Wreathed In Clover

On Friday 23rd March 2018 my new work Wreathed in Clover will be performed by Oklahoma City University’s Percussion Ensemble who commissioned the work.  The piece is dedicated to the memory, spirit and courage of the 369th US Infantry Unit.

I began composing Wreathed in Clover during the Summer of 2017.  During recent years I have realised a number of works commemorating centennials of the First World War very much from a European perspective (Somme, Passchendaele…) however, given that this was to be an American commission, I turned my research to US involvement in the Great War and discovered the extraordinary story of the Harlem Hellfighters … along with the incredible legacy of the musician James Reese Europe (1881-1919) who led the marching band of the 369th and introduced his very individual style of proto jazz to Europe.

The centenary of the Harlem Hellfighters’ service in World War 1 is upon us.


Some of the men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action.” Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. 1998 print. Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs. (165-WW-127-8)


The all-black regiment was founded in Harlem in 1916; despite very serious issues of racism that they endured from the American military, they went on to become one of the most highly decorated infantry units in US military history and were amongst the longest serving American units in World War 1.

Given Over to French Command

On 8th April 1918 the 369th were handed over to French military command for the remainder of the war – it is worth remembering that white US soldiers in the First World War fought exclusively under US military command.  The 369th instead fought side-by-side with French soldiers with French weapons and uniforms.

The 369th earned their nickname the Hellfighters from their German enemies due to their fierce fighting reputation, they suffered significant casualties but never lost a prisoner nor did they surrender any ground – most of the 369th thought of Harlem as their home.

They served in many of the conflagrations in the broader campaigns that have come to be referred to as the Spring Offensive and the 100 Day Offensive, reputedly spending some 191 contiguous days in the trenches – longer than any other American unit.  Unit diaries also suggest that they were the first to cross the Rhine into Germany.


The men of the 369th were awarded 171 individual citations for bravery – recognised by French and US military.  Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts for their extraordinaryindividual bravery in May 1918 were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military – the first American servicemen to receive such senior military commendation.  The whole regiment was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre.  It took many decades for such high military honour to be afforded to the 369th by the US military.

James Reese Europe and The Marching Band of the Harlem Hellfighters


By the time that James Reese Europe signed up to serve the US military on their entry into World War 1 in 1917, he was already a very famous musician in New York City.  Reese’s music was deeply imbued with the then new sounds of jazz and ragtime, , however the complexity of his melodies, harmonies, arrangements – not to mention the lyric content – as well as his approach to sound more generally often went beyond the boundaries expected of such dance music formats.  For example listen to his piece On Patrol in No Man’s Land which successfully fuses ragtime, jazz soundworlds with that of sound/noise art.

All of No Man’s Land is Ours

For my work, I took the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic character of one of James Reese Europe’s most famous pieces All of No Man’s Land is Ours as my creative starting point through generative computer algorithms that I wrote in the OpusModus environment.

Through the soundscape of my work’s tripartite structure I attempted to paint generalised stages of the  ‘journey’ of the 369th:

  • their departure from the USA by sea, which by all accounts were rough in the winter of 1917-18, this can only have made the anxiety of whether or not they would they be sunk by German U-boats all the worse;
  • their arrival in Europe and the viciousness inhumanity of trench warfare;
  • to moments of reflection in the aftermath of war.

In tribute to James Reese Europe I attempted to sonically paint these sections either with apposite soundscape textures or musical ‘foundsounds’ – examples of the latter include fragments of the French national anthem and those of the British and German in the work’s second section.  It is worth remembering that at during the First World War, the melodies of the British and German national anthems were identical!!  The third section of my work has traces of the US national anthem, along with fragments of the Last Post.

The photograph at the top of this article is  probably one of the most famous images of the Harlem Hellfighters.  Wreathed in Clover is scored for 9 percussionists  directly inspired by the 9 men presented in this iconic image.

We will remember them.

