The Last Island – 31st March 2022

Thursday 31st March 2022

Ben Gaunt
All the Castles I Have Ever Loved
World premiere, Psappha commission

Derri Joseph Lewis
World premiere

Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Lisa Robertson
The Old Man of How
World premiere, Psappha commission

 Nina Danon
Orkney at War
World premiere, Psappha commission

Athanasia Kontou
Rackwick Bay
World premiere, Psappha commission

Electra Perivolaris
Marwick Head, Orkney
World premiere, Psappha commission

Peter Maxwell Davies
The Last Island

Benedict Holland & Zoë Beyers violins  |  Alex Mitchell & Alistair Vennart violas
Jennifer Langridge & Petr Prause cellos |  Tom McKinney guitar
Mark Heron conductor

Tonight’s concert will last around 75 minutes with no interval, ending around 8.15pm.

Please join us here for our next concert on Friday 12 May 2022 – for details and tickets, visit  

Tim Williams’ final Manchester concert as Psappha’s Artistic Director pays homage to Peter Maxwell Davies, whose music was the group’s original inspiration, and to the land Max called home. Max’s The Last Island is preceded by four new works inspired by Orkney, written for tonight and accompanied by new films shot by Tim Williams in Orkney. Also tonight: premieres from Ben Gaunt and Derri Joseph Lewis, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s haunting Sola.

Ben Gaunt  All the Castles I Have Ever Loved World premiere, Psappha commission

The title came first. I just really love castles. I have always loved castles, although the way in which I love castles has changed as I grew up. As a child, I loved visiting them and pretending I was an invading soldier, pestering my parents to buy me wooden swords from the gift shop. As an adult, I love visiting them and pretending I am interested in their history when secretly all I want to do is buy myself a wooden sword from the gift shop. I look forward to being an old man, in a castle, with a wooden sword.

The piece is for six musicians, and therefore I decided to visit six castles; I wrote most of the music in these castles. The castles were:

  1. Skipton Castle
  2. Harewood Castle
  3. Roundhay Castle
  4. Conisbrough Castle
  5. Sandal Castle
  6. Pontefract Castle

The piece is in six sections, each of which contains six events.

There is, at the end of the piece, a secret seventh section that is dedicated to the conductor (reflecting his status as a pseudo seventh member of the group).

I don’t really write music that aims to be too descriptive of anything specific. The six sections do not correspond to the six castles I visited in any tangible sense. I am just trying to give a sense of something castle-like, perhaps somewhat English sounding.

Thank you, Tim, and everybody at Psappha, for letting me write a piece about castles.

– Ben Gaunt

Ben Gaunt is a Yorkshire-based composer, pianist, and synth player. His music has been performed by Psappha, London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble 10/10, Rarescale, Ligeti Quartet and many other professional ensembles and soloists around the world. He has been nominated for two Ivor Novello awards, and is an Associate Professor at Leeds Conservatoire.

Derri Joseph Lewis …BREATHE… World premiere

Over the last six months I’ve been slowly ‘un-plugging’ from technology: with so much forced online in 2020/21, I was inspired to go analogue elsewhere as much as possible. I’ve been sending handwritten postcards rather than chatting online, listening to CDs instead of streaming, and taking photos on film so I can leave my smartphone at home. I also applied this to my creative practice, leaving my laptop lid shut so I could write with just pencils & paper. This physical connection to the music allowed me to sketch, annotate, and expand experimental ideas quickly and easily. Without instant computer playback, I enjoyed relying on other skills like improvisation and listening with my ‘inner-ear.’ The resulting piece is quite unlike anything I’ve written before, and I absolutely love the direction this project has taken me in. This process has made me much more mindful about how and why I write music. Having the freedom and support from Psappha and Tom McKinney to develop a piece slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully has allowed me to try something completely new, and I can’t wait to apply this process with future works.

–Derri Joseph Lewis

Derri Joseph Lewis is a prize-winning composer whose music has been widely celebrated across the UK, Europe and America. Derri has collaborated with a vast variety of world-class musicians and community groups alike, including the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston. Derri’s music often explores a vivid and playful approach to timbre and rhythm and incorporates themes of LGBTQ+ identity.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir  Sola

Sola is inspired by abstract structural elements of solitariness in midst of turmoil — by the desire of calm and focus in chaos. Focusing on intimate materials in a flowing progression that seethe under the surface of disruption, only occasionally observing elements from the surface. The viola and the electronics become one — different sides of the same being — and move together throughout the work. The viola is the constant and the electronics emerge in and out of focus and shadow the materials from the viola. The whole — the connecting materials — expand and contract throughout the process of the piece and are contrasted with fragmented nuanced sound materials that depict various sides of the existing being, showing the core materials through various perspectives.

