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Edward McGuire Caledonian Muse, The : A Symphonic Rhapsody (1995) 15'
21+122 2200 Tp Perc Str

All Contributors: Edward McGuire (composer)
Commissioned by: Glasgow Chamber Orchestra & Glasgow Caledonian University
First performed on: 8 Jun 1996
First performed by: Glasgow Chamber Orchestra / Peter Jones
First performed at: RSAMD, Glasgow

Programme Note:

The bust of Lord Kelvin loomed before us. The ingenious contraptions in glass cases fascinated us. Maxwell's equations intrigued us (and bamboozled me). The things composers get up to in preparing their scores!

Yes, there I was almost in a time-warp like continuation of my school science lessons of 33 years previously, being guided around the Hunterian Museum by Jim McCourt who had taught me physics in those distant, early 1960s schooldays! I had decided to return to fundamentals in preparation for composing the music of The Caledonian Muse. My strong feeling was that Glasgow Caledonian University, in sponsoring such a piece, deserved a portrait in praise of the scientific tradition that had eventually led to its founding. My thoughts needed refreshment on the 'Caledonian' aspect of that tradition. Who better to turn to than the original purveyor of such knowledge?

The choice of title was my next task. (I often try to get the non-musical skeleton of a piece in place before embarking on composing the music). I evolved the title Caledonian Muse as a starting point, for as well as being a tribute to a new seat of learning, the piece should celebrate the achievement of Scottish thought over the centuries. I felt that the clarity of thinking and flowering of ideas from 13th century Duns Scotus to the Enlightenment (well described by Alexander Broadie in The Tradition of Scottish Philosophy) were the precursors to the scientific and applied thought of the 19th century, when Scots were at the forefront of many innovative ideas on the world stage. Initially I aimed to have a characteristic movement each, for such as Kelvin, Watt, Dewar, Maxwell, etc. however, in the melting pot of composition, a single exploratory and celebratory movement resulted.

It was James Clerk Maxwell's work that prepared the way for Einstein's theories (violin-playing Einstein had his portrait on his wall), and symbolised later in the musical score are his four beautifully concise equations describing electro-dynamics (in their 'vector algebraic form).

The music culminates in the harmonious combining of four elements - violin strathspey, wind reel, bass jig, and waltz melody - symbolising the resolution of the quest for one theory that would explain the four forces of nature (electro, magnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear and gravity).

The romance of waltz rhythms (very popular in the 19th century) I felt to be an apt backdrop to a portrait of these thinkers. Thus, after the music is symbolically 'switched on', it is this flowing spirit that dominates. This mood was also inspired by reading The Dancing Wu Li Masters, a 'popular' overview of the new physics by Gary Zukav. Indeed, romantically expressive and danceable music forms the thrust of the score. I feel able to enter in to the spirit of this style wholeheartedly now, in contrast to recent decades when the shadow of the more fractured and discordant music loomed in the realm of 'new music'. The influence and freshness of minimalist music and my profound experiences of the power of rhythm while composing the music of Peter Pan for Scottish Ballet are two of the things that have convinced me of this way forward for my music. In addition two decades of playing with The Whistlebinkies has fixed a permanent flavour of Scots folk music into what I write.

Earlier efforts of mine to symbolise reality in musical terms include Orbit for two dancing trumpeters (a comet pirouetting towards a planet!). Celtic Knotwork for four clarinets or sopranos (graphics), Symphonies of Trains and A Glasgow Symphony. Most of my other works are portrayals of narrative, deep emotions, remembrances, etc. And I have gained great enjoyment and insight from collaboration with playwright Marianne Carey in the magical realism of such operas as The Loving of Etain and Cake-Talk. It may go unnoticed, but perhaps I am starting to make a stand against the metaphysical, religious or superstitious content of much recent new music. Although Duns Scotus is a good starting point, we have moved on somewhat since then, having been through materialist thought en route!

As for The Caledonian Muse, it should prove enjoyable as a purely musical experience but I hope that, through reading about the background to its creation, the experience will be enhanced. And in clarifying my ideas on the piece, I am indebted to my old teacher Jim McCourt for his help. Perhaps I should have consulted my english teacher of those days, Dr John Durkan on 'how to write an article for a magazine'!

Edward McGuire