Pete Stollery: On the Pleasures of Mis-hearing things…

A few years ago, whilst shopping in Tesco, Inverurie, a friend of ours, John Aldersey-Williams, approached my wife Catherine and exclaimed, "You're a fisherman's bassoon". At least, that's what she thought he said. In fact, he’d said, "Eurovision must be soon". One of our guilty pleasures is inviting John and a few friends around each year to eat and drink with the Eurovision Song Contest on in the background. I thought there and then that this would be a great title for a piece, so banked it and forgot about it for a while. 

Then a couple of years ago, when planning for soundfestival 2017, Fiona Robertson, came up with the idea of featuring “endangered” instruments, ones that were failing to catch the ear of youngsters wanting to learn instruments, because they were too big, too expensive or didn't sound as nice as doting parents and grandparents would have liked, whenever they asked to hear what they were currently playing. So, with the bassoon being featured in the 2017 festival, it suddenly clicked that I needed to compose that piece with that title. Fiona and bassoonist Lesley Wilson suggested a concert featuring works for multiple bassoons and this seemed absolutely the right context for the work.

I had to get Eurovision in there somehow - I did wonder about sea shanties at one point, but dropped that idea quite early on. But I hate Eurovision songs, with their predictable bounciness, the inevitable rising modulation, the formulaic quality of the writing, not to mention the biased voting and the appalling presentation from d-list celebs from the host nation. Also, I wanted the piece to be about the ambiguity around hearing, something which I’m very interested in as a composer. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found bassoons to sound essentially quite amusing in character and I was going to be working with 8 bassoons, so it wasn’t really going to be a terribly serious piece.

So, in recent months I have grown uncomfortably fond of winning songs from the Eurovision Song Contest from 1956 to the present day, having spent a great deal of time listening to them in depth. They became my earworms throughout most of the summer and it was usually the ones I hated - Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses for Me (1976), Johnny Logan’s What’s Another Year (1980), Dana’s All Kinds of Everything (1970) - that would wake me up in the middle of the night, but I began to wallow in the mock-Baroque chord sequence of the refrain from Lulu’s Boom Bang-a-Bang (1969) and the intense harmonic passages in Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix (2014), both of which feature strongly in my piece. In fact, no less than 34 quotations from past winners appear, some of them might be instantly recognisable, but most will be half-heard at most.

It’s been very exciting working with some of the finest bassoonists in NE Scotland (Lesley Wilson, KT Friday, Hannah Hilton, Lucy Webster, Emma Simpson, Angela Clark, Lorna Gurney and Tim Tricker, conducted by bassoon ensemble specialist John Harris). Come and half-hear them play Eurovision hits on Sat 4th November at 12 noon in St Andrew’s Cathedral. 

Pete Stollery, October 2017

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