Portrait of Mark Bowden under some lights
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(2018) 25’
for solo soprano saxophone and ensemble
1 Talking Ghosts; 2 Imagined Order; 3 Shells and Cigarettes; 4 Empty Maps; 5 Data Religion


The idea for Sapiens was sparked after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Sapiens Harari takes the reader on a 200,000 year journey as he makes sense of how our foraging ancestors came together to create cities and kingdoms, gods, nations and human rights. In Homo Deus he asks the fundamental question: where do we go from here? The books inspired me to use Harari’s concepts as starting points for new musical ideas. But my piece is not a depiction of the books. Rather, it is a response to some of the wonderful stories Harari tells whilst also having its own musical tales to share.

In Talking Ghosts, the soloist acts as a kind of ancient shaman, a lone forager attempting to communicate with the spirits of the world, seeking help to understanding the mysteries of the land and sky. Harari describes how animistic beliefs, the idea that almost every place, animal, plant and natural phenomena has awareness and feelings, were common among our ancient ancestors.

In Imagined Order, a strict pattern of notes is treated to a process of ever-changing configurations in a constant interplay between soloist and ensemble. Harari describes how humans are uniquely capable of creating powerful structures which exist only in the imagination yet have the power to control many aspects of our lives, such as religions, nations and law.

In Shells and Cigarettes, a monolithic texture unfolds in which the soloist and ensemble often play in rhythmic unison. Harari talks about the idea that money – whether the currency be shells, cigarettes or Euros – can only work when it has value in humanity’s collective imagination.

In Empty Maps, the saxophone’s melody unfolds over a strict harmonic structure, outlined by the harp and marimba. Harari talks about the scientific revolution and how the marriage of science and empire shaped the modern understanding of the world around us. Only when humans accepted there are unknowns in the natural world to be discovered, rather than filling in the gaps (or maps!) with fictitious tales, were they able to develop new scientific ideas.

Data Religion is inspired by the idea that the world, and in fact the universe, only really consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. Harari tells us this seemingly eccentric notion has now conquered most of the scientific, economic and political establishments of the world. The soloist is set against the relentless music of the ensemble, exploring ideas about where the individual’s place might be in such a formidable and bewildering world of data flow. The harmony is reminiscent of the opening movement. Perhaps the sometimes bewildering world individuals experience today is not so different to the mystifying, animistic one of our ancient forager ancestors. MB

Articles & reviews

Simon Haram, Yuval Noah Harari & Mark Bowden on Sapiens / interview by Dan Goren / Composers Edition
★★★★ The work is human at its very core, expertly conveying the enigma of our turbulent emotional lives / Timmy Fisher / Bachtrack
Four of the best ... classical concerts / Andrew Clements / Guardian

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