Opening the workshop door: David Matthews’ ‘Shiva Dances’ 10 9 22

Posted on September 10th, 2022 by

On this early autumn Saturday morning, while Heralds Poursuyvants and Keepers of the Great Seal were fiddling around with ridiculously archaic ceremonies in palaces and castles, I took the tube up to Hampstead Garden Suburb. There I spent a very happy morning with the great composer David Matthews, working on the details of his newest work for violin alone ‘Shiva Dances’. There are very few people alive who have written as much music for violin alone as Matthews, and I am proud to say that most of it is the result of our collaboration, which goes back decades. Our work together has resulted in over 35 works, including two large cycles. David has explored every possible dramatic configuration of the violin alone, and confronted much of its history; these works include homages to Paganini, Schubert and Bach, as well as pieces inspired by bird song and the natural world. We have released two full albums of his solo music and are now building towards a third.

Composer David Matthews at our shared work desk , London 10 9 22

David sent me his piece at the beginning of the summer. As always, it came with carefully chosen and written postcard. In it, he noted the origin of the piece:

‘As I think I’ve told you, I have arranged my recent piece Shiva Dances , for string quartet & string orchestra, for solo violin – perhaps a rather crazy ides but I think it will work – I hope so – & that it’s not too difficult (But you won’t mind!).’

This is not the first piece David has written for me that has its roots in other, larger works. Like Beethoven and Bach, he has always enjoyed and explored the transition of material from one form, one scale, to another. And indeed, some of our conversation today explored the links and caesurae between this solo piece and the orchestral work. At various moments, David went off to his study, to consult  the full orchestral score, on the computer. Each of these consultations enriched our discussion as to whether the distance between the versions might be increased or lessened.



A very important moment for me, of working with David, is the opportunity to see his manuscripts. Although David produces exquisite typeset materials , he always writes the scores, beautifully, in pencil. over the years, he has given me a number, and there’s one example (Fugue No 1) framed on the wall near me as I write this.

So today were were working with multiple sources: the original manuscript, David’s print-off of his typeset score, which began the morning unmarked, my highly marked-up performing part, the aforementioned orchestral material, and of course, what is in David’s head. The dialogue between all of these, and I might venture, my own ideas and experience of David’s music, work in concert in the workshop situation as we moved towards honing both the score and my reading of it. For the outcomes of a morning like this are as complex as the ingredients:

  1. I am trying to understand, as well as I can, what the composer wants, and to remove my preconceptions from the equation as much as possible
  2. David is hearing the piece for the first time, and at the most fundamental level, asking the all important question – Does it work?
  3. I am adjusting technical and expressive procedures as a result of the delicately weave of David’s preferences and my suggestions. I have to be careful, and make sure that I don’t bulldoze my aesthetic predilections over the composer’s inner ear. This is complicated, as David is interested in what I do, and I need to ensure that it is his inner ear that predominates and not my loud voice.
  4. We have a fascinating conversation about what goes into the published score. How much detail is useful, not just in order to help other players, but also as authority. At every stage we aim to walk the line between what is absolutely necessary, and what is only interesting for me.
  5. The biggest outcome is not an interpretation. It’s not something that interests me very much, and I have never heard a composer talk about, or use the word with any enthusiasm. What often emerges and emerged today was the fundamental essence, the prime mover of the piece. Very often, this idea, reveals itself at outset and at finial moments in the creative process. And so it was today, when at the end of the morning’s work, worrying about dynamics, articulations, bowing and colour, we started to talk about Aldous Huxley, and Shiva.

David told me that the inspiration for the piece, came from a recording of Aldous Huxley talking about the figure of the Dancing Shiva (listen here

This figure, the ‘Nataraja’ is the origin his piece. He was profoundly moved by Huxley’s observation that the western world, by comparison with east, is impoverished in terms of symbolism. He quoted to me from Huxley’s exploration of the profoundly complex meanings of the figure of ‘Shiva Nataraja’:

‘He’s everywhere in the universe … it’s all an immense manifestation of play […] the idea of the infinite energy dancing timelessly and forever through this world.’

In our conversations, violin, pens and pencils in hand, there was an intricate to-and-fro between the big questions (meaning, life, death, beginnings and ends), and the apparently trivial: where should a diminuendo end? does that pizzicato work? what’s the speed – get the metronome – thought so, you were too fast!!!

This is the essence of the workshop; there’s no hierarchy; all details are important, and everything at any moment, might have a huge outcome, or nothing notable, and yet still be fundamental.

At the very end, we were discussing the peroration of this 10 -minute single movement  piece. A descending melody purls down, down to a bottom G, which then dissolves into arpeggiations, delicate and silvered, like the soft rain outside my window right now. But, as so often in baroque music, there was/is an apparently unresolvable paradox. The end of the descending lyrical phrase is also the first note of the ‘Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work’ (Tennyson) which end the piece. We had to work on something that could not ever be notated, the pirouette on that note which sets off the glimmering ending of the piece. This last conversation was both technical, aesthetic and conceptual, even ideal. Only some of that (where to put your fingers,  how long to wait etc) can be written in the score. The important outcome, like any new understanding, indeed everything from the morning, is held between David and I, not notated down. We will have to wait until the premiere, in Tennessee next month, to see what has been learned: nothing really happens until there is an audience!

As I left, David’s artist wife, Jenifer Wakelyn, handed me a bag – ‘here are grapes from the garden -they are so wonderful this year.’ I have the on the desk here, and I am trying to not eat all of them. A reminder that everything we do, everything that writers artists and musicians reach for, is an attempt to reach what Huxley calls ‘the infinite energy dancing timelessly and forever through this world.’ Whatever we chose to call it, Nature, the Divine … it’s an impossible, joyful quest, and the grapes are a beautiful (and delicious) reminder that we can only try!

Fresh grapes, from David and Jenifer;s garden. 10 09 22