Harlem’s Hellfighters by Stephen L. Harris and Rod Paschall, Potomac Books, 2005
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White Broadway Books, 2014
Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley, Creative Editions, 2014
Many articles and music scores from Library of Congress
Recordings of Lieut. James Reese Europe’s 369th US Infantry ‘Hell Fighters’ Band.
I would like to express my gratitude to colleagues at Oklahoma City University and Edge Hill University who have supported the realisation and performance of this work.

Composing Half Centuries 2: All You Need is Love … haunting … Unlucky for Some

A bit has passed for me since my previous post, but, 1967 was still an important year for Liverpool.

Today is Saturday 17th June 2017 and later this evening musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will perform two short settings of McGough’s heartbreaking poetic cycle ‘Unlucky for Some’ that I have composed for the wonderful voice of Aniko Toth.   This evening’s concert – which is a ‘sell out’ and the closing event of Edge Hill University’s ‘New Music’ festival Resonant Edge – is to celebrate the publication, 50 years ago, of ‘The Mersey Sound’ a fabulous collection of poems by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten.  I met Roger McGough for the first time yesterday at the Liverpool Philharmonic, for the first rehearsals.  He was charming and very supportive of my work, quite a relief.  The musicians were so supportive and welcoming as was the conductor Peter Davison, who stepped in at the last moment – a big thank you there.

After discussions with colleagues at the RLPO with respect to the overall shape of the concert programme I decided to set two of the 13 verses from McGough’s ‘Unlucky for Some’ – my desire now to set all of the poem’s verses is even stronger… I’ll keep you posted, so to speak.

McGough’s ‘Unlucky for Some’ – first published in 1980 – is one long poem in 13 verses that tell the tale of heart-rending emotional isolation, from within the walls of a women’s hostel.

My first compositional ‘problem’ was to make a choice as to which I would set.  They’re all so powerful.  In the end, I chose What do I do for a living and I try to take up little space.

Given that the deadline was always going to be tight, I set about rather frenziedly setting the rhythmic scanning of the text; its melodic contour and sketching in initial harmonic and orchestration details to underpin the dramatic imagery of the poem.  For the melody and harmony I consistently drew upon possibly my favourite Beatles song (if it is possible to have a favourite from such an extraordinarily rich output) All You Need Is Love, which coincidentally is also 50 years old this summer!

In order that I could refer to the song’s fabulous melody I designed a very simple generative Markovian algorithm within the environment of OpusModus:

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 07.01.11

The rhythmic motifs of that fabulous Beatles paean to hope were also forever in my mind while I drew up my compositional sketches.  So while my settings do not sound like All You Need Is Love, they are certainly haunted by that anthem from the ‘Summer of Love’ and which, given the pathos at the centre of McGough’s text, seems profoundly apposite.

For anyone that’s interested in such things, I’ve uploaded the scores of my settings: unlucky for some – what do I do for a living

unlucky for some – I try to take up little space

Hope to see some of you there either tonight at The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University or at the Philharmonic in Liverpool on 27th, 28th June or 16th July.  I am honoured to be taking part in such a series of events.


Composing Half Centuries 1: a McGough Setting; Christ the King and All You Need is Love

1967 was an important year for Liverpool.

I have the very exciting prospect of composing a piece for musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert at Edge Hill University as part of the new Resonant Edge festival on Saturday 17th June 2017.  So I thought I’d keep a blog about the piece’s journey.

The concert event is to celebrate the publication – 50 years ago – of ‘The Mersey Sound’ a fabulous collection of poems from Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten.  I remember buying my copy in a second hand shop around about 1979 or 1980.  Sadly I can’t find it now, it was probably an original edition.  I read those magical pages many many times as a teenager and young adult.  I’ve followed the poetic output of McGough and Patten over the years and have attended a few readings of Patten – such a lovely chap.

The concert in June will feature musicians from the RPLO with McGough reading the fantastic ‘Summer with Monika’ and other poems – a special evening is in store for us all.  I, along with one or two other composers have been invited to supply some musical inserts.

I leapt at the opportunity, given my affection for McGough’s work.  I asked if I might be allowed to set one of his poems – to my delight Roger said yes to this idea.  So I spent many days re-reading my McGough collections, it was a difficult task since there are so many that I’d love to set.  One day I’d like to set the heart-rending 13 verses of ‘Unlucky for Some.’

