“Good symphonies are often in some ways an unfolding sequence of miniatures,” says composer Thomas Adès. This prompts me to discover whether it is possible to create a symphony from a sequence of bar miniatures. In preparation I select two different 50cl bottles each of gin, vodka, rum, brandy and whisky.
A friend arrives and I explain my mission. We open the miniatures and test for pitch by blowing across the neck of each bottle. All except two sound an F sharp. The Vecchia Romagna brandy sounds an ‘A’ and there is one non-starter – the Flora de Cana rum is presented in plastic instead of glass. We tune them using half sips and arrive at a range of five notes. The difficulty of the undertaking begins to dawn on me. Even if scored for two players, all of the intended five symphonic movements will need to be molto adagio (very slow), to allow time for raising each bottle to the lips for blowing. I experiment with a percussive rather than melodic approach. However, only the note of the beater in the form of a knife, chopstick or pencil, is sounded as each bottle is struck. This results in either resonant bell tones or dull clicks of little sustainable interest. In fact, there is now so little interest that my friend departs.
I try suspending the bottles using string over the frame of a chair. They chime against one another like a 1980s executive toy. My two cats become anxious and circle the room. All imaginings of my opus turn to ashes in my mind’s ear. Clearly, this has to become a miniature symphony of silence in the tradition of John Cage. I work my way through the movements tasting the spirits in pairs.
1st movement ‘Gin’ – the inspiration here stems from Tchaikovsky’s setting of Eugene Onegin, the story of a battle for love. For the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ this becomes ‘two gins,’ Miller’s and Hayman’s sloe gin. The citrus bursts out of the botanicals in the Miller’s while the plums sing fruit crumble in the sloe gin. A bold exposition of themes in a major key.
2nd movement ‘Vodka’ – when discussing musical form, Schoenberg stated, “Contrast presupposes coherence”. This movement sets the resinous Russian Tovaritch against the baritone smoothness of Dutch Ketel One. The grain of the Tovaritch ripples in the mouth like a sound that one becomes less aware of through repetition. The movement trickles away pianissimo.
3rd movement ‘Rum’ – this heralds pleasant surprises. Not only does the Rhum J.M dance around the tip of the tongue, but the Flora de Cana tastes exactly like the sound of a bassoon. Specifically, it tastes like the opening of the Rite of Spring, rather than the bubbling use of the instrument in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Wistful and melodic.
4th movement ‘Brandy’ – by now it is fair to say that tastes and themes from previous movements are mingling with the current notes. The Vecchia Romagna ushers in wonderful burnt toffee flavours. These burst the constraints of the Courvoisier Cognac and nudge it into French horn territory. By this I mean that it acts as egg yolk upon the imagined orchestra, binding together the strings, wind and brass. At least, at this point, I think that is what I mean.
5th movement ‘Whisky’ – a bottle of Macallan Gold and another of Laphroaig 10 Years Old remain. Unfortunately I am now defeated and wish to invoke the example of Schubert who left his Eighth Symphony ‘Unfinished.’ On reflection, given that he was interrupted in his composition by death, perhaps it would be better to consider the fifth movement of the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ as ‘implied.’