Edward Cowie’s unique compositional voice stems from his wide-ranging interdisciplinary interests in both the sonic and visual arts, with many of his works inspired by ideas and concepts from artworks and from the natural world. The opening piece of this recording – a 2011 commission for BBC Radio 3 – creates a complex musical tapestry and soundscape from the call of the Australian bell-bird, opening with translations of choruses of several species of Australian frogs.

In 2002 Cowie become the BBC Singers’ first ‘Associate Composer’, marking a relationship between the composer that began in the mid-1970s and continues to this day.


What people are saying

"Like all his music they are expansive, sometimes unruly, but always attractively wrought and harmonically sumptuous … Altogether, it’s a fine tribute to an underrated composer" The Guardian, July 2013 

"The BBC Singers are joined by the Endymion ensemble for the lengthy “Gesangbuch”, a four-part choral work whose wordless vocals and darting, sprite-like musical tones create a work of suitably elemental spirits animated by the changing seasonal round." The Independent, July 2013

BBC Singers
Simon Joly, Stephen Cleobury

Stephen Preston, baroque flute

Stacey Dixon, cor anglais, oboe 
Barnaby Robson, clarinet 
Tim Jackson, horn 
Simon Limbrick, percussion 
Helen Tunstall, harp 
Stephen Guttman, celesta 
Alastair Ross, harpsichord 
Stephen Betteridge, piano 
Catherine Manson, violin 
Asdis Valdimarsdottir, viola 
Robert Baily, cello 
Stephen Williams, double Bass

Release date:1st Jul 2013
Order code:SIGCD331
Barcode: 635212033128

August 2013

For the latest of their discs on Signum devoted to single composers, the BBC Singers, under conductors Simon Joly and Stephen Cleobury, have turned toEdward Cowie. Cowie was the BBC Singers first associate composer (from 2002-2005) but the works on this disc stretch back to 1975. Bookended by performances of Cowie’s Lyre Bird Motet (2002) and its companion Bell Bird Motet (2011), the main work on the disc is Cowie’s Gesangbuch (1975-76) performed with the instrumental ensemble Endymion, plus The Soft Complaining Flute with Simon Preston.

Edward Cowie (born 1943) studied with Alexander Goehr and Witold Lutoslawki but he also trained at the Slade as an artist and trained first as a physicist. Cowie employs the act of drawing as a part of the compositional process, and the CD booklet includes images from sketchbooks which relate to the works on the disc. For Cowie these form a second stage of the process (you can see some samples on Edward Cowie’s website) before the final composition. The visual images are surprisingly delicate and colourful, with an emphasis on texture which comes as no surprise to someone familiar with Cowie’s music.

The pieces on this disc don’t really use melody as such, nor do they use words. Cowie generally sets phonetic sounds of his own invention alongside fragments of texts taken from his preparatory sketches. Instead he plays with colours and textures in the music, distilling work from lots of fragments. The results are sometimes difficult to apprehend at first, and I found myself fretting about what texts were being used. But Cowie uses his voices like instruments, line is generally not important. Instead you get clusters of notes and sounds, tiny inflections which build.

Cowie’s Bell Bird Motet was commissioned by the BBC Radio 3 for Cowie’s Earth Music Festival in 2011, an event celebrating composers, artists, film makers and writers responses to the natural world. The Bell Bird Motet is a companion piece to Cowie’s Lyre Bird Motet and like that piece, Bell Bird Motet evokes an Australian scene (Cowie spent 12 years there). Bell Bird Motet is set at dawn, the work opens from nothing with the evocation of several species of Australian frogs, before the women’s voices recreate the bell-like chanting of the Bell Bird. Cowie’s writing combines these transcriptions of wild life sounds with fragments of more conventionally harmonised music, almost like a sort of commentary.

The Soft Complaining Flute (2003) is written for six sopranos and baroque flute. Though Cowie is deliberately referring to baroque music (the title comes from Handel’s Hymn to St. Cecilia), the flute writing includes many advanced techniques. And because of the way Cowie writes for the voices, it is sometimes tricky to tell whether you hear a flute or a soprano.

