Helix (piano trio)

for Piano Trio


Helix a paino trio commissioned by the New Zealand Trio (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins) with funding from the University of Auckland, was inspired by an eclectic range of musical interests and takes the listener on a millennia-leaping journey from the ancient Mediterranean to a hazy Indonesian sunset via a frenzied 18th-century Italian dance and dub-step beats from present-day South East London. I went to quite a far place in terms of rhythm with Helix, but not necessarily in terms of time signatures and cross rhythms. Prior to writing Helix, I had been transcribing a lot of folk music from countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Egypt because I really wanted to understand what it is that makes the soloist’s lines so amazing – what is the magic there? One of the things I figured out through transcription is that these expressive melodies that have sensuality and human earthiness about them tend to accelerate going into the centre of a phrase and slow down when coming out of it. I have applied this playing style in Helix

Programme Notes

archon: metron…”archon” means leader, “metron” is meter or beat. I went through a phase where I was doing research on ancient Greek music and behind these words was the idea that rhythm was primary, and in classical Greece, the physical movement, the syllable of the poem that you were saying and the nod and rhythm you made, they were one event. They were absolutely one thing. Classical Greek art was very sophisticated art. What they were doing was so incredible, and while it’s all dissolved through history now, there are these tiny pearls of remnants that are there. For instance you might get a dance that’s in 5/8 today, that comes from a very particular kind of meter that was in ancient Greece. It’s not used in context anymore, but employed as an almost forgotten memory of something two thousand years old. I love that the modern dances were from there. Also, as a composer we are always trying to look at things in a different way. Like what is 5/8? It’s a two plus three or a three plus two, but it’s always two of the same and three of the same.  Five quavers. And I thought, “Well you know the binary part of the beat, what if you split it into a triplet, what would that feel like?” and so I just started playing with that and found myself loving and getting very excited by the elasticity of the possibilities.

The middle movement, the biggest nothing of them all – that is a quote from Apocalypse Now; the French are leaving and the Americans have arrived in Vietnam, and so the French are saying “we fight over nothing, and here it is the biggest nothing of them all” So of course it’s a kind of elegy. You know, anytime I try to plan, that this is actually what I’m going to do before I start, it never works because I seem to be trying to push a square into a circle. The first idea is one of those places where it’s impossible to understand let alone talk about. This second movement started out with just playing that first arpeggio on the piano. I knew straight away that there was something in there, there was a huge amount of undiscovered material that was going to grow from that. And there was a way of writing melody over the top of that. The movement became such a powerful expression, statement.

The third movement is a tarantismo, what I loved about reading about the whole idea of the tarantella is the fact that you get bitten by a spider and you dance the venom out…but more than that it’s the idea that it’s possibly a way of getting around the ban on dancing that there was at the time. It was forbidden to dance in Italy, there was some kind of limitation, and so people would say “oh I’ve been bitten by a spider!’ and they’d do their thing. I really loved that. And so the tarantella is of course the idea of beats being divided into three, and I tried applying that way to the tonality as well, so the harmonies are always modulating by thirds. So it’ll start in B-flat, and then what it will do is minor modulate, by minor thirds, and then when it gets back around there’ll be a big modulation to D-flat. And then it’ll do a whole other cycle, and do a really big modulation to E which is when it goes into 4/4. So it has this kind of very propulsive thing, it’s logical and it’s inevitable, but it’s not predictable.

Key Details:

Commissioner: New Zealand Trio with funding from the University of Auckland

Instrumentation: Piano, Violin & Cello

Premiered by the New Zealand Trio on April 15, 2007 in Waikanae, New Zealand,

Piano, Violin, Cello


Listen Now

Listen Now


No items found.

Purchase this piece

No items found.