Count-down was written in November 1980, and is scored for sixteen-part chorus and two percussionists. One of these plays on skin instruments (9 tom-toms, bongos), the other on wood (soprano and bass Orff xylophones, claves, temple blocks). The text is almost entirely wordless, and the musical mode is entirely pentatonic on F (the five notes being F, G, A, C and D).
In its musical structure, Count-down is rather like a tree which grows and proliferates from a tiny seed. The soil is represented by a background harmony of quietly babbled consonants; the roots by a repeated throbbing figure which is initiated by the basses and spreads to most of the choir; and unpitched percussive consonants (tktk, dbd) represent the creatures which live in the tree. The musical seed of the tree is a melodic cell consisting of six notes in a five-beat bar. The 720 permutations of these six factors are then laid out across the choir and superimposed upon the other components already described, so as to spread gradually to all sixteen voice-parts; my aim was to create an effect of proliferation and growth similar to that of organic processes, culminating in a long climactic pentatonic chord.
Count-down was commissioned in 1981 by Leeds Festival, but was not found suitable by the Leeds Festival Chorus. It was first performed at the Merton Festival on 23rd May 1983 by the Merton Festival Choir and the Manson Ensemble under Nicholas Cleobury, and has also been performed and broadcast by the BBC Singers.
Giles Swayne 2009