Words into Music

2021 was the Centenary of the birth of the Orcadian writer and poet George Mackay Brown. His work had a profound influence on the composer Peter Maxwell Davies who first visited Orkney in 1970.

During that time Maxwell Davies read An Orkney Tapestry, published just the previous year. He later wrote, ‘I thought it was the most wonderfully poetic evocation of a place I’d ever come across.’ On a day out in Hoy, he met the writer – and also saw Bunertoon, a decaying croft house above the bay at Rackwick.

‘That was one of those starred days when your whole life changes; within just a few hours I came to know George and his work, and I now live in that ruined house and I’ve set lots of his work to music. That meeting changed my whole existence.’ – PMD (From ‘How we met: George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies’. Ros Drinkwater in The Independent, 9 July 1994).

Over the next 45 years, Max wrote tone poems, wordless compositions in response to particular works by George Mackay Brown; he also set the words of individual poems and groups of poems to music; and he created libretti from words – or words he adapted – from a number of GMB’s works. When the writer died on 13 April 1996, Max was at Bunertoon, finishing his sixth symphony. He dedicated it to the writer whose work had been such a wellspring for his own thought and for his music, and it had its premiere at the St Magnus Festival later that year.

Words into Music: Continuity and Change

Words into Music was a project based on the idea of how words can inspire, influence and inform the creation of new work, and developed into an exciting collaboration between the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and Orkney Camerata for the Centenary of the writer’s birth.

In the first part of the project the GMB Fellowship invited submissions of new writing inspired by George Mackay Brown and reflecting on the themes of change and continuity that pervade his work.

You can read all 51 contributions here: Words into Music: Working with Words

Orkney Camerata then invited composers of secondary school age and above to create a short piece of music inspired by one of these new pieces of writing.

Eighteen composers selected a text and submitted a composition to the project. Contributions came from new and experienced composers; from people in their teens to people no longer in full time employment; from composers throughout the UK from Orkney to London, and in the US. The pieces were all very different in style and character and the standard was high. Camerata selected eleven works for strings or for small ensemble with soprano or tenor to premiere in 2021-22.

The pieces were performed at three concerts held in December 2021 and in March and May 2022. Live recordings were made at the two spring concerts. All the performances took place in St Magnus Cathedral, where so many of Peter Maxwell Davies’ works inspired or influenced by George Mackay Brown’s writing had their premieres or were subsequently performed.

You can listen to the performances and read the programme notes, composer biographies and writer biographies below.

New Music for the GMB Centenary

Opportunities for composers

Composers of the works selected for performance were offered a variety of opportunities:

All composers interested in writing for voice (whether or not they decided to do this in the piece they submitted) were invited to attend an online workshop with tenor Paul Rendall.

An invitation was extended to attend an online mentoring session with a professional composer. The session might include, according to composers’ needs and interests, discussion of instrumentation, vocal and/or instrumental techniques, the use of Sibelius software for notation, preparing and printing the score and parts for performance.

Composers were also invited to attend a Camerata rehearsal or play-through of their piece.

The selected pieces were recorded and composers invited to request feedback on the recording and discuss suggestions for development opportunities as required.

The pieces selected were all performed as part of Orkney Camerata concerts held in December 2021, March and May 2022.

Copyright and permissions

By submitting a score a composer granted Orkney Camerata the right to give the first performance.

If Orkney Camerata does not perform the work within one year of the submission deadline, the composer has the right to make alternative arrangements for performance.

After the first performance, copyright remains with the composer.

Orkney Camerata

Founded in 1995, Orkney Camerata is established as Orkney’s own small chamber orchestra. Let by violinist Elizabeth Sullivan, the ensemble is made up of instrumental teachers and other experienced musicians based in Orkney. Camerata aims to bring high quality performances to the local community and has performed in venues throughout the islands. The ensemble has given regular concerts in St Magnus Cathedral and its performances at the St Magnus International Festival have been well received.

Camerata performs a wide range of repertoire from the 18th century to the present day and has premiered several new works. Orkney Camerata’s Facebook page includes details of some of the ensemble’s most recent repertoire.

Featured image: Orkney Camerata in rehearsal in St Magnus Cathedral, 2017

Where next . . .?

Listen to the compositions selected for performance here: New Music for the GMB Centenary

Read the work submitted to the project at Words into Music: Working with Words

Read about other events and projects for the George Mackay Brown Centenary

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