We talk poetry and physics with composer in residence of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Mark Bowden, ahead of the world premiere of his new work for chorus and orchestra about the origins of our universe, A violence of Gifts.

What inspired you to write a piece about the origins of the universe?

I’ve always had a deep interest in science, particularly cosmology, and the idea to write a piece inspired by this has been in the back of my mind for a long time. I went to a couple of talks about the origins of the universe and the origins of life at the Hay Festival. I was inspired by biologist Adam Rutherford’s talk on LUCA, a very early life form on the Earth. For my latest BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) commission, I decided to write a piece inspired by the connection between what we don’t know about the very beginning of the universe and what we don’t know about the very beginning of life on earth.

Why did you choose the title A Violence of Gifts?

It is a line taken from the text Owen Sheers wrote for the piece. It’s a poetic reference to the collision between the very early Earth and another planet called Theia, which set in motion a chain of events that led to the formation of the moon and the elements that would lead to life on Earth. Owen described this collision, which was an incredibly violent event, as ‘a violence of gifts’.

You mention taking some inspiration from Haydn’s Creation. How has the oratorio influenced your own work?

I was researching other pieces written on this theme of the origins of the universe and Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, was an obvious example. It’s very much a biblical telling of the story: the first part is concerned with the Book of Genesis and talks about the creation of light and the earth and water; part two goes on to celebrate the creation of birds and animals and these wonderful creatures that are on the planet; and the third part tells the story of Adam and Eve and the emergence of humankind. I knew I wanted to do something more scientific. I started reading Richard Holmes’s book, The Age of Wonder, in which he talks about Haydn’s visit to the astronomer and composer William Herschel, who had built the largest telescope ever made at the time. Haydn’s awe at what he saw through the telescope and his opening movement's representation of chaos is the closest to what I am trying to achieve – he’s thinking about stars, and the pre-universe world where everything was in a chaotic state. I actually borrowed a tiny bit of material from The Creation but my piece is in no way a version of Haydn’s work.

How is the piece structured?

Initially, Owen and I thought about having it in three parts like Haydn’s work, but that didn’t feel right. Our piece combines two main ideas – the origins of the universe and the origins of life, which are intertwined throughout an introduction and five separate sections. It doesn’t start with a big bang as you may expect, but rather has a very quiet opening. Were it possible for people to have been present at the Big Bang, they wouldn’t actually hear anything – everything was different to how we know it now. The piece starts very quietly before the chorus comes in singing the word ‘beginning’ in many different languages – Hungarian, Swedish, Punjabi, Nepalese, French, Greek, Italian, Māori, Finnish and many more languages.

When did you decide to commission an original text from poet Owen Sheers?

At first the commission didn’t include a budget for a new text so I began by looking around for an existing one – I started with the Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which were both sources of inspiration for Haydn. And I looked at other poets I felt an affinity with, like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but I couldn’t find anything quite right for the piece. I’d been a fan of Owen’s work for a while and I heard him reading from his new book at the Hay Festival – we got chatting and I asked him if he would be interested, and he was. I applied for funding from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation whose grant enabled us to work together. We went to CERN in Geneva to research ideas together for what was a really happy collaboration.

What did visiting the large hadron collider at CERN contribute to the composition process?

I’ve never had an experience like visiting CERN. We spent three days exposed to the most cutting-edge science about the early universe. We were taken underground to see the Large Hadron Collider and the scale was just unbelievable. We saw imaging of the collisions between the nuclei of lead atoms at the speed of light, which creates quark-gluon plasma, the material the early universe was made from. And the physicists introduced an idea that was completely new to me – that everything came from nothing. Matter and energy are completely interchangeable and things can just pop into existence at any time. Our universe is just another example of this. It’s a difficult thing to get your head around and I had to lie in a dark room on my own for a few days to take it all in! I internalised as much as I could and Owen incorporated the science into the text. It wasn’t about putting a lecture to music, but about creating a poetic consolidation of what we’d learned.

More like this

The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales perform’s A Violence of Gifts on Saturday 18 April, 7.30pm, at St David’s Hall Cardiff. It will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Visit www.bbc.co.uk/bbcnow for further information

Rosie Pentreath