mills, with one minute representing an hour. It begins with sleep and dreams at 3.00 am and ends at the same point 24 hours later, having gone through the physical and aural torment of the spinning machines, broken up by occasional songs of consolation.
Malone is eager to integrate reality into his work, with the sound of the machines and also the visual impact of the violin bows imitating the machines, even moving without touching the strings to emphasise the deafness of many workers – not, in truth, a particularly telling effect. The precise splitting of the day into timed fragments – with, in one case, as little as 15 minutes represented by 15 seconds – seems rather fussy, but overall A Day in the Life emerges as a piece of powerful contrasts, from the mechanistic rhythms of the machines to folk-song melody to the spiky tension of Robert’s reactions.
The Orchestra of Opera North under Robert Guy, with Andy Long a supple violin soloist, brings out the edgy harshness of the sound-world of the mill. A mighty hymn tune, Halifax, intoned against a swirl of contrasting motifs, has a fine, rather Britten-ish effect and at the end there is lyricism among the harshness as the boy sleeps and dreams.
On either side of the main work two contrasted pieces make up a programme of something over an hour. My Mill Life is pre-recorded, interviews with mill-workers past and present chopped and patterned into a rhythmic whole, with Long’s violin echoing the spoken word or stressing the implied emotions – neatly done and not all intense or solemn by any means.
Finally A Peterloo Parade is a jaunty and rather strident orchestral piece – representing the morning of the peaceful protest, not the later massacre – using chants and popular song somewhat in the manner of Charles Ives. Rule Britannia constantly reappears in various forms as the Orchestra gives full value to the boisterous energy of Malone’s 10-minute celebration of, as he puts it, “the workers’ intended non-violent and jovial gathering”.
Touring venues in West Yorkshire | Image: Justin Slee