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Sentences (2015)

Countertenor & Orchestra, 30'

This commission was supported by the generosity and vision of donors to Britten Sinfonia’s Musically Gifted campaign.
Principal Commissioner Meredith Lloyd-Evans and Lisa Buckby,Neil Burns, Clare Drummond, Diana FoxBrindle, Roy & Barbara Hall, Will Harriss, Ivor Hunt, Michael McManus, Ashil Mistry, Bryan Orman & Patricia West Hannah Perks, Helen Phillips, Sue Prickett, John & Penelope Robson, Barry Tennison, Sheila Turley, Andrew Wingate, five anonymous donors, and one gift to celebrate the first birthday of Lucy Harriss.


Sentences is a thirty-minute meditation, in collaboration with Adam Gopnik, on several episodes drawn from the life and work of Alan Turing. Turing lived, in a sense, many different lives, but at the heart of his work was, I think, a very musical set of anxieties. Even the idea of code-breaking is inherently musical; the French for score- reading is de?chiffrage: deciphering. His wartime work on the Enigma code translated, later in life, to a more nuanced relationship to code in the form of a primitive but emotionally (and philosophically) complicated artificial intelligence. The piece uses a single voice—here, countertenor Iestyn Davies—not to speak necessarily as Turing, but as a guide through these various episodes.
The piece begins in a state of optimistic nervousness, smudging, in a sense, the relationship between grammar and comprehension. The second part imagines a young man obsessed with his bicycle chain: the mechanisms whose faults are the focus of study. The orchestra functions here like a giant and dangerous machine, organised into large footprints of thirteen beats constantly recycling and jerking to a halt. We are encouraged to “adjust, anticipate, and listen.”

The end of part two then takes the image of the bicycle and repurposes it to imagine Turing and his friend Morcom at school, and transitions into part three without pause into a stylised version of Turing’s letter to Morcom’s grieving mother, his friend having died of tuberculosis as a result of drinking tainted milk. The orchestra functions here like a large planetarium: distant stars and closer insects.
Part four is another mathematical obsession game: “the universal machine’s just a card with a puncture.” We begin to see the idea of the human mind being a set of binaries, without any of the romance of the soul. Part five brings us forward to the war effort, with the realisation that even important codes are banal: they begin with a report on the weather, or with the fact that nothing has happened. While this revelation leads to a historically important de?chiffrage, here, we envision a soldier, alone, bored, tricked into a muddy and gruesome reality. The voice is sentimental, but the orchestra is strict and severe.

Part six jumps forward to the 50s, and the Turing Test. A sub-ensemble of three violas accompanies the voice, and woodwinds imitate imagined answers to the interrogator’s questions. A large and agitated orchestral passage ensues. We end with a sense of dry loneliness. The final part is a coda, in which we see the various interpretations of a purported suicide. A poisoned apple, and a mother’s objections. We close with the star-music from part three, and the various looped voices of the countertenor above a meshwork of glockenspiel, crotales, piccolo and celeste.
I’ve always felt that the question of sentient computers is wildly emotional: we anthropomorphise the Mars Rover, imagining its solitude on that dusty planet. Any act of communication in which the second person is unseen can be a one-way conversation. An email, sent, can never be returned — did it arrive or did it not? —, or a text message can be delivered but never read. The thrill of a fast response is immediately tempered with the harsh but empty rudeness of an out-of-office reply. Anybody who has made a condolence phone call only to hear the voice of the deceased on the outgoing answering machine message knows the complexities of what could be a simple binary communication.

Life is sentences
A series of sentences
A chain of sentences
A chain that links
A chain that bites
A chain that breaks
Encoded sentences
decoded eroded
A string of words becomes a sign of life.
Sentences and sentiment
They fill each one the other
The two are never one
To tell them apart is hard
To pry them apart is harder
What keeps the world together is a grammar When every one wants to make every sentence a sentiment
Can someone see that every sentiment is merely a sentence?

When Nico Muhly and I first contemplated writing a small song cycle drawn from the life of Alan Turing for Iestyn Davies we rather congratulated ourselves on the recherche? nature of the choice. In the interim, of course, Turing’s story has become approximately as well known as Robin Hood’s, and a ballad on the subject seems likely to run into the same traps of folk familiarity. But what we wanted to do with Turing was to show him neither as a pitiful victim nor as a kind of autistic intuitive, but as a thinker, a very great thinker, on the nature of mind—and to see if we could evoke musically (and lyrically) what were in many ways some very abstract ideas, while at the same time making their human origins apparent, or at least implicit. The central insight of Turing’s work is that seemingly simple chains of repetitive symbols, mere ‘sentences’, r could reproduce the chains of human reasoning. Minimal binary coding with simple off-and-on instructions could, given enough time and speed, simulate the most intricate computations that human computers, as they were then called, could offer. This insight could help you break a code, or it could help in imagining a non-human intelligence. But the central idea that in the apparently mechanical lay a solution to the ancient mysteries of mind and matter, remains constant, and with it the irony that some at least of the mysteries of mind ,and the matter of desire, remain mysterious even to the decoder, with the more tragic irony as well that a mastery of sentences does not keep one from another kind of brutal sentence. From this material, highbrow and ‘sentimental’ both, we made our piece—and hope also to have made our peace with Turing’s now somewhat over-extended ghost ADAM GOPNIK

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