No man's land

for solo bass, SATB, perc (1), harp
14 mins.

Programme notes

No-man’s-land is scored for bass voice, SATB choir, bass clarinet, harp, percussion, harp, violin, cello and double bass. It was commissioned in 1990 by John Powell (with financial assistance from North West Arts) and was first performed in Manchester in the autumn of that year by the John Powell Singers conducted by John Powell. The text of the piece interweaves words extracted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (1872) and Breyten Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984).

South African poet Breyten Breytenbach (born in 1939) emigrated to Europe in the late 1960s and became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1975 he returned clandestinely to South Africa, was arrested for “terrorism”, and served seven years in prison – mostly in solitary confinement. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is an account of his period in prison.

“No-man’s-land” is Breytenbach’s term for the topsy-turvy world that was apartheid South Africa. My original plan was to set his words only; but the initial attempts came over as being too grim. The inspired lunacy of Jabberwocky acts as a foil for Breytenbach’s text; and the clarity of Breytenbach’s account of human cruelty brings out the sinister qualities in Lewis Carroll’s poem (which is often read in the genteel light of English eccentricity). My aim was to create an eery looking-glass landscape. Apartheid may be dead in South Africa; but man’s capacity for cruelty lives on, flourishing wherever power is unchecked by law. And the insane priorities of the looking-glass consumer world impose terrible pressures on the human spirit, creating No-man’s-lands in all our lives.

The last two pages of this score were written on one of the saddest days of my life: July 29th 1990. I was in a state of deep depression as a result of the lack of performances of my work, and decided there was no point in continuing to write music, since nobody wanted to hear it. After the official text of the piece (a reprise of the opening of The Jabberwocky) I added the phrase “The music is finished”, which is whispered by the entire choir, before a repeated bass drum stroke drowns everything out. It was shortly after this that I left Britain to settle for six years in Ghana.

Giles Swayne 2009