Anyway, eventually I decided upon setting ‘Poem for the opening of Christ the King Cathedral, Liverpool, 1967’ it has the typical – for McGough – down-to-earth language, juxtaposing wit, charm and life observations.  Any of you that haven’t visited the large Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, it’s well worth a visit for reflection – it’s design is extraordinary , causing it to be known locally (and I hope affectionately) as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam.’  It too is celebrating its half century in 2017.

I like all of my music to be ‘haunted’ (in the Derridean sense) by musics and sounds from the past, so that the piece that I realise is in some way fundamentally located, attached to our cultural past.  I often design small computer algorithms that allow me to play with historic musical structures that allow traces to appear in my works in varied and surprising ways.

In 1967 the seminal psychedelic rock album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released by the Beatles.  This half century is also being celebrated in 2017.  Of course, along with millions of others, I like many of the fantastic songs from this collection, but actually of the Beatles output of 1967 I prefer many other of their songs: ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Hello Goodbye’, ‘I am the Walrus’ but probably my favourite of theirs from that year is ‘All You Need Is Love.’  First broadcast in June 1967 – so this wonderful hymn to love and self-realisation also reaches its half-century in 2017.  And yes, my McGough setting for the RPLO will be ‘haunted’ by strains of this magical song.

McGough’s lines in the poem make mention of several locations that I’ll also capture for soundscape strains in the work: the docks; the Kopp

What else is there to say about the piece right now?  Not much really, I haven’t started the composition process proper yet, but I do know that I’ve got the wonderful voice of Aniko Toth and the instruments that I have at my disposal are: flute,clarinet, horn, vibraphone, piano, 2 violins,viola,cello, double bass…can’t wait

On The Trail of ‘God’s Own’ One Final Time

My pursuit of the Salford Pals has brought me to Whitley Bay, a beautiful slice of North East England.  I have travelled again, to make some location recordings for the ever-expanding ‘soundscape’ layer of my work God’s Own Caught in No Man’s Land.  I have mixed feelings for this visit, since this will be my last location recording gathering session for the work.  I am of course relieved to be finishing the piece (on time!) for the BBC Philharmonic, but the passing of this project will, for me, undoubtedly leave something of a hole in my heart.

The research and location-recording gathering stages of this work, has taken me to some beautiful places, all of which are in many ways hidden away.   They will though, forever, remain places of haunting to me, since they are indelibly connected to the memory of the Salford Pals, whom of course are fundamentally linked to the countless young lives ended or desecrated during the First World War.

According to the historian Michael Stedman, the 1st Salford Pals (‘God’s Own’) spent a fortnight in Whitley Bay from 28th July 1915 “firing its first musketry proficiency course” (Stedman, M ‘Salford Pals’ p.74).  One shudders to think that the 1st Salford Pals received their first rifle training just four months before departing to France (November 1915) to face one of the world’s then, most proficient, highly equipped, battle-hardened armies.

I managed to ascertain, according to an incredibly informative document Archaeology of the Twentieth Century Defence Sites of Tyne and Wear  , that the Salford Pals, along with many other young recruits from all over Britain, almost certainly carried out their rifle training at the Rifle Range (now disused), in the historic (and very beautiful) coastal village of Whitburn, about 14 miles south of Whitley Bay.

As I arrived early in the morning to gather location recordings a beautiful sunrise was in process.  It is entirely possible of course that the Salford Pals would have seen a similar sight, along with countless other pairs of eyes during 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Sunrise at Whitburn


The rifle ranges – set at different distances – are still clearly present.

Rifle Range at Whitburn


In the gathering of my location recordings I wandered along the coastal path, that winds its way along the cliff edges – at times dangerously close to them.  The landscape is bleak, rather brutal, but starkly beautiful.

I struggled at first to make any suitable recordings of the waves breaking against the cliffs below since I couldn’t get close enough.  However, eventually I found a way down to get up close to the tidal waters as they coursed over the rocks below.  It did strike me as to how there were no bird calls for me to record – I wondered if the local bird population still possessed some atavistic fear of this place?



