Spirit of the Staircase

staircaseSpirit of the Staircase has a lot of very fast music and a lot of very slow music, and often frequent changes between the two.

The fast music often features long staircase-like chains of semiquavers winding upwards and downwards – incrementally climbing or descending before leaping back a few steps and starting again. These are first introduced by a solo piano around three minutes in, but increasingly come to dominate the music in various guises in the first half and last third of the piece. In between these poles, an extended section of music sees the ensemble steadily drift through a sonically strange terrain. This music’s sinuous progress is punctuated only by solos from an enigmatic muted trombone, an insouciant celesta and (most significantly) a leaping, fanfare-like bass flute.

In French, ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ (staircase wit) is the name given to the phenomenon of thinking of a perfect retort or remark only after the event (when one is already halfway down the staircase).

Dedicated at considerable velocity towards Camden Reeves.


01 Jun 2016 London Sinfonietta, Martyn Brabbins (cond.)
World premiere
St John’s Smith Square, London, UK
Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 ‘In Concert’, 28 Sep 2016
  • ‘Tom Coult’s Spirit of the Staircase juxtaposed rapidly moving chains of glistening pitches with moments of stillness, led by a bass flute and a muted trombone, and full of bewitching sounds. None of it seemed to be contrived. The scheme was worked out with impressive assurance; everything was fresh, precisely imagined and made full use of what the Sinfonietta can do at its best.’
    – Andrew Clements, The Guardian
  • ‘The rapidly emerging British composer Tom Coult (b. 1988), a student of George Benjamin, left a strong impression with Spirit of the Staircase (2016) played for the first time. Alternating, though not in any formulaic sense, rapid “stairways” of fast notes, zipping up and down, with passages of near inaction, this had impressive individuality. Coult had drawn on the French notion of l’esprit de l’escalier, that brilliant, unsaid afterthought. The 15 expert musicians, including celesta and piano sometimes played simultaneously, harp, vibraphone and low woodwind, made light, often witty work of it.’
    – Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
  • ‘Tom Coult’s witty, light-fingered Spirit of the Staircase was just as inventive instrumentally but a lot more recognisably structured and frankly more fun. Still in his twenties, he’s a name to watch.’
    – Richard Morrison, The Times
  • ‘Tom Coult’s Spirit of the Staircase was an insouciant musical game, untroubled by anything. The guiding spirit here was Boulez, especially in the cat-like percussive tread of the opening, but Coult soon proved he’s very much his own man, conjuring amusing dialogues from simple scale-like figures (thus the “staircase” of the title). The piece was funny and surreal and delicately poetic, all at once.’
    – Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
  • ‘Even more intriguing was Spirit of the Staircase (2016), Tom Coult’s piece whose starting-point in the French notion of “staircase wit” (of being witty after the event) was embodied in those ascending and descending chains which criss-cross this music, so ensuring its impetus even when progress feels uncertain or becalmed. The full ensemble is rarely deployed; rather instruments gain prominence and return to the background as spontaneously as they emerged – that of the celesta being one instance of continuity the more arresting for its obliqueness’
    – Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source
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  • Instrumentation
    15 instruments: 1(=picc+bfl).1.1(=cbcl).cbsn - - perc(1): glsp/vib/mar/bongos/3 tuned gongs - pno(=cel) - harp -
  • Duration 18 mins
  • Year 2016
  • Commission
    Commissioned by London Sinfonietta with support from Michael & Patricia McLaren-Turner and an Elliott Carter legacy.
  • Score & Parts
    For hire of performance materials, please contact promotion@fabermusic.com
  • View the score online