A river runs through Brighton Festival premiere on campus

Cuckmere: A Portrait:

One of the highlights of this year’s Brighton Festival is the premiere of a new orchestral work inspired by an East Sussex river landscape.

The University of Sussex’s Head of Music, Professor Ed Hughes, teamed up with acclaimed music documentary filmmaker Cesca Eaton to create Cuckmere: A Portrait, which is being performed at the Attenborough Centre on Saturday (5 May). Livestreamed here.

Ed’s live orchestral score and Cesca’s 25-minute silent film will give audiences a visual and sonic experience of a year in the life of an area of flood plain between Seaford and Eastbourne where the River Cuckmere meanders to the English Channel.

“For years I’ve loved walking in that area with my family,” says Ed. “It’s a place of great beauty and fragility, which has inspired so many artists.  Its special light, space, shapes and colours were famously captured by the artist Eric Ravilious in his 1939 watercolour, Cuckmere Haven.”

It is these qualities that Cesca and aerial cameraman Fergus Kennedy have captured in her film, and which Ed has used to create the four movements of his piece to represent autumn, winter, spring and summer.

“I’m fascinated by how Cesca’s film creates drama through connecting different views - whether that’s the meandering of the river, or the flinty cuts in the chalk landscape, or the gradual curves of the Downs,” says Ed.

“These all have geometrical, almost rhythmic aspects, which can translate into shapes in music. A sinuous pattern in the river could connect to a weaving motif in a particular instrument, such as a flute or a glockenspiel. The music and the picture are creating different languages side by side.”

Ed and Cesca began the Arts Council-funded project two years ago, and held workshops at local schools, including BHASVIC and East Sussex Academy of Music, to encourage young musicians to respond to Cesca’s film footage.

What makes the project all the more urgent and poignant are the challenges to the area posed by rising sea levels and the cost of protecting it, adds Ed.

“This is a portrait of the Cuckmere River through a year of seasons, but it is also a moment in its history. The fact that Cuckmere Haven will change has a powerful effect on us, perhaps because we long for an experience of beauty that is somehow permanent.”

Saturday’s premiere will be followed by a discussion between Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas and environment campaigner and writer Tony Juniper  on the future of the environment movement.

A second performance, on 6 May, will include compositions played by schools that took part in the Cuckmere Project.

Those unable to attend either of these performances (the first is already sold out) will get another chance to hear and see the work during the University’s Community Festival on 24 June, when a recording of the premiere will be replayed at the Attenborough Centre.

This is Ed’s third commission for the Brighton Festival. Two years ago he collaborated with Lizzie Thynne, Reader in Media at the University, to create Brighton: Symphony of a City. Ed composed the score to accompany a film directed by Lizzie that incorporated old and new footage of Brighton. A DVD version of the film was released earlier this year.

His first commission, in 2004, was 'Memory of Colour', written to accompany an exhibition in Brighton’s Fabrica gallery that included a celebrated art installation, 'Surface of the Lake', by Japanese artist Teruyoshi Yoshida.

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 14 June 2018