Dorothy Ker ‘A Gentle Infinity’: An Eccentric Sound Palette

Good afternoon readers, we’ve made it to the final day of my Female Fortnight Challenge! This challenge has been so successful that I will certainly be doing it again in the future. I’d like to thank everyone who has been involved with this project, it wouldn’t have been half as rewarding without your support and encouragement! Whilst I was researching for this challenge, one thing was always certain and that was who my finale blog would be on. So today I’m closer to home as I am writing about one of my university lecturers, the one and only Dorothy Ker! For this finale blog I will be looking into her orchestral work A Gentle Infinity. This is an absolutely fantastic work by an equally as fantastic composer and woman, so I hope you enjoy this final blog in the challenge!

Dorothy Ker was born in Caterton, New Zealand in 1965. She completed her BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Auckland, where she studied composition with the likes of John Rimmer and Douglas Mews. In terms of her performance, she is known as a vocalist and pianist. In 1992, Ker emigrated to the UK, where she completed her PhD at York University under the supervision of Harrison Birtwhistle and Nicola Lefanu. After her doctorate, Ker received Research Fellowships at Reading University (2001-2004). In 2005, Ker came to The University of Sheffield, where she began as a research fellow, then a lecturer in composition, and most recently Ker is now a Senior Lecturer in Composition. Ker has been commissioned to write for a wealth of different ensembles including large-scale orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists. Ker’s music is performed all over the world, and her ties with both New Zealand and UK have certainly amplified this. In 2010, Ker was award a major research grant to make Amelia and the Mapmaker, which is a mixed theatre piece. When I started at The University of Sheffield in 2013, Ker was on sabbatical, where she spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at NZSM and she was also a resident at the Lilburn House in Wellington. Since returning back to Sheffield in 2014, Ker has been very busy composing, teaching and supervising various projects. In 2015, she received the Composers Association of New Zealand Trust Fund Award for her contributions to music composition. Ker’s music has been heard at international festivals in places such as Seoul, Auckland, London, Belfast and Darmstadt.

A Gentle Infinity was composed in 2009 and was first premiered in 2010. It was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra. Scored for a full orchestra, this piece is hauntingly atmospheric. Ker explains in the programme notes about A Gentle Infinity:

“The overall conception of the piece is underpinned by an evolving, wave-like movement – continuous cycles stretching/compressing/proliferating. There is a strong connection to the sea. A passacaglia of seven chords, gradually permutating until they eventually assemble into reverse order, form the ground or ‘canvas’. The various textural and linear surfaces of the piece all emerge from this ground as reflections, extensions, compressions, or distillations of the core material. Quarter-tones (division of the chromatic scale into 24 tone instead of the usual 12) enrich and intensify the harmony while rendering it more tactile and less pitch-defined.”

Colin Anderson from http://www.classicalsource.com, reviewed this work saying that “The 7-minute a gentle infinity is both atmospheric and deft in Ker’s handling of a large orchestra, subtly dynamic (not least in the use of percussion), edgily communicative and vibrant in its imagery; a piece full of good things, arguably cut off prematurely.”

The combination of Ker’s subtle hand and her use of timbres, textures and sounds makes this work incredibly atmospheric and intriguing. It begins with a growing rumble from the percussion and lower brass. The timpani softly roll, and the idea of air seems prominent here. The notion of there not being a pitch-based motif is emphasised here. A short burst of sound from the winds creates an intense feeling. The most prominent instrument here is the bass clarinet and the bassoon. Following this there is a shimmering effect, which leads us into another very haunting section. The upper strings are pitched very high, meaning the harmonics can be heard and blurred into the overall soundscapes that Ker is aiming to create. Although there is not obvious melodic theme, the intervals presented can be recognised as being either compressed or stretched out, to thus create new and different effects. I find the winds are very colourful and bright throughout the whole piece, especially the oboes. This colour brings the light towards the front at times, with the strings and percussion sometimes pushing it back again. The quarter-tones enrich the sound, and give you a much broader spectrum of sounds to play with when composing, and Ker has certainly taken this approach in A Gentle Infinity. 

The idea of dissonance is utilised a lot in the second half of the work, with the winds presenting some very brash chords that clash. The strings especially create this eerie effect, which is emphasised by the tuned percussion (for instance the xylophone). There are a lot of different textures and timbres that are utilised throughout the work and certain instruments are emphasised to highlight this. For instance, Ker’s extensive use of percussion penetrates the haunting atmosphere at times, and brings forward a much more abrasive and bold statement of sound. The waves of sound, as Ker explains, makes this piece one of a range of emotions, from perhaps some sort of sadness, to a more hopeful and positive outlook. The work ends with a brush effect from the percussion section, which leaves you really wanting more!

A Gentle Infinity is a fantastic work that showcases the idea of sound and creating an atmosphere with that sound. The piece is haunting, yet exciting as Ker’s use of quarter-tones offers such a colourful palette of sounds. I find this work eccentric, but in a very reserved kind of way, which is where the true beauty of it, for me, lies. Dorothy Ker is a fantastic, world-renowned composer, and I think sometimes we forget the calibre of people who teach us at University. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with Dorothy Ker at university, and will be glad to work with her again next year whilst I undertake my MA. I can’t think of a better way to end a female composer challenge, than with a female composer at my university! I’d like to give my thanks to Dorothy for also letting me write this blog, I hope you have enjoyed it! We have sadly now come to the end of the Female Fortnight Challenge, but never fear I will be writing blogs as often as I can until my next challenge begins. Have you enjoyed this challenge? I’d love to hear your thoughts! If anybody has any requests, please let me know through my site/facebook/twitter/instagram.

Happy Reading as always!

Recommended Recording:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/sounz-recordings/audio/201796756/dorothy-ker-a-gentle-infinity 

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