A new work by Sally Beamish and Melanie Reid proves moving and thought provoking

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Elizabeth Davis hears one of the compositions commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad

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In 2010 Melanie Reid’s life changed completely. A columnist for The Times and former associate editor of The Sunday Mail, Reid fell off her horse when attempting a jump and broke her neck and back. She’s been writing the weekly ‘Spinal Column’ for The Times about her agonisingly slow recovery ever since.

That column, it turns out, was read avidly by composer Sally Beamish, so when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) approached Beamish for suggestions for a commission as part of PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20x12 programme, Beamish thought of Reid. The result is Spinal Chords, a work for string ensemble and narrator. Like all of the 20 pieces commissioned as part of the New Music 20x12 programme Spinal Chords lasts 12 minutes and aims to celebrate the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, namely: endeavour, celebration, achievement and collaboration.

It’s a haunting, harrowing work, giving an insight into Reid’s life as a tetraplegic. Her text – which in this performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London was brilliantly realised by narrator Juliet Stevenson – paints a picture of the boredom and eery quiet of spending weeks, months on a back injuries ward. The audience are made to look again at everyday tasks and understand the Herculean proportions they took on for Reid after her accident. Unsurprisingly there are moments of darkest despair – but Reid has a sharp wit and tenacious sense of humour, both of which make the work as uplifting as it is bleak.

With such a brilliant writer tackling an intensely moving subject, Beamish’s score sometimes felt secondary to Reid’s words. But the music was an ever-present support for the text – swelling to add emphasis to a phrase, or elaborating on a thought with a dissonant chord. The result was profoundly moving and at times unsettling – but a more impressive example of endeavour you’re not likely to find.

 

Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine