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Glen Downie on Cepheid III

Glen Downie's new percussion work Cepheid III, for vibraphone, glockenspiel and crotales, will be premiered on August 14 2023 in Christchurch by UC's Associate Professor Justin DeHart.

We caught up with Glen to learn more about this new work and what inspires him when it comes to writing for percussion.

Tell us about the evolution of Cepheid III and what inspired you to compose it. 

Cepheid III is the third in a series of pieces, which deal with different shadings and luminosity, analogous to a cepheid variable star. The twinkly metallic instruments: vibraphone, glockenspiel and crotales, have a history of being associated with the stars and their ranges and timbres are different but similar. 

I had an idea to write a solo work, but one where the percussionist is a soloist within an ensemble of improvisers. So, the work will be performed in both versions.  

The ensemble version is for an open ensemble of 6 instruments who are responding and improvising in relation to the percussion, with different approaches to that. Detailed notated music and free improvised music have been interests of mine and I’ve been experimenting with ways of bringing them together. This is an exciting project which kind of places these two extremes together, something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to attempt in the past, but I’m really looking forward to it.  

Percussion has often been a feature in your works — what draws you to compose for percussion? 

That’s an interesting observation and I had to look back because it’s not something I consciously thought about, but it’s true that it does feature in a lot of works! I think there’s two reasons: the first being that I grew up listening and playing rock, jazz and improvised music, so often there’s that unpitched rhythmic influence, and percussionists are the best trained in playing complex rhythms. Secondly, a lot of my music is about exploring colour, and rather than percussion being an instrument, it is almost an orchestra in and of itself in the range of instruments it encompasses, and can provide a range of tones and articulations to ensemble writing, so even when a piece is not overtly rhythmic it can play an important role.  

Glen Downie: Cepheid III, movement III, box C, crotales, glockenspiel and vibraphone

This piece has been written especially for Christchurch-based percussionist Justin DeHart. Was the compositional process for this piece a collaborative one, and how has it been working with Justin? 

It was great, Justin’s a real advocate for new music and New Zealand percussion music. We were both keen to do something, so I started writing the piece and had a chance to visit earlier in the year where we went through some sketches and ideas, going through the physicality and trying out different mallets for sounds etc.  

Can you describe some of the musical parameters you have focused on in this piece and perhaps how they relate to your concept? 

Going back to the title and concept of luminosity, I was focusing on differences of timbre, but with similar sounds, so there’s some subtle shifts, both in register and instruments. The piece is for vibraphone, glockenspiel and crotales, so it all has that metallic shimmer, but they’re also quite different and unique sounds, and with the vibraphone you can explore different mallets, as well as the radical differences between the high and low ranges.  

Cepheid I & II are for sustaining instruments (organ and accordion respectively) and so luminosity is explored through sustaining tones, and harmonic space, e.g. the differences and shifts between close beating frequencies or open resonant ones, as well as different manuals with subtle timbral differences.  With the percussion having that attack and decay, I approached it slightly differently. There’s still sustain through the vibraphone pedal, but it decays, so the density of the voices (how many and how busy they are), became an important concern. In this regard there’s a really big influence of Rennaissance vocal music, and their dense contrapuntal webs, so a lot of the piece is quite lyrical as well as textural/timbral. This ties in nicely with the astronomical theme, with the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ playing an important part of the conception of that music as well.  

Glen Downie: Cepheid III, movement VII, bars 20-25, glockenspiel and vibraphone

What’s coming up for you next in the composing world? Will there be a Cepheid IV? 

I’m not sure yet if there will be a Cepheid IV, but I didn’t think there would be a Cepheid II and III! 

From October I’ll be starting my PhD in composition at the University of Cambridge, thanks to the Cambridge Trust. Obviously, with that in mind I have a whole array of big pieces and ideas to explore, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of it.