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surrounded by distance ...
for fourteen players


2 flutes (1st doubling piccolo, 2nd doubling piccolo and alto flute), 2 clarinets in Bb (2nd doubling bass clarinet), horn, 1 percussion (glockenspiel, marimba), harp, celesta, 3 violins, viola, cello, double bass



Year of composition:


Commissioned by:

London Sinfonietta and ACE Study Tours commission


London Sinfonietta / conducted by Oliver Knussen,

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8 June 2008

Published by:

In Indian poetry and philosophy, akasha (the Sanskrit word for ‘space’ and ‘sky’) is the element in which primordial vibration manifests itself as sound.  The element of ‘space’ is associated with boundless qualities of mind.  Sky blue is the symbolic colour of all-embracing space, and a dimensionless point its representation. 


While composing surrounded by distance, I was drawn to exploring the indefinable, yet seemingly precise manner in which musical shapes and configurations arise spontaneously in the space of awareness as evocative appearances and illusory continuities.  The result takes the form of sequences of short musical phrases and figures, which like ripples in a pond form and dissolve leaving no traces.


In this sense I would describe surrounded by distance as a display of magical appearances, which are articulated largely in the highest register of the ensemble by a pair of flutes, three violins, viola, glockenspiel and celesta, and unfold over a harmonically static background provided by a pair of clarinets, horn, harp, marimba and lower strings.  Towards the end of the piece, many of the figures that made up the first section re-emerge unchanged but in closer proximity to each other, somehow conveying a sense of simultaneously belonging to a vanishing present and an inaccessible past.


  … surrounded by distance, whose gorgeous interweaving of parts over ostinato harmony made me think of the static “tone-colour” movement from Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces

Paul Driver, Sunday Times, 15 June 2008

Silvina Milstein ... had risen imaginatively to the challenge of the Association for Cultural Exchange to celebrate its 50th anniversary, creating a unique atmosphere by exploring remote and indefinable space. Based on the Sanskrit term ‘akasha – space and sky – surrounded by distance was designed to communicate her evocative response to ‘the boundless qualities of mind’ in an atmosphere of all-embracing spatial sound, expressing intense shades of colour and occasionally watery environment, via a 14-piece ensemble, including marimba and celesta.  After that floating, unearthly première performance, it was alleged that the Conductor Laureate of the London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, had perceived the rehearsals as ‘gentle journeys along a country lane, where you become gradually aware of the changes in time and scenery’.  In his customary – and exceptionally creative – manner he translated his timeless vision into an intensely ethereal version of dimensionless space, mystically conveying  – as Silvina Milstein averred in her programme notes – ‘a sense of simultaneously belonging to a vanishing present and an inaccessible past. 


John Wheatley, Tempo, Oct., 2008, Vol. 62, No. 246

London Sinfonietta/ Oliver Knussen, excerpt (opening)
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