Sonnet Machine

This piece was was written for a project based around Shakespeare’s sonnets. I got interested in the rhyming scheme of 14-line sonnet forms, though it was actually not the Shakespearean sonnet (ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG) that most excited me but the Spenserian form (ABAB/CBCB/CDCD/EE), which has more repetitions. My piece follows this latter ‘sonnet’ form, with the result that there are 14 discrete chunks of music of five types (A, B, C etc) interacting and juxtaposing in various combinations, always separated by percussive whip cracks to signal a sharp cut.

The result is a piece that is volatile and changeable, but with material returning and changing in various ways – the initially stately ‘B’ material is compressed into shorter stretches of time on each occurrence, so that the same music ends up getting faster and faster. Conversely, the mechanical ‘C’ material, initially led by marimba and plucked strings with sleighbells, expands and develops on each occurrence, finally going haywire, like a machine spinning out of control. Also included in the orchestra are several string instruments tuned a semitone or tone lower than normal, so that the ‘A’ and ‘E’ material (at the beginning and end of the piece) are able to use the resonant sound of open strings on many more pitches than the string section normally allows.

‘Tom Coult’s ear-catching Sonnet Machine paid homage to the rhyme schemes of Elizabethan sonnets by constantly shuffling varied textures, egged on by a slapstick’s whipcrack…we basked in [its] joy and the excitement of hearing the BBC Philharmonic wading dextrously into the very new.

Geoff Brown, The Times

‘Coult puts the orchestra through a succession of virtuoso techniques within a sea of controlled chaos and musical ‘red herrings’, punctuated by shifts, swerves and whip-crack jolts, with the eventual spinning-out-of-control of the machine playfully defined by the ‘unhinged’ scordatura string sonorities.’

Pamela Nash, Backtrack



23 April 2016
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Gourlay (cond.), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK

World premiere


symphony orchestra: 3(III=picc).0.3(II=Ebcl.III=bcl).2.cbsn – 4.3.2.btrbn.1 – perc(4):
 I: medium susp.cym/whip/mar II: large susp.cym/tabla/bongos/tamb/whip III: small susp.cym/BD/glsp IV: sleigh bells/whip/vib – harp – strings (


10 mins




Commissioned by BBC Radio 3

View Score Online