Michael Stephenson is not classically trained and is largely self-taught. Since joining New Music Brighton in 2001 he has had over 25 pieces premiered. In 2010 there were two performances of his “Six Minute Miniatures” by the excellent group Talkestra led by clarinettist Stephen Dummer. There was also an extremely moving 2-piano performance by Adam Swayne and Terence Allbright of his “Great War Songs” which had been premiered the year before by the Myriad Ensemble. In 2012 there have been 2 premieres: “5 Short Moments”, composed especially for the Regency Ensemble, and “Seven Shining Songs” for piano trio (Adam Swayne, Ellie Blackshaw and Peter Copley). His style has been changing to encompass a new clarity and simplicity of form.
Strange Meeting a short film by Mike Stephenson
Passing Bells: the title comes from the First World War poem by Wilfred Owen called ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the opening line of which is – “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ What I set out to portray in the music is not the horror of war but rather the happy memories of recent youth. In another of Owen’s poems ‘Strange Meeting’, there is the line: “I went hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world”. This seems to me to be a remembrance of youth so I imagine here a young mud-soaked and bleeding soldier sitting in a bleak trench dreaming of his recently-past youth that was so full of life, joy and hope.
Great War Songs: Having previously composed, and had performed, settings for three poems by the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, as well as the ensemble piece ‘Passing Bells’ (again, a reference from a Wilfred Owen poem) I began to think of all the traditional First World War or ‘Great War’ songs. Some of these were sung to hymn tunes – for instance, the poignant ‘When This Lousy War Is Over’ was sung to the tune of ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ while ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ provided the melody for ‘Forward Joe Soap’s Army’. Fourteen traditional war songs are featured here, interwoven with original music, sometimes buried under different music layers and sometimes ringing clear. The music tells its story in a timeline, starting off with recruitment, then farewells, then camaraderie and warfare, finally bitterness. At the very end however, a tender solo from the flute leads into an ensemble chorus of ‘When This Lousy War Is Over’, ending quietly and wistfully.
DreamTravellin’: this music was inspired by hearing an Indian ‘Raga’. The dreamlike, hypnotic quality of the music, set against a constant drone, stayed with me for days. I started to think about dreams, and the ability to travel in dreams, and that’s how this piece came about. It’s neither intended to be a pastiche of Indian music, nor indeed my own version of it. It’s simply how the raga that I heard influenced the music that I subsequently wrote.