Standing on the rocks below the firing range at Whitburn

I managed to get (I think!) some beautiful location recordings here of the waters and my footsteps on the rocks and pebbles, strange though that the firing range – once so loud – was now so deathly silent.

I do hope that the local residents are successful in their attempts to preserve this site against regional property developers – we need to remember those poor young souls.

In my various travels for this project and perhaps because of its profoundly tragic nature, I have, time and again, been struck by the beauty and fragility of life that surrounds us all, in unlikely places.  In many ways these opportunities to contemplate the beautiful fragility of life has been important in allowing me to remain creatively positive throughout my work’s otherwise profoundly harrowing aspects.  I have photographed many instances of what I’ve been calling ‘hidden gems’ of life’s fragile beauty.

While in Whitburn, as I wandered the rocks trying to record some audio while at the same time attempting to dodge the breakers about me, I took these (unprocessed) images – hope you like them:







Today, I am working on the final stages of my memorial composition to the fallen of the Battle of the Somme for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra: ‘God’s Own Caught In No Man’s Land.’

It will close with a setting of a powerfully haunting poem by Winifred M. Letts (1882-1972) IF LOVE OF MINE. Letts was born in Salford and wrote many profound verses about the outbreak and consequences of the First World War, my work makes several settings of her work, juxtaposed against recollections from the frontline.

When I first read this poem I thought that it was written from the perspective of a young person who had just lost their lover to the war; then I thought but it could also be from the perspective of a mother who had just lost her young son, then I thought actually one could read it from the perspective of a very young person who has lost a heroic sibling.  Lastly I thought, it could also be read as the expression of a father that has lost a son – unthinkable for me (as are all of the other expressions).

I hope that the choral setting that I am close to finishing will be fitting for these powerful words, and allow such mobility of expression for the choral singers:



If love of mine could witch you back to earth

It would be when the bat is on the wing,

The lawn dew-drenched, the first stars glimmering,

The moon a golden slip of seven nights’ birth.

If prayer of mine could bring you it would be

To this wraith-flowered jasmine-scented place

Where shadow trees their branches interlace;

Phantoms we’d tread a land of fantasy.

If love could hold you I would bid you wait

Till the pearl sky is indigo and till

The plough show silver lamps beyond the hill

And Aldebaran burns above the gate.

If love of mine could lure you back to me

From the rose gardens of eternity.

My Road to Thiepval – 16th July 2015

I spent most of today in the vicinity of Thiepval, a village in the heart of the beautiful Picardy countryside in the Somme region of France, where on 1st July 1916 the Salford Pals (along with many thousands of other young men) were met with unimaginable violence and death under fire, bayonet or through shards of shrapnel, with the commencement of what we now know as the Battle of the Somme.  I didn’t plan to do any location recording today, it was more of a reconnaissance trip.

Firstly, I travelled to the iconic Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwyn Lutyens built between 1929 and 1932 to commemorate the missing of the British Empire and Commonwealth armies that died or went missing on the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918.  It is the largest British war memorial in the world, with more than 72000 names of the missing, ‘graveless’ soldiers inscribed upon its walls.  The memorial is situated on high ground which had been one of the most heavily fortified German positions of the Somme – looking down towards … Thiepval Wood…

I have seen many pictures of the memorial in my researches for my piece ‘God’s Own Caught in No Man’s Land’ but nothing really prepared me for the reality of actually seeing it, and the thousands upon thousands of names of the missing young men etched on its walls.

I noticed, as I approached it from the road, that it was under considerable repair and renovation, “just my luck” I selfishly thought, “to travel all this way not to see the monument in its full glory”, but I immediately checked myself and thought how fantastic that the monument and the names of so many young men are being taken such thorough care of…


I approached the monument and walked about its beautiful sculpted spaces that invite hushed stillness…
























… until I located the walls etched with names of soldiers from the Lancashire Fusiliers – Salford Pals …


Walking through to the rear of the monument I came across the cemetery, which has an equal number of graves for British Empire and Commonwealth and French soldiers – brothers in arms lying side by side for eternity.