Gesangbuch (1975 – 76) is a four movement work for mixed chorus and 13 instruments. It was commissioned by the Brighton Festival and premiered by the BBC Singers and the Brighton Festival Ensembl. Each movement evokes a different location and a different season (Herbstlich – Eaves Wood; Winterlied – Martinmere; Habichtswald – Spring; Stimmungsbid – Hest Bank). Each movements is accompanied by a different combination of instruments (wind, strings, horn, harp, piano, celeste and percussion) with the choir, full in the outer movements, just men in the second movement and just women in the third. The work is dedicated to Michael Tippett, who was a close friend and mentor of Cowie’s at the time. It opens in the autumn, with the play of light on the autumn leaves, and concludes, amazingly, firmly and rapturously in F sharp major.

Like the first piece on the disc, Gesangbuch mixes textures but here instead of contrasting conventional melodic fragments with bird calls, Cowie contrasts the singers with the instrumental ensemble creating two complementary but contrasting textures. The piece is full of little melodic fragments which come together to make a series of distinctive textures. The work is bigger boned and harder edged than the two purely vocal pieces on the disc.

Finally, Lyre Bird Motet (2002). During Cowie’s time in Australia he made many trips alone. On one of these, at dusk, he came across several male lyre birds singing in a series of interlocking bu combative performances. Their songs combined flute like arabesques with clicks and hisses. The choral piece concludes with the sopranos each intoning different versions of the lyre bird song.

Edward Cowie’s choral music cannot be easy to perform, it’s pointillist nature requiring supreme accuracy from the performer. On this disc under Stephen Cleobury and Simon Joly, the BBC Singers combine accuracy and delicacy. But they go further and give us superb evocations of Edward Cowie’s landscapes. They are finely supported in Gesanbuch by Endymion.

The CD booklet includes full notes but, rather frustratingly, no texts. This might be difficult in the case of a composer like Cowie, but when you can hear the choir singing a text but neither discern it nor read it in the CD booklet, then things become a little frustrating.

The music on this disc might not quite fit into the conventional choral music mode. But in these fine performances it is highly evocative, do give it a try.

Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill

July 2013

Edward Cowie draws on the natural world for compositional inspiration, echoing Gyorgy Ligeti in his interest in birdsong. “Bell Bird Motet” here mimics the sounds of Australian frogs and birds in the isolated vocal chirps and croaks of the BBC Singers which coagulate into a climactic whooping, while “The Soft Complaining Flute” relies on flautist Stephen Preston’s unique “ecosonic” technique, around which six soprano voices flutter, butterfly-like.

The BBC Singers are joined by the Endymion ensemble for the lengthy “Gesangbuch”, a four-part choral work whose wordless vocals and darting, sprite-like musical tones create a work of suitably elemental spirits animated by the changing seasonal round.

The Independent, Andy Gill

July 2013

Three works in this collection of Edward Cowie’s choral music date from the last decade, but it’s the earliest piece here, composed in the 1970s, that makes the biggest impression. Gesangbuch, first performed by the BBC Singers in 1976, was one of the major achievements of Cowie’s early career, an ambitious set of impressions of the four seasons that are also evocations of locations in the north-west of England. Like all his music they are expansive, sometimes unruly, but always attractively wrought and harmonically sumptuous; the latest incarnation of the BBC Singers perform the pieces with the instrumentalists of Endymion just as vividly as their predecessors did more than 35 years ago. They are equally accomplished in the later, slighter pieces too – a pair of them, the Lyre Bird Motet from 2002 and Bell Bird Motet of 2011, evocations of the sights and sounds of the landscapes of Australia, where Cowie lived and worked for 12 years. Altogether, it’s a fine tribute to an underrated composer, though it’s a shame the sung texts aren’t included in the sleevenotes.




The Guardian, Andrew Clements

  1. Bell Bird Motet – Edward Cowie – 8.12
  2. The Soft Complaining Flute – Edward Cowie – 6.44
  3. Gesangbuch: Herbstlich – Eaves Wood – Edward Cowie – 10.03
  4. Gesangbuch: Winterlied – Martinmere – Edward Cowie – 10.11
  5. Gesangbuch: Habichtswald – Spring – Edward Cowie – 8.16
  6. Gesangbuch: Stimmungsbild – Hest Bank – Edward Cowie – 13.33
  7. Lyre Bird Motet – Edward Cowie – 7.14