Elizabeth Ogonek – Sleep & Unremembrance (World Première)

Elizabeth Ogonek - Sleep & Unremembrance (World Première)

For today’s Advent Calendar work i’m returning to one of the composers who stood out most prominently among the premières at last year’s Proms festival. Elizabeth Ogonek‘s Cloudline wasn’t just one of my own favourites, you evidently felt exactly the same way, as the work almost came top of the 5:4 Proms Première polls. Ogonek composed her orchestral piece Sleep & Remembrance in 2016, basing it on the poem ‘While Sleeping’ by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska.

The work taps very convincingly into the implications of both words in its title. Sleep is strongly conveyed by the fact that the piece has such a dream-like character. By that i don’t simply mean it sounds ‘dreamy’ (though it does, at times) but more that it has a fragmented, jump-cut attitude redolent of the way our dreams propel us from situation to situation in a way that defies conventional notions of narrative. Ogonek’s narrative is similarly unpredictable, not exactly constituting a ‘chop and change’ approach to material but nonetheless moving rapidly between ideas. This in turn facilitates the possibility of ‘unremembrance’, showing little concern for allowing ideas time to unfold, instead revelling in the caprice and fluidity of its stream of consciousness modus operandi. Yet the fact the music embodies ‘unremembrance’ doesn’t imply that it’s unmemorable – far from it.

Though capricious, the work falls roughly into three sections, the first of which seems to correspond to the dream in Szymborska’s poem, littered with breathless activity and prosaic paraphernalia. Ogonek’s material begins spritely and highly energised, fluid but punchy, growling but playful. The shifts begin almost immediately, first opening out to examine an oscillating idea, then pushing on at pace again, whereupon, after a pause, the music abruptly becomes more placid, again concerned with oscillation. This friction persists, causing the piece to move along like a car with an accelerator subject to continual, random fluctuations of foot pressure. There are fanfares, a whirlwind of fleet, anonymous stuff flies past, sustained soft clusters materialise, reaching a high point before returning to an attitude of punchy fluidity.

A significant change occurs around the work’s midpoint, where the music loses its firm grounding and starts to float, a muted trumpet melody heard in the midst of pretty, hovering harmonies. The fact that this is something different from what we’ve just heard is clear not simply from the total change in behaviour but also its duration, Ogonek for the first time allowing an idea time to speak. Though from a superficial perspective one could argue this beautiful section sounds more ‘dreamy’ than before, i can’t help feeling this has more to do with the poem’s protagonist waking from sleep and woozily beginning to make sense of what they just experienced, primarily the telescoping the time. The music builds somewhat, and the brass inject some muscle, ultimately bringing about a massive swell.

The final section, if anything, appears to ramp up the superficial dreaminess (bearing one or two hallmarks of film music), though it gradually gains in clarity through a number of melodic phrases that are passed around and become focused upon. However, though arguably rooted most of all in post-dream reality, the music here seems wistful and reflective, perhaps suggesting a desire to break through the ‘unremembrance’ and recapture something of what was experienced, now lost, during sleep. The ending is soft and tender, all the time growing simpler, concluding in an atmosphere of half resolution.

The world première of Sleep & Remembrance took place in March 2016, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth.

Full score

Wisława Szymborska – While Sleeping

I dreamed I was looking for something, maybe hidden
somewhere or lost under the bed, under the stairs,
under an old address.

I dug through wardrobes, boxes and drawers
pointlessly packed with stuff and nonsense.

I pulled from my suitcases
the years and journeys I’d picked up.

I shook from my pockets
withered letters, litter, leaves not addressed to me.

I ran panting
through comforting, discomfiting
displaces, places.

I floundered through tunnels of snow
and unremembrance.

I got stuck in thorny thickets
and conjectures.

I swam through air
and the grass of childhood.

I hustled to finish up
before the outdated dusk fell,
the curtain, silence.

In the end I stopped knowing
what I’d been looking for so long.

I woke up.
Looked at my watch.
The dream took not quite two and a half minutes.

Such are the tricks to which time resorts ever since it
started stumbling
on sleeping heads.