Mark Bowden is a British composer of chamber, orchestral and vocal music. His work has been described as ‘an exceptional and absorbing pleasure’ (Guardian), ‘conjuring up magic and mystery’ (Opera), ‘invigorating’ (Times) and ‘powerfully dramatic’ (BBC Radio 3).
Mark first came to public attention in 2006 when he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize for his first orchestral commission, Sudden Light (BBC Symphony Orchestra). Further orchestral commissions followed — The Dawn Halts (BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and Tirlun (Ulster Orchestra) — before being appointed Resident Composer with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, a post he held from 2011 to 2015. Mark’s four-year tenure with the orchestra resulted in a series of major new works, including a cello concerto, Lyra (for Oliver Coates), a dual function percussion concerto & ballet score, Heartland (for National Dance Company Wales) and A Violence of Gifts, a 40-minute cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra that premiered in 2015 to widespread critical acclaim with soloists Elizabeth Atherton and Roderick Williams conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
Mark’s growing catalogue of chamber music includes Five Memos for violin and piano (London Music Masters, for Hyeyoon Park & Huw Watkins), Parable for solo saxophone (London Sinfonietta), Lines Written a Few Miles Below for violin and electronics, (Rambert Dance Company, for Thomas Gould), Airs No Oceans Keep (Fidelio Trio), Black Yew, White Cloud (Arditti Quartet) as well as a number of other works for groups with whom he has developed close partnerships, including Chroma, Kokoro, Ostrava Banda, Phiharmonia Orchestra, Spitalfields Festival, London Handel Festival and many others.
Mark’s vocal music includes choral works — We Have Found a Better Land (BBC National Chorus of Wales) and Far to the Northward Lying (Making Music) — and works for solo voice, including: The Soul Candle, for baritone and piano (Jeremy Huw Williams), Innocents’ Song for baritone and chamber orchestra (Welsh Chamber Orchestra) and Four Haiku for mezzo-soprano and percussion (Catherine King & Julian Warburton). Mark has also created vocal works for the stage including The Mare’s Tale for narrator and ensemble (Arts Council of Wales) and a children’s opera, The Song of Rhiannon (W11 Opera).
Mark’s initial training and abiding interest in dance has resulted in much collaboration with choreographers. During his time as Rambert Dance Company’s Music Fellow, Mark created several new works, including Viriditas with Patricia Okenwa (premiered at the South Bank Centre), and a new realisation of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune for the Company’s main tour. More recently Mark collaborated with Eleesha Drennan on Channel Rose, an evening long work with an original score for saxophone and percussion commissioned by Sky Arts. Virtual Descent, a new work for National Dance Company Wales, toured the UK extensively in 2013/14. Mark has also created work for Richard Alston Dance Company, Ballet Black and the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Born in South Wales in 1979, Mark initially studied composition with Richard Steinitz and Julian Anderson at Huddersfield University and the Royal College of Music, where he won all of the major composition prizes. Supported by awards from the Countess of Munster Trust, the RVW Trust, the Arts Council of Wales and the Rivendell Trust he continued his studies at the Dartington International Summer School and on the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, at Aldeburgh. He has enjoyed residencies and fellowships with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rambert Dance Company, Aldeburgh Music, Handel House Museum, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, the Visby International Centre for Composers in Sweden and the MacDowell Colony in the US. His music is performed at festivals and events throughout the UK, Europe and the US and can be heard regularly on radio stations around the world. Mark is currently Reader in Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London and chair of the British section of the International Society for Contemporary Music. In 2015 he was awarded the Welsh Music Guild’s Glanville Jones Award.
I took Italo Calvino’s series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, as a starting point to create a five-movement work for violin and piano. My ambition, to create musical responses to the artistic virtues Calvino held up as being of particular importance for writers, and artists, of the future.
In ‘Lightness’ Calvino discusses the concept of balancing an inner rhythm against a frantic spectacle. He contemplates grace, light, veils of particles and the fine balance of the physical forces holding matter together. He contrasts these images with heaviness and savage, brutal horror. In the music, I have sought to find a driving rhythm in the piano, propelling itself ever forward as the violin floats above escaping the tonal force of gravity of the piano’s harmony as though it is a neutrino, wandering free since the beginning of time.
In ‘Quickness’ Calvino describes how seemingly disparate narrative events can be connected through repetition, rhyme and rhythm. He talks of continuity of form, discoursing and the idea of festina lente, or ‘hurrying slowly’. In the music I created contrasting musical gestures for the violin held together by common intervallic materials whilst exploring different perceptions of motion and speed within the piano part.
Calvino contrasts the notion of ‘Exactitude’ against Vago – an Italian adjective meaning ‘attractive’ or ‘wandering’, as well as ‘vague’. He contemplates the idea of night, darkness, obscurity and depth, and talks of the simultaneous evocation of fear and pleasure that true infinity induces in those who contemplate it. In the music, a simple cycle of chords is treated to what could become an infinite process of repetition and change. The violin’s melody, always smooth and simple, undergoes an exact and meticulous unfolding of pitches against a more wandering, or vague, harmonic exploration in the piano music.
In ‘Visibility’ Calvino discusses how a writer can conjure images in the mind of the reader, bringing into focus that which is unfocussed or unseen. He also grapples with the swarming multitudes of possibilities available to the novelist when creating a literary work. In the music, a kaleidoscopic tumult of fantastical material unfolds, each gesture containing the possibility to develop into a work in its own right. But, instead, new material keeps emerging until a cascade of arpeggios in the piano brings us back to somewhere near where we began before finishing with an inconclusive, uncertain coda.
The final chapter of Calvino’s book addresses “Multiplicity’. He considers how even the smallest starting point can spread to encompass ever-vaster horizons. He explores the possibilities implicit in unfinished literary fragments, comparing them to ancient ruins. He points to the networks of relationships in the works of T.S. Eliot and the ‘systems within systems’ buried in the writings of James Joyce. Finally, he reconnects to his first topic – lightness – creating interconnected pathways across his own set of essays. In the music, a tiny generative motif taken from the first movement is the source of all the material of an intricate toccata, interrupted briefly by a slower and more lyrical section, that bustles and ripples along creating networks of relationships between the piano and violin. – Mark Bowden
Commissioned by London Music Masters Five Memos was premiered on 10 May 2015, performed by Hyeyoon Park (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano) at Newbury Spring Festival.