Tansy Davies characterises the role of the solo saxophone in her 2004 work Iris as that of “a shaman, or ‘one who walks between worlds’,” and in doing so she also describes herself – a musician whose boundary crossing curiosity makes her one of the most distinctive voices in British music today.
Born in Bristol in May 1973, her studies in composition began with Alan Bullard at Colchester Institute, where she was later awarded an honorary doctorate. In 1996 she was a BBC Young Composer, and subsequently studied with Simon Bainbridge at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and with Simon Holt at Royal Holloway.
Early support from the Composers Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta led in 2002 to The Void in this Colour, a Spitalfields Festival commission for the Brunel Ensemble, vividly reviewed by Tim Ashley in The Guardian as “a prismatic soundscape at once alluring and alienating.” The work’s qualities of sensuousness and brittleness feature in much of what Davies has written since. The visceral impact of her music can be perhaps be partly attributed to her own immediate, physical sense of making sounds; from her background as a horn player, electric guitarist and vocalist.
Her work is often inspired by an acute visual/spatial sense. Components of Zaha Hadid’s buildings find exact parallels in the structuring of Spiral House (2004) – a trumpet concerto for Mark O’Keeffe and the BBC Scottish – while the work of Anselm Kiefer gave inspiration and a title for Falling Angel, a work written for Thomas Adès and BCMG and first performed successively in Birmingham and in Paris, at Présences in 2007.
Alongside works for sinfonietta and orchestral music of such brazen confidence as Tilting (2005) for the LSO, Davies has composed a series of equally vivid chamber works, some of which involve electronics. The almost literal tang of the textures and the title of salt box (2005) and the suggestiveness of grind show (2007) can both be heard on her much admired first album, Troubairitz (Nonclassical) which was released in 2011.
Davies has been commissioned by numerous world class ensembles and orchestras, including the London Sinfonietta, the CBSO Youth Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, BIT 20, BCMG, and a large-scale piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Wild Card, for the Proms in 2010.
International groups including the Cantus Ensemble, Grup Instrumental de Valencia, the Tiroler Ensemble für Neue Musik, Musiques Nouvelles, Melos Ethos Ensemble, Orchestra of Filharmonia Baltycka, Israel Contemporary Players, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfonica de Chile, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and Tokyo Ensemble Factory, have performed her work.
In 2009 she received a Paul Hamlyn Award. In 2010 the critically acclaimed As with Voices and with Tears, a requiem for choir, string orchestra and electronics, was performed to commemorate Remembrance Sunday in Portsmouth Cathedral, with the London Mozart Players. This work was nominated for the South Bank Show / Sky Arts Award 2011. Also in 2011, Davies collaborated with Norwegian choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard on Omega and the Deer, a dance project which toured to Oslo, Berlin, Potsdam, Hamburg and New York. Later that year her carol, Christmas Eve, was performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Cambridge and broadcast around the world.
2012 saw the premiere of two new works – a piano concerto, Nature, for Huw Watkins and the BCMG, conducted by Oliver Knussen, and a wind nonet for the City of London Festival – as well as the release of her second commercial CD, spine, on the NMC label. The disc, which features many of her ensemble and chamber works, has been widely praised for its ’emotional depth & unrestrained exuberance’, as well as its ’sensibility’ and ’inventiveness.’
In 2013 The Beginning of the World was premiered by the English Chamber Orchestra at the Proms, and Song of Pure Nothingness, for Elisabeth Holmertz and Kenneth Karlsson was premiered at the Ultima Festival in Oslo. Spiral House featured at the 2014 Warsaw Autumn Festival, with trumpeter Marco Blauw and the Warsaw Philharmonic, whilst in October of the same year the Asko Schönberg Ensemble brought neon to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Davies’ first opera, Between Worlds, was premiered by English National Opera in April 2015 whilst Re-greening, a work for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, premiered at the 2015 Proms. Current projects include a work for four horns and orchestra for the New York Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra and the Warsaw Autumn Festival.
Commissioned by the ENO and the Barbican, London, Between Worlds received its UK premiere on 11 April 2015. Performed by English National Opera conducted by Gerry Cornelius at Barbican Centre, London.
The opera involves five key characters. The JANITOR (baritone) should have left before dawn, his cleaning job done; but today he stays on for the extra pay. So he’s there when four further characters arrive early to view an unoccupied office high in the North Tower, the shining city all before them: an OLDER WOMAN (mezzo), the realtor; an OLDER MAN (bass/baritone) who runs the company; and a YOUNGER WOMAN (soprano) and YOUNGER MAN (tenor) who work for him. Once the plane has hit, these characters quickly realise they’re trapped; their desperate need is to speak to their loved ones, one last time; the OLDER WOMAN wants to speak to her CHILD, the YOUNGER WOMAN to her LOVER, the YOUNGER MAN to his MOTHER, and the OLDER MAN to both his mistress and his wife. In these last words, they try to express their most profound feelings - their fear, their courage, their loss, and above all their profound sense of love.
To view the ENO trailer CLICK HERE