Degrees of Separation (set)
This set of pieces for various orchestral and instrumental groupings was commissioned by the SAGE, GATESHEAD for its opening festivities in December 2004, and was first given, on that occasion, by the Northern Sinfonia under Peter Wiegold, with Andy Sheppard (saxophones), Bradley Creswick (violin) and Alistair Anderson (concertina).

The project was unusual from the start in being shaped, from the outset, not so much by the orchestral forces as by the spaces in which they would perform. In every sense the project grew out of the SAGE building itself, to which a number of site visits was paid during years of planning. It was always intended that the resulting work would be a sort of showcase that emphasized the unity of the new space, featuring its foyer areas as well as the three main concert halls. In the same way the musical core of the new concert centre, the Northern Sinfonia, was broken down into different parts for the separate celebrations; in addition, elements of other musical worlds than the classical mainstream were represented by virtuoso saxophonist Andy Sheppard and Northumbrian folk expert and concertina maestro Alistair Anderson, who joined with NS leader Bradley Creswick in the short processional pieces – presumably the only trios ever scored for this combination.

Three main works in the set – pieces for orchestra, string orchestra and the winds/ percussion - were separated in the performance sequence by short processional pieces. A fanfare, Enter Sage, featured the chamber brass of the orchestra on the lower foyer, with a guest role for Andy Sheppard’s soprano; Sage Walk, an Introit scored so as to be memorised and repeated ad lib., was given in two versions, for the two processions of the trio between the chamber and hexagon halls where the string ensemble and winds/saxophone pieces were given; Sage Doors was given at the entrances to the halls, and was also scored in two versions that give its various lines to different instruments. The main piece for winds and saxophone, meanwhile, located the latter in the upstairs balconies of the hexagonal hall, giving the jazz musician a measure of freedom in the notation of his material above the wind ensemble. The string orchestra and full orchestra pieces were given in the chamber and concert halls respectively; processing into the latter, Andy Sheppard and Bradley Creswick were able to continue an improvised repetition of the end of Sage Doors as they walked onto the stage from opposite sides, meeting at the conductor’s podium to introduce the orchestral piece.

This makes extensive use of a recurring two-part ‘ground’ that I call an Escalator Series, since each repetition occurs a degree higher and the series can thus be continued upward indefinitely. This series acts as a musical unifier, being used also as a foundation in Enter Sage and Sage Doors. It was first developed in Cors de chasse in 2003.

c Piers Hellawell 2004