Memorial Cairns
Memorial Cairns for string orchestra was commissioned by the Ulster Orchestra Society in 1992, and was premiered by the strings of the Ulster Orchestra in the Guildhall, Derry. From the beginning it existed not only for symphonic strings but in a version for a reduced-string ensemble, in which form it has been performed by various groups and recorded on the CD ‘Sound Carvings’ by the Scottish Ensemble.

The piece has a two-part shape that came to concern me much in the 1990s: a fast, fragmented first part gives way to a slow, static second phase. The balancing of these dynamic and static bodies of music was informed by Mondrian’s observation that a smaller coloured surface and a larger grey one can, though not symmetrical, be in equilibrium; it is hoped that each of the two diverse elements constitutes both a question and an answer in its relation to the other. The first part here, the fast music, makes use of an endless pitch series, a single line that is deployed across orchestral registers so as to release not only melodic material but formations of harmony; the ensuing slow music is a set of chorale variations on a similarly linear (but two-part) idea, a ground which is looped to recur – and so a forerunner perhaps of my more recent Escalator Series.

The memorial cairns, as I call them, stand in an unfrequented spot on an old burial route in the hills of the Western Isles; each was erected, from surrounding stones on the hillside, to mark the passing of the deceased being born over the island in processions of that time.

c Piers Hellawell 2011