What I found most sobering about the cemetery was that many of the graves were marked without any name, regiment or region of origin …


…many of the French graves were simply marked INCONNU


I did find one or two graves which did have an indication of regiment…











There were very few named graves such as this one…



Before departing the cemetery and monument I took this last glance back…



… I then walked a while and took a look down towards Thiepval Wood from where the Salford Pals emerged to try to take the German position on the hill… IMG_4029

…with such height of position and open ground to the German’s advantage, it became brutally clear to me just how easy it would have been to cut down the Salford Pals and the thousands of other young British men on that fateful morning…

… I wondered (rather naively) if there was a way for me to enter and walk about Thiepval Wood, so I jumped in my car and drove down – I would have walked but I would have had to cross a farmer’s field…

… after a short drive (a couple of minutes) I came to the very beautiful Connaught Cemetry – which contains many multiple graves of Soldiers of the Great War – just behind it I could see a sign that read ‘Thiepval Wood’ … I walked towards it to read the sign rather more fully…


Keep Out…Warning: Live Munitions… it read.  At this point I felt rather stupid, how on earth could I have expected that a place of such fierce conflagration would be safe for a brief ‘wander about’. Anyway I phoned the number on the sign and spoke to a really friendly and helpful chap from Belfast called Teddy who worked just a 150 yards down the road at the Ulster Memorial Tower, built to commemorate the heavy losses suffered by the 36th Ulster Division also on 1st July 1916 – they were side by side with the Salford Pals (to their left as they emerged from the Wood).IMG_4031


A beautiful, if again sobering, place to visit. I quickly became assured that what Teddy didn’t know about the Battle of the Somme, wassn’t really worth knowing. I got the sense that he was intimately acquainted with every fold of the surrounding landscape.

He took me to the back of the monument and pointed towards these hills…


…which, if you look very carefully at the blond zig-zag blemishes (at the centre left of the above photo) you can see the chalk traces of German trench lines … still visible after nearly a century.

Teddy is going to take me for a tour of Thiepval Wood on Tuesday morning (18th July), and yes he assures me that there are many unexploded munitions still in the wood, unexploded gas munitions are the biggest danger apparently (!?!), here are some examples of what he and his team have dug up in recent years!! …










I am looking forward to my visit of Thiepval Wood, I feel safe under the expert guidance of Teddy. Oh and by the way – and please no offence to any of my many French friends, but Teddy and his wife serve up the best cup of tea that I have ever tasted in France.

This visit to the Somme region was supported by the Arts Council of England.





The Bells at Sacred Trinity Church, Salford


During the evening of 12th December 2014, with the kind permission of Reverend Andy Salmon (the area Dean) and with the patient support of the Manchester Universities Guild of Changeringers, I made my first visit to Sacred Trinity Church, Chapel Street, Salford, the parish church of the ‘Salford Pals’ of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was to be my first outing to gather location recording for the soundscape dimension of my work to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – ‘God’s Own Caught in No Man’s Land’ commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for performance on 1st July 2016, Peel Hall Salford. Sacred Trinity, a beautiful church on Chapel St. at the heart of old Salford, holds the colours of the Salford Pals as well as listing the hundreds of young men from Salford that lost their lives during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I managed to squeeze up into the bell tower through a very tight spiral staircase and through a very small wooden door – bashing my head against the hard stone inside several times (how I suffer for my art). Then the ‘Changeringers’ did their thing while I sat in the loft area and began to record the bells.


I could not believe how loud and powerful they sounded, listening to them so close was such an immense experience.

You can listen to a demo loop of the bells here.

My aim is to gather many location recordings that make a sonic ecological link between Salfordians of 1914/16 and 2014/16 – through making recordings of important locations ‘attached’ to the Salford Pals that have remained unchanged in the last 100 years.


I aim to use this space to give comment and reflection upon my music, sound and text projects as they develop as well as providing links to my finished projects for you to listen to and read. My hope is that you will find this space interesting for repeat visits. Thanks for stopping by – Steve