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Above the Clouds
Ceremonies of Fire

Duration: 15 minutes
Opus: 40
Date: 1999



The origin of this work comes from an earlier dance work, Yggdrasil, which was commissioned by Ensemble Cymru as part of a Techniquest/Millenium Commission education project at Holywell High School in 1998. The scenario of Yggdrasil deals with the Norse myth of the creation of the world and its subsequent destruction and re-birth as a result of the battles between Nifl, the Ice God, Muspell, the God ofFire and the evil dragon, Nidhogg.

Fire plays a central part in most folk-lore and all civilisations have paid homage to it in some way, with its power being both feared and envied.


Fire was a centre piece to Aboriginal ritual and at times also became an object of ceremony. Without campfires, there would be no evening storytelling. Without torches and bonfires, there could be no ceremonial activity after dark. Without the protective radiance of the hearth fire, Aborigines were defenceless against the evil spirits that marauded the night in search of souls to devour. Fire was ubiquitous in Aboriginal ritual and myth because it was ubiquitous in Aboriginal life.

Not all creatures know how to get fire or how to keep it. In most origin myths, the possession of fire is the guarded secret of a creature who does not deserve it and who lives in a nonflammable environment. Through the cunning and daring of his rivals, or his own carelessness, the fire hoarder loses his fire - but not before a final defiance in which he attempts to extinguish fire once and for all by tossing it into water.

The most interesting motif among the fire myths, is the identification of fire with birds. Often the fireclutching eagle or hawk of myth drops his firestick into grass, which spreads fire everywhere. Escaped fires are common in myth, and their moral obvious. Firstly they signify the danger of fire, and secondly, they explain how the fire became so prevalent in the landscape and among people. Other legends identify the heat and light of fire with the sun and sometimes with the stars.


In some legends, earthly fire leads to heavenly fire.

Fire ceremonies continue to this day, partly through tradition but also through superstition. They burn the old year out at Stonehaven, Kincardinshire, very dramatically, with swinging fireballs. It is a ceremony that draws everyone in the fishing port to the Old Market Cross at the harbour, with pipe band to lift up the spirit. At the stroke of midnight the fireballs are lit, and the swingers whirl the baskets of fire round their heads, keeping well apart. They make a fiery procession up the High Street to the old cannon, then back along the way they came, to the harbour. Some of the fireballs burn for ten or fifteen minutes, some for much longer.

On New Year's Eve in Allendale Town, Northumberland, they see the old year out and the New Year in with a most spectacular custom. The men, all dressed in fanciful attire and known as 'guisers', throng the busy pubs throughout the evening, adding to the conviviality. Shortly before midnight, the pubs turn out into the streets to see the fun. The band strikes up and the guisers, who have now become tar-barrelers, arrive bearing their 'kits' - barrels sawn off near the top and full of flammable materials. These are ignited and the band leads the tar-barrelers briskly round the town to return to the square, where the ceremonial bonfire has been prepared. At the stroke of midnight, the guisers throw the flaming contents of the barrels onto the fire, and the assembled inhabitants and visitors join in the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Thereafter, the guisers busy themselves first-footing around the town. The tar-barrel parade is one of the many fire customs in the north with Viking associations which take us back to the Dark Ages.

Whilst not openly programmatic, I have tried in this piece to convey something of these fire rituals and of the awe in which the power of fire is held. I am happy to leave it to the listener to conjure up their own images and scenarios when hearing the work.


Soprano Eb Cornet; Solo Bb Cornet (4); Repiano Bb; 2nd Bb Cornet; 3rd Bb Cornet; Solo Eb Horn; 1st Eb Horn; 2nd Eb Horn; 1st Bb Baritone; 2nd Bb Baritone; 1st Bb Trombone; 2nd Bb Trombone; Bass Trombone; Euphonium Bb (2); Eb Bass (2); Bb Bass (2); Timpani; Percussion (3)

Commissioned by

National Youth Brass Band of Wales with assistance from the Arts Council of Wales

First performance

Glyndwr University, Wrexham 1999
National Youth Brass Band of Wales, conductor James Watson

Score & Audio

Revised version 2022

Original version 1999
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