Esther Swift / Brodick Quartet

Eastgate Theatre, Peebles

2 September 2018

I've never been to Peebles before. If I'm honest, two months ago I wouldn't really have been able to tell you where it was beyond "probably Scotland". It turns out that Peebles is a really nice place, and the journey here was spectacular, if a bit complicated, but honestly it's not a place I would normally have considered coming to for a concert.

But here are the current circumstances: Esther Swift has been commissioned to write a piece of music to be premiered tonight, and such is the reality of the market for contemporary classical music that the chances of a new piece getting another performance, let alone a recording, seem pretty slim. So this is probably my only chance to ever hear a new work by the most interesting classical composer working today.

So here I am.

And it has been absolutely, totally, so worth the trip.

First, the Eastgate Theatre is really nice, not large (I didn't do a headcount but I guess less than 200), but nicely laid out and with really friendly, helpful staff, nice acoustic, and obviously a good audience who are all there to listen to the music (I am getting very tired of rock audiences who talk all the way through gigs). And when I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and went to make sure the theatre was where I thought it was, I stumbled on a young folk ensemble playing outside the café. So, good trip already!

The programme started with the Brodick Quartet playing Tchaikovsky's first string quartet, which is always worth hearing. Next is a selection of Danish folk songs arranged for string quartet, which I've never heard before but instantly fell in love with. And the Brodick Quartet are superb, technically flawless obviously, but with such enjoyment and energy that they make the music dance along. They look far too young to be this good (or am I getting old?).

After the interval, the quartet are joined by Esther Swift on harp for her new piece, The Flood. It's a 35-minute piece in four movements, accompanied by a documentary film projected behind the musicians. Created by Tom Swift, the film is a mix of informative slides, news footage, and animations, along with spoken commentary and poetry. It's hard to say whether the film accompanies the music or vice versa; the truth is that they are both integral to the performance, and together they tell the story of the flooding of the River Tweed at Peebles three years ago. This must have had special significance for the local audience, and somebody asked (afterwards) if it would travel well to audiences outside Peebles; well, even for me, looking at these images of flooded streets where I had been walking an hour earlier, it was an affecting experience. And I think the overall message of the piece is universal.

Musically it's hard for me to describe the work, being unschooled in the technical terms. There are all the elements I've come to expect from Esther Swift's music—elements of minimalism, especially in the propulsive rhythms; tonality that sounds a little too modern to be easy listening, but with beautiful melody always there to rise up when required. One thing that struck me was how much darker than her other music this was. Her pieces for harp quartet are always happy and upbeat; this felt full of angst and anger and tension, and was altogether more disquieting—perhaps inevitable, given the subject matter. There's a section of the second movement where you're watching a chromatograph-type animation of houses being washed away, and the tension in the music gets so intense that I find, when I finally relax, that my nails have made holes in my palms.

The whole thing, music and images, is really quite remarkable, and I really hope they get the chance to have it performed again.

I think I might make it my new quest in life to see any new piece Esther Swift writes, no matter how hard it is to get to.

She really is phenomenal.