The Kennedy Center

In Camera

About the Work

 Phibbs Composer: Phibbs
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

In Camera was composed last year under a BBC commission for Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who introduced the work in Macau (China) on October 21 of that year and gave the London premiere at the Barbican Hall one week later. The present performances, again under Mr. Slatkin, are the first in the United States.

The score, ?fondly dedicated to Steven Stucky,? calls for 3 flutes and 2 piccolos; 3 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, tam-tam, 3 suspended cymbals, hi-hat cymbal, 3 bongos, 4 tom-toms, 4 temple blocks, claves, triangle, tambourine, slide whistle, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, harp, celesta, and strings. Approximate duration, 15 minutes.


Joseph Phibbs, whose music is being presented for the first time in concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra, is one of an ever increasing number of British and European composers whose work reflects influences from the United States as well as their own home ground. The present work, in fact, is not only dedicated to an American composer with whom Phibbs did his doctoral work at an American university (Cornell, 1997-2001), but, as the composer states, was influenced by specific American landscapes. All of his earlier training, however, was in London, where he began in earnest with studies in piano, cello and composition at the Purcell School (1988-1992) and then, following private lessons in composition from Param Vir, he continued at King's College under Robert Keeley and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. In 1993 Phibbs attended the Britten-Pears Contemporary Music Course, in which his teachers were Colin Mattheews and Oliver Knussen, and following his graduation from King's (with First Class Honours and the Purcell Prize for highest results in his class) he received a British Academy Award and a faculty appointment at King's as assistant lecturer in composition. After earning a master's degree in composition at the same school in 1996, Phibbs spent a year composing incidental music for professional stage productions at various London and outlying theaters before undertaking his doctoral program at Cornell.

Phibbs has been kept busy by commissions from such sources as the London Sinfonietta, the Schubert Ensemble, the Endymion Ensemble, the New London Children's Choir, Chroma, and several major music festivals (Aldeburgh and Cheltenham among them) as well as the BBC. His Ritual Songs and Blessings, commissioned by the Spitalfields Festival, was introduced there by Chroma last June. The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group performed his Char Fragments in 1999, and Cayuga, for 15 players, was given its premiere in the ?2000 State of the Nation? weekend at Queen Elizabeth Hall by the London Sinfonietta (Pierre-André Valade conducting), which also presented that work in the Monatmusik Festival in Basel last November, under George Benjamin. More recently, Phibbs's instrumental sextet La noche arrolladora was commissioned for and introduced in this year's BBC Proms; he is at work now on a large-scale composition for chorus and wind orchestra, to be introduced at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004.

The composer's own note on In Camera, written for the first performance in England (which followed the premiere in China by seven days) has been adapted for the present concerts with his kind permission.


In Camera comprises five short movements--TENEROSO, CORRENTE, CON MOLTO FORZA, DOLCE, CON MOLTO ANIMA-- each of which explores in some way the double meaning of the title: different types of smaller ensembles (?chamber? music) created within the orchestra, often developing in parallel to one another; and the concept of orchestral foreground and background, and the way that a passing detail (a quiet figure on the glockenspiel, for example) will gradually take on a far more significant role, growing in dimension to become the main thrust of the musical discourse.

This type of musical ?perspective,? and the way that musical narrative (or narratives) may develop, seemed to me in many ways analogous to techniques used in cinema. In addition to this, the distortion of the sequence of events in some Hollywood films (Pulp Fiction and Memento being two recent examples) has also suggested musical links, together with the idea of large substructures (or ?plots?) slowly moving and developing beneath the surface of the music, emerging at various points within the work in a state different from the one in which they first appeared, via a process that has not necessarily been heard.

I have also often found myself influenced by the many rich and varied landscapes I have come across during my time in the USA. In the opening movement, for example, I wanted to evoke the far-reaching view over the hills and forests of New York State; and in the fourth movement I attempted to capture to some extent the mesmerizing aspect of New York City from an airplane at night--a view that, since the completion of this work, has taken on more tragic connotations.

Note © Joseph Phibbs