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Work of the Week – Katherine Balch: all around the sea blazed gold

On 7 February 2023 under the direction of Paolo Bortolameolli, the LA Phil New Music Group will perform the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s new composition for sixteen instruments, all around the sea blazed gold, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Balch found the title for her new piece in the "prelude" to Virginia Woolf's experimental novel The Waves - a work that continues to provide the composer with artistic inspiration. Over the course of the novel, six narrators meander from childhood to adulthood with an increasingly intertwined dialogue punctuated by nine "interludes" depicting a coastal scene from sunrise to sunset. In many ways, Woolf stimulated Balch's tonal imagination from evocative language to a form that seems to fold over itself while simultaneously progressing through time.

The Waves is considered to be one of Virginia Woolf’s most innovative works and has gained recognition as a modernist masterpiece, characterised by its stream-of-consciousness style and experimental structure. It is marked as one of the most significant novels within 20th century English literature.

Virginia Woolf as inspiration for all around the sea blazed gold by Katherine Balch

Balch’s composition focuses on the images of Woolf's coastal scenes beginning at dawn when "the sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it". Patiently, they document the uniformity of near-darkness which turns into a profusion of detail. Balch uses this progression in her piece all around the sea blazed gold as it begins with a very open soundscape that gradually saturates as the polyphony increases. Contrary to the six narrators in The Waves that open as individual voices which gradually merge into one, the singular players in the ensemble create a unified body of sound which later breaks down into individual parts. Regarding her piece, Katherine writes: 

Since the ocean is a bit of a thematic staple of 20th and 21st century music, I also couldn’t resist “text painting” some of Woolf’s descriptions of sea, so you’ll hear oceans drums and rain sticks and crotales dipped in water in the percussion, rolling breezes in the breath tones of winds and brass players, wave-like surges in the strings, and many other instrumental interpretations of the ocean’s eternal song. (Katherine Balch)

Just a few days after the premiere of all around the sea blazed gold, on 19 February the Ensemble Modern at Frankfurt LAB will excitingly be performing the world premiere of Balch’s new commission entitled, waste knot, for soprano, ensemble and recorded sounds.



photo: Sunny Forest - stock.adobe.com