John Alexander writes: "I was generously given this wonderful commission by Sarah Poole when she first moved to Somerset with her husband and daughter. Through such an assignment, it felt as if she – they – were making a strong case for showing their clear intention of committing themselves to living in this large and amazing county that would also find them establishing a lasting springboard for their livelihoods.
I undertook these songs in the knowledge that they would be both an exciting challenge and a joy to me. The brief was to leave the rhythm and pitch of the vocal line exactly as the original, although I was free to add dynamics and the occasional performance direction as they seemed appropriate to the music. I had complete freedom to write what I wanted for the piano accompaniment.
Each of the songs tells a story, of various aspects of life in and around the countryside, a place where I have always felt happy and comfortable – hence the ‘joy’. Additionally, all the tunes were recognisable to me, because I had sung most of them as a child in the school choir or classroom and those that weren’t had been familiar from the wireless.
Typically, these folk songs have a number of verses, thus making the composer’s role challenging in terms of producing accompaniments slightly differently each time and therefore more interesting than a continual repetition of the first verse. John Barleycorn, for example, has eight stanzas and my solution here was to allow the piano to indulge in a smattering of word-painting as part of the variations."
John Barleycorn is the first on Six Somerset Folk Songs and was recorded by Sarah Poole (soprano) and Derek Harris (piano) for Prima Facie Records.
John Alexander was born in West Sussex in 1942 and began to compose at the age of 20. At the time he discovered a fascination for art, literature, dance, architecture and sculpture and these topics, along with mathematics, have continued to have a bearing on his work. He studied composition with Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and later with Jonathan Harvey and Peter Wiegold at the University of Sussex.
John Alexander has never been a prolific composer, but an impressive and growing body of work reflects a rare eye for detail and structure - each work beautifully crafted and reworked until every inflection, detail and nuance is perfect. Probably best described as a miniaturist, he writes in a fluent, independent and strongly personal style with an intense desire to create music which communicates to both performer and audience alike.
In 1999 John Alexander won the 1st BIBF Composition Contest and was invited to be a judge for several BIBF competitions. He was a featured composer at Bass-Fest 2001, was an spnm short-listed composer for three years, and was Composer-in-residence at the 2004 Rotterdam Conservatoire Double Bass Weekend, Bass-Fest 2006 and 2007 Wells Double Bass Weekend. His works have been performed and broadcast throughout the world and he was written an impressive and unique body of work for double bass.