As with my music generally, the inspiration behind Sola is not something I am trying to describe through the piece – to me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical. When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two — the details and the unity of the whole.

–Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “boundless textural imagination” (New York Times) and “striking” sound world has made her “one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music” (NPR). “Never less than fascinating” (Gramophone), her music is written as an ecosystem of sounds and is composed as much by sounds and nuances as by harmonies and lyrical material. Anna’s music is widely performed internationally and has been commissioned by many of the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles, and arts organizations – such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Carnegie Hall. Anna holds a PhD from the University of California, San Diego.

Lisa Robertson The Old Man of Hoy World premiere, Psappha commission

The Old Man of Hoy, at a striking 450 feet, is the tallest sea stack in the UK. It was created by the erosion of a cliff through hydraulic action and is thought to be less than 250 years old. And yet, it is eroding still, with strong winds and high-energy waves continually grinding down the stone. Constantly being beaten by the elements, the Old Man is crumbling, with a large crack running down from the top of the stack and soon it may completely collapse into the sea.

The music reflects the Old Man’s vast strength but also the tension and fragility of its situation and that, whilst now hanging in the balance, all may collapse at any moment. Fragments of a traditional song from Hoy emerge from the grinding sounds of erosion, amidst reflections of the frothy waves, the wild winds and passing seabirds.

–Lisa Roberston

Lisa Robertson is a composer from the West Highlands of Scotland, particularly interested in relationships between people and the environment. Recently featured in BBC Music Magazine’s ‘Rising Stars’ column, her music has been performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Red Note Ensemble, EXAUDI, Lucy Schaufer and Heather Roche, among others, and at festivals including Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Cheltenham Music Festival, Sound Festival, and on BBC Radio 3. She was three times shortlisted for the Scottish Awards for New Music. She took part in the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain’s Young Composers Scheme and is currently participating in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Composers’ Hub and completing a PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Nina Danon  Orkney at War World premiere, Psappha commission

The grainy textures of cement. The oscillating nature of the ocean waves. The angular shapes of the Churchill Barriers. The meandering contour of the coast and clouds. This composition for string sextet takes its inspiration from the natural and man-made structures of the Orkney Islands depicted in Tim Williams’s film Orkney at War, a stark scenery where the forces of nature share the stage with relics of World War II.

Playing on the tension between geological and historical time, this piece gradually awakens fragments of long-forgotten melodies, ancient and modern stories hidden in the dramatic landscapes of the Orkney Islands.

– Nina Danon

 Nina Danon is a Franco-Italian composer and sound artist based in London. Her work allows her to explore her identity as a neurodivergent and multi-cultural artist, and she has a particular interest in site-specific projects exploring the link between music and the natural world as well as projects investigating Neurodivergent and Disability Cultures.

Nina’s own sensitivity to cross-modal perceptions of sound and her love for interdisciplinary storytelling have led her to compose the music for large-scale immersive installations in collaboration with institutions such as the Schneiberg Museum, the Museum of Oriental Art of Turin and the Zeni Wine Museum, receiving international acclaim. She is about to start a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London, developing compositional strategies based on tactile perceptions of sounds.

Athanasia Kontou  Rackwick Bay World premiere, Psappha commission

What instantly affected me in the Rackwick bay film, was the wide range of different images within the landscape; the red-looking sand, the vast, foamy sea, the green hills, the angular, corroded rocks. I was inspired by all the contrasting colours and characters they add to the scenery, and their beautiful co-existence. I also imagined the presence of the wind, which is not visible but is, I assume, prominent when one experiences Rackwick Bay in person.

The sextet is depicting the natural elements which caught my eye in each shot. It is often split in two trios, to capture a pair of the elements.

My thanks to the performers, whose contribution during the writing process have been invaluable.

– Athanasia Kontou

Athanasia Kontou is a Manchester-based composer from Greece. She studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, where she completed the Masters course and the PGDip in Composition. Her music has been performed by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Psappha Ensemble, ensemble recherche, accordionist Miloš Milivojević and pianist Adam Swayne. She is the 2019 Christopher Brooks Composition Prize winner, awarded by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This season she has been working on ‘The Styx’, a film opera, supported by funding from Arts Council England. On 21st April, her monodrama based on Antigone by Sophocles will be premiered in Liverpool by Ensemble 10/10 under Clark Rundell, with Laura Bowler as the soloist.

