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Sonatina Scordatura

for cello

Sonatina Scordatura began life as a single 3-minute movement (now the second movement, Sicilienne) written especially for Guy Johnston, during my 2016 residency with BBC Radio 3 and generously commissioned by Richard Sheldon as a gift to his wife Helen. The Sicilienne took inspiration from the beautiful solo cello work Papillons by Kaija Saariaho and her vivid exploration of the resonance of the cello through natural harmonics and effects such as playing close to the bridge, while also perhaps harking back to Bach's Cello Suites (which of course also make great use of the instrument’s natural resonance), in her use of certain string crossing effects combined with an enegertic pulse in certain movements. To respond to this, I wanted to explore similarly resonant effects, but within a more personalised sound-world, so I took the rather unusual step of retuning the strings of the instrument. Instead of its standard configuration with the strings in perfect fifths (on C,G, D and A), I’ve used a scordatura tuning of B, G-sharp, C-sharp and A, thereby effectively retuning the cello to one of my favourite chords.  Having created my own ‘customised’ resonance I then use the resulting harmonies to provide a backdrop for a series of long melodic lines, which draw on the characteristic melancholic rhythms of the traditional Sicilienne.

Extending the work into a longer Sonatina some years later while stuck at home on parental leave during the pandemic, I was keen to explore the possibilities of this unusual tuning even further, adding a hazy, reflective movement entitled 'Bach Daydream' and the rhythmically animated Prelude and Postlude that bookend the piece. In their own way, each of the new movement responds to aspects of cello writing in J.S. Bach's solo suites, which I listened to repeatedly as a child, especially in the famous recording by Paul Tortelier whose urgent expressivity and sense of shape seems to be permanently etched in my mind.

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