Strange Meeting (1989)
For E flat clarinet, brass, piano, bass and percussion, and pre-recorded tape
Choreography: Michael Pink
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Sound: Phil Clifford
First performed at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Brian Fieldhouse (piano: Ross Williams).
Michael Pink had long been wanting to choreograph a piece inspired by Wilfred Owen’s haunting war poem. He met up with Philip Feeney to discuss a new work based on the poem while the latter was the accompanist on the renowned International Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers at the University of Surrey. The choreography was to be for a male-only cast with two principals (Harith and Powney) as the English and German soldiers.
Musically Feeney elected to score Strange Meeting for a very particular smaller orchestra, using some instruments specifically for their military associations, ie. trumpet, E flat clarinet and of course drums. Alongside this unusual orchestra, there is a dark and powerful pre-recorded tape, conjuring up the terror of the trenches.
The first section after a violent soundscape opening is a set of variations on a hesitant vibraphone melody, which culminates in an enraged piano solo (played by Ross Williams). The entire middle section, the War Music, is a driving evocation of the horror of war. It is split into four parts, the second a brutal duet between fortissimo drums and a screeching E flat clarinet, the third a brass fanfare led by the horns, and the fourth a driving toccata representing night fighting. The work ends with a haunting threnody, which unfolds over a breathing pulse both on tape and on the very lowest octave of the piano.
The tape was made in a small room that constituted the sound department deep in the bowels of the Royal Opera House. It used sounds the composer had sourced from the Roland D550, and others that Clifford and the Opera House sound department were able to conjure up, using equipment that had allegedly been used for Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht in 1985. Through the long mesmeric pulsing that backs the threnody, it fell to Philip Clifford to create a spoken bar number track; simple counting is not something that is easily done.
Strange Meeting is also a significant work in Feeney’s catalogue as it is the first time that he teamed up with the brilliant and inventive designer, Lez Brotherston, and the equally brilliant and inventive lighting designer, Paul Pyant. This completed the creative team that went on to produce under, Christopher Gable’s direction, NBT’s flagship ballet, Dracula.