This work, commissioned by the City of London Festival with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, was sketched over the turn of 1979-80 and written March-April of 1980, for the London Sinfonietta, and with their virtuosity always in mind.
It is in six strophes, which play continuously. Each strophe is a kind of shelf carrying two or three musical objects, which all derive from the introductions of their respective strophes. Since these six introductions are variants of one harmonic progression, the form works by repetition and variation; but simultaneously there is a developing and cumulative form and a sense that all the strophes make one big shape. Some material intensifies throughout the piece, some diminishes; some is blown up then deflated. All this runs across the apparently rigid strophic structure.
The score is prefaced with a line from Milton’s Comus that has, with its context, haunted me for years:
th’earth cumber’d, and the wing’d air
dark’t with plumes.
Poetic evocation apart, these words have suggested much of the piece’s technical aspect, especially the way spaces, lengths, and shapes are saturated with dense sound, whether fleecy and feathery, or clogged and heavy. The contrast of cumbering and winged suggested the main interplay between lumbering mechanical ugliness and appassionato intensity (the Aria implied by the title). There is a sense of perpetual strain: each section leans on to the next wanting to cadence and being refused. At last resolution is reached (I hope this will be as obvious, within the harmonic norm of the piece, as a tonal cadence). Then the music splits asunder in a communal cadenza, and the piece is rounded off in a prestissimo coda that gives a drowning-man’s flashback of every past event.
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer