The overall character of Hugh Shrapnel’s music is lyrical - an expression of his love of nature and feeling for place and community. It is a lyricism which is sometimes tempered by irony and humour however and varies greatly in mood and expression. Hugh has drawn on a wide range of musical influences over the years: English and American experimentalism, the classical music tradition (and its continuation in the early 20th century pioneers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Ives) through to a wide range of popular influences, including music hall, jazz, rock and folk. He has a profound distrust of ‘labels’ and believes that a healthy musical environment is one in which the music of today is at the centre.
Hugh has a great love of nature, the theme of much of his piano and instrumental music. Among the piano works, examples include Autumn Pieces, the 2nd piece of which depicts a storm, Robin (from 1st Piano Set), Sunset written in memory of an aunt, Twilight Preludes.Hugh has a great love of cats; Cat Preludes was written for pianist and Radio 3 broadcaster Sarah Walker as well as the recent piano duet piece Basil, a description of her Parsian cat.
Fromewater depicts a beautiful Cotswold valley which in former days was sometimes flooded by its river.
Coronal (2004) was commissioned by the pianist John Tilbury; based on a Houseman poem it depicts a flower garden changing from early spring to summer.
Hugh has a great love for and extensive knowledge of the visuals arts and his music has often been inspired by and modelled on visual ideas forms, colours and shapes. Hugh’s mother, Myfanwy Shrapnel was a highly regarded artist who specialised in collages (some of Hugh’s music has something of the collage). The work and ideas of her teacher, the very innovative and inventive Manchester based artist Terry McGlynn made a lasting impression on Hugh as a child.
The Scratch Orchestra, of which Hugh was a member throughout its existence, forged unique ties between music and the visual arts. Hugh took great interest in the work of the visual artists in the Scratch Orchestra such as Psi Ellison, Carole Finer, David Jackman and Tim Mitchell. During the Scratch Orchestra period Hugh wrote a whole series of ‘white note’ pieces, taking their cue from Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘white’ paintings. The scores of some of these pieces themselves have a striking visual appeal. Cantation II was first performed in Portsmouth Polytechnic (now the Portsmouth College of Art), some of the pianists being actual art students. Hugh did a series of graphic scores during the Scratch Orchestra period.
In 1991 Hugh was commissioned by Georgie Wise from the Wise-Taylor Partnership, working with visual artists Caroline Wilkinson and Craig Bell to provide music for the highly praised exhibition ‘Unity’ at the Slaughterhouse gallery in London.
Hugh’s music, from the earliest days, has often been performed in art galleries; from the mid 1990s onwards the Redlands Consort performed regularly at the Woodlands Gallery in Blackheath, South East London. In February 2001 Hugh wrote Woodlands Collection as a sound component to an exhibition of installations by the artist Carl Plackman. From the late 1960s onwards, Hugh has been keen on breaking with the traditional concert convention of the audience sitting in rows and for the performance of Woodlands Collection the audience wandered round the gallery listening and looking –an important legacy of the Scratch Orchestra.
THE WRITTEN WORD
Hugh’s father Norman Shrapnel was a renowned writer and journalist whose enthusiasm for the word Hugh has inherited.
During his ‘experimental’ period when he was a member of the Scratch orchestra, Hugh, in common with several other composers of the time wrote a whole series of musical pieces in purely verbal notation in which amateurs and non musicians as well as trained performers could take part, this being an important aim of the Scratch Orchestra. Hugh’s Prose Pieces vary widely in character and approach - ‘environmental’ pieces (‘Space-time Music’ & ‘Shadows’), theatrical (‘Erasure’ which has the players mimicking the performance of a standard work & ‘Projectiles’), visual (‘Floorboard Music’ [LINK Visual illustration]. Others (‘Waves I & II’) have purely ‘musical’ aims, while others are poems which can, but need not be, performed (Tone Poem and flit [LINK -‘Tone Poem’ and ‘flit’ ].
Hugh, after many years, has returned to this form of composition, including a series of Landscapes, notably Landscape #3 written in 2006 in support of the Lebanese people against Israeli aggression. Other recent pieces in this form are Cross Purpose (a lampoon on aspects of contemporary music) and After 40 Years written to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Scratch Orchestra in 2009.
Hugh has written many songs over the years, now totalling nearly a 100. These reflect Hugh’s wide ranging literary interests and include an ongoing series of ‘poet portraits’ - mini song cycles of three poems, settings of poems by Philip Larkin, e e cummings, Edward Thomas, Robert Burns and Olive Dove (mother of Hugh’s wife Ruth). Other vocal works include a major song cycle Love Sonnets of a Building Worker to poems by the Scottish communist poet John Maharg, political songs, including several on anti-war themes and in support of worker’s struggles. Hugh’s songs are very varied in musical style and mood, some, like his Robert Burns setting of ‘To a Gentleman’ being dramatic and declamatory while others, like ‘Cares O’ Love’ also from the Robert Burns cycle are straightforwardly lyrical.
COMMUNITY, PLACE AND POPULAR MUSIC
Hugh has always believed that music is part of the community and linked with people’s lives and has an abiding love of many kinds of what loosely can be called ‘popular’ music the influence of which often pops up in Hugh’s music. Hugh is an enthusiast of Edwardian music hall for its appealing mixture of nostalgia and irony and its subversive social and political undertones. Musical hall influences occur in Bank Holiday, Deptford Broadway, West Pier, Inconsequences and Creekside. Hugh also has a great admiration for the Jazz tradition which he considers a central ingredient of 20th century music and beyond; Charles Mingus in particular is a great favourite. Jazz influenced pieces include: 2 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Ouagadougou for trombone and percussion, Byways for tuba and double bass, Beelzebub’s Barrel Organ for saxophone quartet, Objets Inutiles for wind and brass and the recent Coalition Blues for alto trombone and piano. The influence of different kinds of popular music is shown in the suite for piano duet ‘South of the River’ whose last number Deptford Broadway contains snippets of music hall, jazz and hip-hop. There is a folk-like influence in many pieces e.g. Unity for flute and piano which is based on an original but Gaelic-like tune.
Many of Hugh’s pieces are inspired by place, notably South of the River, a suite in 6 movements for piano duet depicting areas of south east London where Hugh has lived for many years. The first piece, Oxleas Wood, is a 7000 year old wood above Blackheath & Greenwich where Hugh lived for many years and was written in support of a local campaign against a proposed motorway through it. Deptford Broadway paints a vivid picture of this lively and historic inner city area past and present with its snippets of music hall, jazz and hip-hop. West Pier for euphonium and 2 electric keyboards, with its waltzes, bossa novas and other ‘novelty’ numbers is a nostalgic 1950s portrayal of this now derelict Brighton pier.
MUSIC FOR PEACE
The struggle against war for a world of peace has always been a great concern of Hugh’s; and he has written several songs on this theme, notably ‘Not In Our Name’, a setting of words by the parents of a victim of 9/11 for mezzo soprano, baritone, flute and piano written in 2002[sound clip]. In 2002 Shrapnel collaborated with the video maker Stuart Monro composing the music for his anti-war video ‘Now’. Both this and Not in Our Name were first performed at the major anti-war concert ‘Not in Our Name’ at the Union Chapel in September. A recent work on an anti-war, anti-fascist theme is ‘Tomorrow’s Seed’ a setting of a poem by the Afro-American poet Langston Hughes, written for the ‘Song of Songs’ concert commemorating 75th anniversary of Spanish Civil War at the Bridewell Hall, London in July 2011. Other songs on political themes include the 3 Poems from Africa, settings of poems about anti-colonialism and the pollution of the environment by Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus & Rabearivelo [sound clip from 3 Poems from Africa], ‘What is a Miner?’ written in support of the miner’s strike of 1984 (words by miner’s wife Kay Sutcliffe).