From the Sleevenotes: Music with Bass Instruments

Daryl Runswick’s sleevenotes from his Prima Facie release Music with Bass Instruments

Dance of Stillness

Dance of Stillness is a reworking of a movement from my 1984 piece I Sing The Body Electric, originally composed for the vocal group Electric Phoenix. Terry Edwards excerpted this movement and gave it its title. I made the present version to perform solo, improvising the vocals and the piccolo bass guitar solo, generating the drone and lead vocals (treated with a long digital delay and a ring modulator) in real time without any pre-recording. I performed it as such in my One Man Show.

This recording of Dance of Stillness is dedicated to Judith Rees, its first and unsurpassed improviser.

Sonata for Solo Double Bass

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s my job (one of my jobs, anyway) was that of a professional double bass player. But by 1983 major changes were taking place in my life and it might not be too outlandish to say that on an October day that year I renounced the double bass. I hardly touched it from that time until the happy moment at christmas 2011 when, simply for fun, I began playing again.

On quitting as a bassplayer I left behind an unfinished solo sonata. It was quite large in scope, an ambitious piece synthesising my jazz and classical bassplaying experience. The sketches still exist, dated 1981, including a fifteen-page mock-up of a ‘complete version’ cobbled together with as yet no proper ending. I actually performed from this mock-up in a recital I gave at the Horniman Museum in London in late 1981. I was aware at the time that the piece had promise, but I was going in a different direction by then and the omens were not propitious. My return to the bass at the age of 65 was a joyous one and the sonata soon came out of its cardboard folder for a fresh airing. What I discovered was a succession of good and, it must be admitted, less good bits, much in need of an overhaul, but with distinct possibilities. My task now was not only to tidy up an old and overgrown garden but also to get inside the head of the young composer, distantly related to my present self, who had begun this piece more than thirty years previously. I must revise and complete the Sonata in his style, no longer mine.

The old piece contained four continuous sections, slow/fast/slow/fast. I don’t remember whether I originally intended improvisation to play a part in the finished work (it no longer does). The new Sonata is also in four sections. The 1981 version’s slow Introduction is mostly retained, and the following Allegro is more or less the same as before. But then there follows a set of three Variations newly composed in 2012 (though developed directly from the old materials). Finally the variations morph into a Recapitulation of the Allegro (something the 1981 Runswick didn’t plan). Thus the piece emerged in 2012 (revised in 2017) as an extended ‘symphony-sonata’ in the manner of the Liszt Sonata in B minor or Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

London Voices for this recording are Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, Rachel Major, Joanna Marshall, Benedict Hymas, Ben Parry and Nicholas Garrett.

I was invited in 1977 by Terry Edwards to compose a piece for his then brand-new vocal ensemble, London Voices. I was at that time immersed in the Metaphysical Poets, particularly George Herbert, but for this commission Shakespeare’s odd and haunting poem took my fancy. In those days obscurity was fashionable for the modern composer, as was multitasking by the performers, so I planned for the six singers and the double bass player also to play percussion instruments. The premiere was at St Bartholomew’s Church in London, where I played the double bass. Did Terry suggest I write a part for myself? I don’t remember (neither does he).

Shakespeare’s poem is a funeral lament for the phoenix and her consort the turtle dove, both recently deceased. The first of its three parts describes the arrival of the mourners (all birds). The second is an anthem celebrating the couple’s chastity, and the final threnos is a lament for the departed pair. The vocal parts to a certain extent, and the double bass more pervasively, contain passages of improvisation.

The footnotes to the poem are adapted from Dame Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets, Penguin 1957. I have used her text in my setting but have modernised the spellings.

Let the bird of loudest lay,1
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be:
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

1 The screech-owl, a bird of ill-omen.

But thou shriking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,

Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king,
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,2
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

2 can: is skilled in. The swan was popularly supposed to sing before its own death.

And thou treble-dated crow,3
That thy sable gender mak’st,
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,

Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

3 Although crows were said to live nine times the life of a man, probably the even longer-lived raven is intended. They were held to conceive their offspring by an exchange of breath.


Here the anthem doth commence,
Love and Constancy is dead,
Phoenix and the Turtle fled,
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they loved, as love in twain,
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none,
Number there in love was slain.4

4 The logical impossibilities of a completely mutual love are set out in terms from logic. Though they are two, they are one and ‘one is no number’. Mathematics, or numbering, is made impossible.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen,
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right,
Flaming in the phoenix’ sight;5
Either was the other’s mine.6

5 ‘He saw what was his in her eyes’.

6 Each was the other’s treasure

Property was thus appalled,7
That the self was not the same:8
Single nature’s double name,
Neither two nor one was called.

7 Property: what belongs to an individual.

8 the self: the self-same. Language here fails as mathematics has before it.

reason in itself confounded,9
Saw division grow together:
To themselves yet either neither,

Simple were so well compounded,

9 Reason, recognising its own defeat, celebrates its overthrow in this and the following stanza.

That it cried, how true a twain,
Seemeth this concordeth one,
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts, can so remain

Whereupon it made this Threne,
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of Love,
As Chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest.

Leaving no posterity, ‘
Twas not their infirmity,
It was married Chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be,
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she,
Truth and Beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair,
That are either true or fair,
For these dead birds, sigh a prayer.


Marcus Miller’s piece (named for Archbishop Desmond Tutu) was written for Miles Davis to play on his eponymous 1986 album. This version, with me deputising for Miles on fretless alto guitar, comes like Dance of Stillness from my One Man Show.