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Spinal Chords

for Speaker and Strings

Text: Melanie Reid

Composition Date: 2011

Duration: 17'

Instrumentation: Voice / 8 Vn 2 Va 2 Vc Db



Commissioned by PRS for Music Foundation in partnership with BBC Radio 3, London 2012 and NMC Recordings for New Music 20x12.

First performed by Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Matthew Truscott, at Turner Sims, Southampton, in February 2012 with Juliet Stevenson as narrator.

Programme Note:

Spinal Chords


Music: Sally Beamish

Text: Melanie Reid

I have known Melanie Reid, and enjoyed her writing, ever since I moved to the Stirlingshire village where we both live, in 1996. When she had her devastating riding accident in 2010, and began writing ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times, I followed it every week.

The idea of working with her came to me when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment asked me for suggestions for a PRS for Music Foundation New Music 20x12 Cultural Olympiad commission. To my delight, she agreed, and I received the text for ‘Spinal Chords’ (her title) in May 2011.

It was hard to know how I could best serve the words, which I found deeply moving; but Melanie’s title gave me a good starting point: the idea of the chord as the backbone of the music. ‘Cords’ (without an ‘h’) also suggest strings, threads, linking and joining. I realised the role of the music should be as a backdrop for a very slow drama – that of Melanie’s ‘spinal journey’.

The decision to use an actor, rather than a singer, was to preserve the directness of the text, and of Melanie’s own voice.

I started with twelve chords, which are stated, very slowly, three times; each time in a different key. The chords themselves are closely linked to each other : each builds on the one before. The string orchestra is treated as a large chamber group, with 13 solo lines, and the chords are stated at first by broken-up groups of players, gradually consolidating into larger groups, and then with the addition of ornamentation, and later, scales. The music reflects the agonising slowness of recovery, and the gradual re-connecting as the body finds ways to heal.

The piece uses the distinctive techniques of Baroque string playing: expressive bowstrokes, with a minimum of vibrato. I also draw on the similarities between Scottish traditional ornamentation, and that of Baroque music.

Spinal Chords was commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with funding from New Music 20x12 – a UK-wide commissioning programme initiated by Jillian Barker and David Cohen, and delivered by PRS for Music Foundation in partnership with the BBC, LOCOG, NMC Recordings and Sound and Music.

It was first performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Matthew Truscott, at Turner Sims, Southampton, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in February 2012.

Sally Beamish


Available Recordings:

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