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Explorations: Hannah Varty

April 1, 2009

Hannah Varty is a composer and saxophonist based in London, England.  She is currently working on her Masters of Music at Trinity College of Music, studying with Deidre Gibbon.  She graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2006 with a first in music, and her previous teachers have included Vic Hoyland and Errollyn Wallen.  To avoid being guilty of extreme paraphrasing, I suggest you visit her complete bio on her website

Hannah was the first person to digitally drop a piece on my doorstep months ago when I first started work on Explorations, and I knew that even if I didn’t get any other submissions, this project would have been a success.

The piece she sent me, Edges of Slumber, is a work for a large chamber ensemble of sixteen musicians.  The recording is a moving performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group from 2006.  Her piece immediately grabbed my attention for its complexity, and a complexity that was accessible.  I felt the programmatic aspect to the music lent itself extremely well to the tonal language she was employing, and one that anyone could understand.  Also, the ability of the music to make me wait – the patience it demanded from me, both drove me crazy and got me even more excited to hear what came next.  Now it would probably be appropriate to relay what she wrote about the piece:

 Edges of Slumber in many ways represents the states between the conscious and the unconscious. It can be split into three sections. The first section begins with a proportional idea in the piano and later also the glockenspiel, which represents the unexpected and somewhat dream-like quality of being on the edges of consciousness. Alongside this are very static measured chords which represent the ordered side of the mind. The harp interrupts this with arpeggiated chords that lead into the dream section at letter D. The 3/4 section contrasts greatly with the first section. The harmony changes here to become quite Eastern sounding and the texture is much thicker and harsher. The runs in the harp keep the continuity of the piece. The final section is almost a retrograde of the beginning and ends with just the proportional piano line, which began the piece.


Beyond the fact that Edges of Slumber is in my opinion, a really moving piece of music and that it was the first submission I received, I placed it first in the series because I think the piece is in the spirit of Explorations on multiple levels.  On a purely musical level, the elements used by Varty are all fresh – a word I’m using because too many of the other more likely words are probably too loaded to actually mean what I want.  The music explores the expressive ability of musical techniques that are in the grand view of Western culture, still very new and alive.  I also was very taken by the program of the piece – I think in those moments between sleep and waking produce some of our deepest explorations into our own souls and possibilities.  Neil Gaiman calls them The Soft Places, in his comic book Sandman.  They are places where the impossible becomes very possible, and sometimes we even find out how to make good use of it.


I hope you can tune in next Wednesday to hear Edges of Slumber 7pm on WRSU-FM (found at If for whatever reason you miss it, here is a stream of Edges of Slumber. I hope you enjoy.

Edges of Slumber – Hannah Varty



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