Forest was jointly commissioned by Esa-Pekka Salonen for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 70th Anniversary, New York Philharmonic: Alan Gilbert, Music Director, International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn’s 60th Anniversary. The first performance was given by Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley, Nigel Black and Michael Thompson, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Anvil Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK, on 21 February 2017.
A few years ago Esa-Pekka Salonen approached me with idea of a commission for four horns, he had read in a biography that I had been a horn player, as had he. I was surprised by the idea and but also excited and thrilled by it.
It took a long time to figure what to write for the horns though, the history of the instrument is heavily loaded with Romanticism and extensive mythology. I circled these themes for a while.
Eventually I picked up my own horn and began to play the warm-up exercises I had spent thousands of hours playing as a student. This conscious decision to go back to my roots as a horn player started me thinking about tree roots, which led to reading about underground fungal highways of communication within forests, and how trees send chemical signals and nutrients to each other through their roots. So I found a way into the piece by making a connection to the ‘natural history’ of the horn through my own physical experience of playing the instrument.
As a species we humans tend to assume a separateness from the plant and animal kingdoms. This piece is about finding a way of listening to the world around us; to a forest imagined in music, to hear what it might have to say about our current predicament as humans in a dramatically changing environment, as climate change becomes more and more apparent.
But the piece is also a celebration of creation, and of the power that might be found (or re-found) through developing communication between us and nature. If we were just able to listen to it better, we might learn a huge amount about it and about ourselves, and in turn become more compassionate beings, toward each other and to the natural world.
The horn is an almost mythical instrument, with origins as signaling devices, such as the Scandinavian Lur, going as far back as 6th century B.C. In 17th century France, horns gained popularity for use in the sport of hunting and the instrument became synonymous with the countryside and the forest.
Part of my research into making this work involved listening to recordings of calls written for cor de chasse, or hunting horns. I loved the raw energy of these calls and brash, almost reedy sound, that these ancient relatives of the modern horn can produce. It struck me that this kind of hyper energy, so distinctive of this type of horn, might be exciting to channel into the concerto, and could at once provide a distinction between the soloists and the orchestra.
The four horns represent the most human element of the work, and the journey of the piece is a growing dialogue between the soloists and the orchestra – or forest – that surrounds them.
The work is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen in gratitude for initiating the project and bringing it to fruition, and as a reciprocal gift from one horn playing composer to another.