Commissioned by NMC Recordings for Aurora Orchestra
for violoncello, double bass and four keyboards
Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine...makes for much-needed variety and is a fantastic piece of music. Mayo states that his samples come from a documentary about legendary aviation engineer R. J. Mitchell. We have to trust Mayo because the sample is so destroyed in the sampling process that it could be from anything. The other pieces featured standard elements of rhythm, harmony, and timbre. Mayo’s music emphasizes drone. Due to the nature of his destroyed sample and the stereophonic effects of his electronic part, he creates a coarse and even painful soundscape. But, the cello and bass provide a grounded melodic and acoustic contrast to the largely toneless electronics. Not that there is no pitch to the electronics, Mayo does create interesting harmonizations. As well Mayo also provides some compelling melodic content toward the end of the piece, again, giving much needed and appreciated contrasts.
— Joshua Denenberg, Musical Toronto (November 15, 2016)
Christopher Mayo, inspired by a slate statue of Spitfire designer RJ Mitchell creates Supermarine a grinding threnody, plunging us into mechanistic depths with cello, bass and four samplers.
— Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine (January 2016)
The oldest composer represented is in her 80s, and the youngest in his mid-30s, so the stylistic range was vast.Thea Musgrave’s rather French, rather neoclassical Power Play, conducted by Nicholas Collon among the engines and turbines of the museum’s Energy Hall, was worlds away from Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine, inspired by the slate statue of the engineer R J Mitchell in the flight gallery, with cello and double bass punctuating its aero-engine samples.
— Andrew Clements,The Guardian (October 5, 2015)
Mayo's piece Supermarine, is inspired by the 'Flight' gallery on the third floor and, in particular, by a statue, made from more than 400,000 pieces of Welsh slate, of the British aeronautical engineer RJ Mitchell. Mitchell is most famous for having designed the Supermarine Spitfie; his Supermarine Seaplace is currently on display in this awe-inspiring space, alongside a jump jet suspended in the air and numerous other full-sized aeroplanes.
It would make sense for a piece connected with aeroplanes to be loud – and Mayo's certainly is. Supermarine is scored for cello, double bass and four electronic keyboards which control sampler; the twist is that, since the commission was for other instruments too – clarinet, horn, trombone and violin – it's the players of these particular instruments in Aurora who play the keyboards. 'They're controlling 20 different samples of aeroplane engines,' Mayo explains to me at the session. 'The sounds are difficult to identify to begin with - they're more like dense, harmonic chords – but gradually, as the piece goes on, they star to sound more like engines.' During the recording, in order to hear the cello and double bass, the levels are at a minimum but, for the concert, the speakers will be cranked up and Mayo hopes that the live instruments will be amplified. 'The players will be located close to Mitchell's statue, and the audience will be in front of them, surrounded by all these amazing planes,' Mayo says. 'The idea is to fill the space with sound. We've been talking about how many subwoofers we can get on the night! You'll be able to feel the sound physucally.'
Like Molitor, Mayo believs his piece can have life away from the Science Museum. 'So much of what I do is linked to an extra-musical idea anyway,' he says. 'But the nice part about this project is that you get a real connection to the object by perfroming it in the space. To present the two things alongside each other give listeners a whole new perspective.'
Mayo likes to think that hearing his piece as part of the promenade concert will refocus the arrention of visitors on to the statue of RJ Mitchell, 'who isn't on a pedastal or anything and therefore isn't usually given much attention'.
— Sarah Kirkup, Gramophone (September 2015)
In the Flight Gallery at the Science Museum, dwarfed by the scale of the many full-sized planes hanging from the ceiling above and the vast wall of airplane engines, a life-sized statue of a lone figure stares out of a display case. The statue, made from over 400,000 pieces of Welsh slate, carefully stacked, depicts the British aeronautical engineer R. J. Mitchell. Mitchell, a prolific designer, worked for Supermarine Aviation Works for whom he designed the Sea Eagle, the Sea King, the Walrus, the Stranraer and a series of racing aircraft including the Supermarine S.6B, winner of the Schneider Trophy in 1931 and one-time holder of the world air speed record (The Supermarine S.6B is also on display in the Science Museum’s Flight Gallery).
Mitchell was most famous, however, for designing the Supermarine Spitfire, the innovative and revolutionary fighter aircraft which played such a prominent role in the Battle of Britain. Mitchell did not live to see the Spitfire play its key war-time role; Mitchell died of cancer in 1937, aged 42.
The Spitfire achieved legendary status during the war, and in 1942 The First of the Few was released, a biographical film starring Leslie Howard as R. J. Mitchell. The film told the story of the Spitfire’s development and Mitchell’s illness and death and served to further mythologize both the plane and its designer in the eyes of the public.
Leslie Howard was killed less than a year after the film’s release when BOAC Flight 777 from Lisbon to Bristol was shot down by eight German Junkers Ju 88 fighters. The attack on Flight 777 prompted numerous conspiracy theories surrounding Howard, most suggesting that he was a spy on a secret mission to liaise with Francisco Franco on behalf of Churchill. However, it was also suggested that, due to the film, German agents had mistaken Howard for R. J. Mitchell himself and had ordered the plan shot down to eliminate him.
Supermarine is written for cello, double bass and four keyboards controlling software samplers. The samples used were created from audio recordings of airplane engines. The work is a response to the meticulous and intricate construction of the Welsh-slate statue, the mythologizing aspects of the Leslie Howard film and the conspiracy theories surrounding the attack on BOAC Flight 777.
October 3, 2015 - Aurota Orchestra, Ben Palmer (cond.), Science Museum, London, UK.