Electra Perivolaris  Marwick Head, Orkney World premiere, Psappha commission

Having spent a lot of time in the Orkney Islands with my family as a child, I immediately connected with the sea scapes, weathered cliff faces and nesting birds which all feature in the film which accompanies my piece. Many of the Orcadian landscapes in the film are places where I first discovered a love of the natural world and ancient natural spaces containing layers of human stories stretching back over millennia. This connection with landscape, and especially with the ecology of my home on the Scottish Isle of Arran, now forms the basis for my music. The presence in the film of the Kitchener Memorial, a cliff top war memorial to the HMS Hampshire which sunk in the seas off the West coast of Orkney, acts as a reminder of the sheer force of this place which can be hostile to human life, transcending our own life spans and notions of time, but also awe inspiring, providing a home to thousands of sea birds.

My piece aims to capture the elegiac quality of these sea scapes, the current fragility of wild spaces like this and the creatures who inhabit them in an age of climate crisis, combined with the potency and intensity which defines the cliff top landscapes of Orkney.

– Electra Perivolaris

Electra Perivolaris is a composer and pianist from Scotland of mixed British and Greek heritage. Described as a ‘Classical Star of the Future’ by BBC Introducing, Electra’s music has been performed internationally by musicians from the Hebrides Ensemble, and the London Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony and Scottish Chamber orchestras. She was chosen to represent her generation of female composers in a new commission for BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Singers. Last year she was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to compose a new piece for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Electra graduated with Distinction from the Master of Music in Composition course at the Royal Academy of Music, London, with additional piano studies. She has won the Diploma of the Royal Academy of Music Award in Composition for an Outstanding Final Portfolio. In 2019 she graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Double Honours of the First Class in Composition and Piano, winning the Patron’s Fund Prize (Royal College of Music) for Composition and the ABRSM Macklin Bursary for Piano Performance.

Peter Maxwell Davies  The Last Island

The title refers to the further of two small islands off the coast of Sanday, Orkney, close to my house, which can be reached by foot at low tide. It is home to rare wild flowers and birds, and is reputed to be the resting place of hundreds of shipwrecked mariners who have perished on the rocks through the centuries.

This sextet attempts to invoke the island’s unique atmosphere – essentially peaceful and full of the wonder of ever-changing light of sea and sky, yet strangely threatened with menace, even on the brightest of days.

I have taken some of its most intriguing bird and sea sounds as starting points, and transformed these through a ninefold lunar magic square, which informs the whole structure. There is just one movement, characterised by extreme contrast of tempo and dynamic, with, towards the end, references to an unusual plainsong version of ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (Hail, Star of the Sea), which might have been sung by the small group of monks who lived here before the Reformation, whose ruined chapel still dominates the closer of the two islands.

– Peter Maxwell Davies

Peter Maxwell Davies began his creative life as a student in Manchester (1952-6), discovering, with his contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, new possibilities by way of Indian, medieval and European avantgarde music. Pieces he wrote in his early 20s already show characteristic features of instrumental extravagance verging towards violence, and slow, troubled contemplation, as well as a melding of medieval-Renaissance and modern-serial techniques with traditional symphonic continuity. He went to Darmstadt in 1956 and studied further with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome (1957-9).

A post at Cirencester Grammar School (1959-62) stimulated him to revitalize school music, and he continued to write often for young performers. He then went to Princeton (1962-4), and while there began his first dramatic piece, the full-length opera Taverner. Work on this led him into areas of intense experience (madness, blasphemy, self-betrayal) and prompted an outburst of wild parodies and theatre pieces, many of them devised for his own  ensemble of six players.

Following his move to Orkney in the early 1970s, his music became on the surface calmer. Music-theatre pieces were outnumbered by songs, setting the island poetry of George Mackay Brown and concerned with ancient stabilities of myth, ritual and pastoral. In 1977 he established the midsummer St Magnus Festival in Orkney.

At the same time he returned to large-scale instrumental composition, eventually to produce whole cycles of symphonies, ‘Strathclyde concertos’ for Classical orchestra and string quartets, besides other symphonic works and sonatas. All these grew out of his understanding that tonal forces of long range and deep ambiguity might be created by a modal gloss on major-minor harmony. There could even be a restitution of tonality echoing Sibelius or Prokofiev, yet characteristically undercut by doubt and disintegration.

He was knighted in 1987, and was Master of the Queen’s Music from 2004 to 2014.

Mark Heron is a Scottish conductor noted for dynamic and well-rehearsed performances across an unusually wide repertoire. Professor of Conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music, he works regularly with the College’s orchestras and ensembles, is the Music Director of the Nottingham Philharmonic, and guest conducts with professional orchestras and ensembles in the UK and internationally. Alongside his conducting engagements, Mark has an international reputation as a teacher. He heads up the RNCM’s world-renowned conducting programmes and is frequently invited to teach at masterclasses all over the world.