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In Performance: Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum by Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Birtwistle wrote Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum for London Sinfonietta in 1977 and it was first performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1978 conducted by Sir Harrison Birtiwistle himself.

In this piece, Birtwistle sets out to construct a piece of music made from very clearly defined material: high, medium or low registers, loud or quiet dynamics and sustained or rhythmic figures. These elements are constantly shuffled around independently of one another so, in the words of the composer, the music is “redefining itself constantly”. 

He describes the piece as being made from “six different machines or songs, musics”. And then goes on to say “how they repeat in relation to one another is what the piece is about.”  

Performance of Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1977) from our In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle concert on 24 May 2012. Filmed live at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre.

Recording of performance supported by London Sinfonietta Entrepreneur Robert McFarland.

Interview about Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum with Sir Harrison Birtwistle by Tom Service

In this interview Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Tom Service discuss his 1977 work Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum from its basis in cubism to its six rhythmic machines. The talk features musical examples performed by London Sinfonietta players.

This interview was recorded on 24 March 2012 as part of our In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle concert.  

Audio guide by Philip Cashian

To follow the timestamps referenced here please watch on Youtube and follow the links in the description.

Each of the six rhythmic machines can be heard in the opening couple of minutes: 

0:13 No.1 (first heard played loud then repeated quietly) 

0:40 No.2 

1:08 No.3 

1:23 No.4 

1:37 No.5 

1:56 No.6  

The music is very sectional as he will constantly and quite suddenly pause on a single sustained note in an instrument or group of instruments like at 1:21. Listen to how he very quickly here he goes from a high, quiet piccolo to a loud, low trombone at 1:25. 

Between 1:33 and 1:37 there’s another sudden pause. 

The piece is full of brief juxtapositions like at 1:42 and 1:51 where the horn, trumpet and trombone are very briefly set against all the other instruments with a fleeting but frisky figure. 

2:35 and 3:26 listen for a brief, quiet chorale-like tune in flute, oboe and upper strings that stops proceedings and from 3:12 listen to the sudden changes of dynamic in the ensemble. 

3:38 – 4:05 In this section he capriciously combines extremes of high and low register, loud and quiet dynamics and rhythmic and sustained figures. 

Regular pulses are rare but can be heard in very loud, low piano clusters at 4:10 and then, in contrast, in quiet mid-range violas and cellos at 4:24. 

4:35 – 4:41 listen for trills in woodwind and strings which return in the very end of the piece but in the brass. 

5:03 Listen for a sustain note in the trumpet being passed to solo oboe at 5:10 and then at 5:12 back to the trumpet for a solo line. 

In the section that starts at 5:25 listen to the subtle change in colour when he removes the bass instruments at 5:35 then brings them back in at 5:41. 

6:12 Listen to how a sustained note in the trombone’s upper register gradually descends by steps to a note at the bottom of it’s register, joined by the double bass at 6:26 and crescendos into the start of the next section. 

7:54 – 8:30 The longest sustain section jumping between high and low crescendoing chords, each activated by a stab on percussion. Followed by a brief brass fanfare that takes us to 8:47 and the final section of the piece, one big, multi-layered rhythmic pattern that finally ‘locks in’ at 9:19 for 7 repetitions of the same figure. 

9:37 – 9:44 The piece ends with a low rumbling chord like an engine left idling.

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Published: 27 Oct 2020