Gaia (2001-2002)

24 solo voices and large ensemble – 65’

Commissioned by the BBC, 1 st performance 22 March 2003, BBC Maida Vale, London. BBC Singers, Endymion Ensemble, Stephen Cleobury, conductor

1. Towards Big Bang
2. The Formation of Gaia
3. Voices from the Sea
4. The Voices of Insects
5. The Voices of Birds
6. The Voices of Mammals
7. The Voices of Homo
8. The Voices of Gaia

Gaia is the ancient name for ‘Mother Earth’. Like a great deal of my music, this work has grown from a continuing and life-long study of the living world. To ‘study’ in my case, entails a great deal of fieldwork, drawings and transcriptions of natural sound into musical notation. I always draw and paint the first-stage studies for a work like this.

The living world is a ‘noisy’ one. We now know that the first sounding creatures on earth were animals that lived in the sea. Once reptiles and insects colonised the land, however, the air and land were also full of extraordinary sounds. Later, in the evolutionary scale of things, birds and mammals added their voices to the whole-world ‘orchestra’, culminating in the vocalisations of our own species, Homo sapiens.

It is necessary to have a gaseous atmosphere in order to be able to hear sound. Our universe evidently began with the gradual collection in one place of previously highly dispersed fragments of ‘matter’. Eventually, this matter became so concentrated and so dense that an enormous explosion of that compressed matter took place, and this is what we now call Big Bang.

This work is a ‘procession’ of 8 movements that have been directly inspired by a natural history of sound, from Big Bang (some 15 billion years ago), to the present day and time. The titles of the 8 movements speak (sound) for themselves, however. The sound world for this music is the sounding-world itself. Each new movement, however, is a progressive absorption of material from the preceding ones. Even an insect is capable of making sounds like a fish, and many species of mammals create sounds that are related to those made by reptiles and birds. Thus Gaia is a kind of acoustic ‘chain-reaction’.

This is the first major work that I have composed for the BBC Singers since my role as Composer in Association began with them in late 2002. Like an earlier lengthy work (Gesangbuch) for 24 voices and instruments, this really is a Concerto for Voices with instrumental accompaniment. It is of course a highly complex piece and demands prodigious skills from voices and instruments alike. But underneath (or within) that complexity, there is a simple ‘message’. The earth is one homogenous and interconnected phenomenon. All of its voices are related to form a great ‘orchestral’ listening palette for our sense of hearing. I hope that each movement is capable of evoking an inter-sensual response in the listener. We all have deep memories of sounds from nature. It’s my fervent hope that this work can act as a primer and stimulant for these natural memories.

You will notice that each movement features different combinations of voices and instruments. Sometimes I use all 24 male and female voices, and sometimes only male or female ‘choirs’ with the orchestral instruments. The 7 th movement, of course, is for voices alone! Gaia is dedicated jointly to the magnificent BBC Singers, James Lovelock, whose beautiful Gaia Theory (the whole earth being one single interactive organism) has moved and inspired me to make this piece, and the brilliant revolutionary biologist (and close friend), Rupert Sheldrake, whose theories of ‘morphic resonance’ suggested a great deal to me in the formal layout of this work.

Edward Cowie, 2003.