Tansy Davies: neon


Tansy Davies was born in May 1973 in Bristol, UK. From a young age she was interested in singing and playing guitar in rock ensembles. Davies is also a proficient French Horn player and played in a range of various ensembles. As well as performance, Davies was also interested in composition and she studied at the Colchester Institute where she studied composition and French Horn with Alan Bullard. Her first break in the music industry was when Davies became a prize winner in the renowned competition: BBC Young Composer (1996). After this she began studying composition with Simon Bainbridge at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as with Simon Holt at Royal Holloway University.

Throughout her career, Davies has worked and been commissioned by many reputable ensembles including the London Sinfonietta, City of London Sinfonia, BBC Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Youth Orchestra. Many of her compositions go beyond the boundaries of usual practice. Davies takes a lot of inspiration from funk and psychedelic music, as well as from the classical avant-garde. One of her first large commissions was from the London Sinfionetta, entitled The Void in this Colour (2002), this was has been highly acclaimed and received incredibly positive reviews. Other compositions by Davies include:


  • Genome (2003)
  • Spiral House – for Trumpet and Orchestra (2004)
  • neon – (2004)
  • Adorned – for strings, bass clarinet, cimbalom and harmonium (2008)
  • Aquatic – duet for cor anglais and percussion 
  • Dephic Bee – for wind nonet (2012)


Davies also considers the spatial and acute sense whilst composing, with a lot of her works being inspired by atmospheres, textures and timbres. She is perhaps most well-known for her large-scale orchestral works, however she has also composed a vast amount of chamber works, which are also highly successful. Davies released a CD in 2011 entitled Troubairitz, which showcases some of her chamber works with electronics. Davies has worked with visual art experts in the fields of film and graphic design to create a variety of effects to accompany her music. Dance is also another art form that Davies has worked with. In 2011 she collaborated with choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard on Omega and the Deer which went on tour around the world.

Davies does not only work with UK-based ensembles, she also has a good reputation overseas, especially in Tokyo, Israel and Germany. For these compositions she has received many awards including an honorary doctorate (2011) from Colchester Institute, as well as the Paul Hamlyn award in 2009. Davies has also been nominated for the Sky Arts Award 2011. Davies’ works have been premiered in a plethora of famous venues such as the Barbican, the Aldeburgh Festival and the BBC Proms. Her composition neon was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2014. In 2015, Davies was listed in The Evening Standard as on of the most influential people of 2015. Her colourful career continues, with more commissions being lined up for this exciting contemporary composer.


The Music

neon was composed in 2004, and is one of Davies’ most exciting works. Scored for bass clarinet (with amplification), soprano saxophone, percussion, electric keyboard (on clavinet setting), violin (with amplification), cello (with amplification) and double bass (with amplification). Davies notes that the use of amplification is to bring the instruments to a similar dynamic, however they should not be quite the same. Below are the programme notes for neon: 


“Neon lights, urban life, and physical energy are what this music is about. It’s a dialogue between the human body and the machine. The human is detectable in the surfaces of the music – often fragile sounding, imperfect, dirty or ‘distressed’ in some way. The mechanical side appears in the form of grooves that drive the piece, which despite their asymmetrical design, are robust, sleek and unstoppable.”


neon has been described as a ‘collage of twisted modernist funk’ with its ‘pounding rhythms and sleazy sounds.’ This work has become a signature work for Davies and it requires a keen amount of concentration, rhythmic ability and stamina. The piece starts with the performance mark “urban, muscular” – which is represented by the syncopated reed parts and the relentless bass parts. Set in 2/8 and 7/8, the piece utilizes lots of dotted rhythms to create angular effects. Davies also uses the performance direction col legno (played with the wooden side of the bow) for the strings, which add a percussive timbre to the lower strings parts. The use of triplets in all parts creates a sense of unity at times, and the percussion part emphasizes this with its use of jazz rhythms. Off-beats and syncopated rhythms make up the core foundation of this work, which makes it very colourful and surprising.

neon is a very physical work which makes you want to constantly move to wherever the beat develops. Davies’ style is incredibly eccentric and you can certainly hear her use of jazz and classical avant-garde styles. She has been said to be a cross between Xenakis and Prince (which is certainly very eccentric!). neon uses cross-rhythms and patterns which create complex sequences of notes that are fully realized at sudden points within a phrase. This keeps the listener very attentive whilst listening, which makes this work very exciting.

Davies’ extensive use of percussion also gives this piece a unique twist, with instruments including marimba, hihat, bongos and 5 different sized tin cans. The use of repetition is also pertinent in this work, as Davies reuses motifs and sequences and builds them onto new musical foundations, which can be heard throughout the piece. Also, her use of amplification and dynamics are a focal point of composition, with colourful timbres and dynamics bringing out the jazz-inspired rhythms.


Final Thoughts

neon is an incredibly exciting contemporary composition that takes influences from a range of different styles which culminates in a very exciting 10-minute composition.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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