Elliott Manley


Sapphic Dances

This piece is the result of a collaboration with choreographer Lorna Sanders. Sapphic Dances was premiered at the 1999 Farnham Festival of New Music where it was both the first dance work and the 100th piece of music to be commissioned in the Festival’s history.

The curtain rises on a stage in darkness. The throbbing deep bass overture is the beat of two slightly out-of-tune penny whistles slowed to a fraction of their normal speed.

The lights come up to reveal an intricate interplay by three women. Are they the Three Graces? Are they the group of women who form Sappho’s school?

The trio move to the background and are joined on stage by a male/female duet. Is this Sappho and her husband? (Yes, she was married.) Perhaps they are one of the couples for whom Sappho wrote honeymoon odes.

Gradually the two groups start to interact and after a while the man is rejected and the four women dance joyfully together.

All seems happy. But the man returns and he is angry. He wants his woman back and aggressively seizes her. She struggles but eventually gives in. He holds her in triumph but she is rigid. He has won her body - but not her heart or mind. The lights go down and the work closes with a reprise of the throbbing overture.

Despite the obvious variety in the dances that make up this piece, all closely follow the same complex rhythmic structure invented by Sappho and used in all her poetry.

Dreams of a Distant Past

Dreams of a Distant Past was written backwards. A simple theme was gradually obscured by removing more and more of the content. The result: the theme emerges from a fog; hints become more explicit with each repetition.

The piece was commissioned for a TV documentary on precognitive dreams.

Using a scale invented for the piece, some voices are tuned using the Pythagorean system and others are tuned using the even-tempered system.

Dreams of Times to Come

Listen carefully and you might hear that this piece is a variation on the theme from Dreams of a Distant Past. It is an experiment in time signatures. Traditionally, time signatures indicate both patterns of phrasing (i.e. melodic structure) and dynamics (e.g. a strong beat on the first note of a bar). In this work the two ideas have been separated; the "melodic" time signature and the "dynamic" time signature are not related except by co-incidence.

Who Can Bend a Kiss?

Another collaboration with Lorna Sanders and her dancers. The music as originally performed with the dance includes several periods of silence - some more than a minute long. This version has been re-edited with listeners in mind!

You hear the recorded voices of the dancers who also contributed to the sound environment during performance by reading and with body percussion. The dancers are reading from Nightlight by Hanif Kureishi. The mass of voices that make up the background comes from 16 layers of recordings from a local news radio station - all made in a single morning.

The heart-rending repetition of "on and on and on, hour after hour after hour..." is sampled from the audio memoirs of an old soldier who is describing being forced to build the Burma Railway while in Japanese captivity during World War Two.


An experiment in pure structure. Eight drums are tuned to the eight notes of the C major scale and evenly spaced around the sound stage. Each one repeats a very simple rhythm - without regard to the time signatures of the other drums. The resulting complex rhythmic soundscape is purely emergent and unplanned.

The drums return to synchronicity after 1350 semiquavers. The synchronicity is established by a further 12 semiquavers and then the music stops - hence the name.

It might not be unreasonable to say the music was in a time signature of 1350/16.

Holism 4

This is the result of my third collaboration with Lorna Sanders, this time for the 2001 Farnham Festival.

As a challenge to herself and her dancers, Lorna decided to take a very different starting point: the architecture of the carved wooden staircase in the main entrance of Frensham Heights School. Built in the 1900s, the staircase consists of flights around three sides of a square stairwell. It is decorated in mock-Tudor style with beams, carved Tudor roses, geometric wooden panelling and stained glass windows.

As well as using the geometry (in particular spirals and crosses), the dancers were inspired by chance meetings, the rhythms of footsteps as people used the stairs and by ideas of falling.

My reaction was to look at the stairwell as a necessary empty space in a building. All the interest and activity goes on around it; it just needs to be there to make the building work. The stairs send the "music" of the building spiralling around the empty space. The architects made a virtue out of necessity by decorating the stairwell to make it "part of the music".

I asked myself what in music could correspond to these ideas. Lorna had originally suggested Vivaldi's Gloria in D Major as a musical starting point. I listened to it on an LP and as the first side came to and end and the stylus spiralled into the middle I suddenly knew the answer! In tongue-in-cheek homage to the moment, the first sound you hear is sampled from that LP.

The scratches and surface noise that I worked with perfectly matched Lorna's ideas. She had noticed the scratches and scuff marks from a century of use of the stairs and built those ideas into the dance.

The dance was performed under the title Passing Through. I have kept my own jokey title for the music.
© 2015 Elliott Manley
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