Cowper’s Pocket Watch – a Musical Movement with Bassoon

William Cowper’s pocket watch, gifted to him by his cousin Theodora, has inspired a  new piece of music for bassoon by composer Lara Poe.

Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition (RÊVE) is a project and website which showcases and shares Romantic texts, objects, and places through collaborations between academic researchers, museums, galleries and other cultural groupings. 

10 objects from the Cowper & Newton Museum are explored as part of this online collection under the theme of ‘Romantic Dwelling’.  The dwelling of course is Orchard Side, the home of William Cowper between 1768 and 1786 and famous from Cowper’s death in 1800 onwards.

A further strand to this project was the commissioning of a musical suite where composers were asked to respond to any object in the REVE collection.  The Museum was delighted that Cowper’s pocket watch selected for inclusion by Dr Will Bowers, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Thought, was also chosen by Lara Poe, a Finnish-American composer who is currently based in London. 

Dr Bower’s full article , ‘William Cowper’s Pocket Watch’, can be found on the REVE website.

Lara Poe – Composer

‘The starting point for me was the mechanical aspect of the watch.  Indeed, the function of this watch is to mark off regular intervals of time, which is something I make use of throughout the piece.  In particular, the concept of some sort of metaphorical “repeater” (which also appears in Cowper’s poetry) is something I found as an interesting starting point, and I use certain material to mark off different sections of the piece. 

There are two types of primary material: a more mechanical, staccato material that evokes the ticking of a clock, which is distorted and appears in different guises throughout the piece, and a smoother, more sustained material, which grows and develops.  In the middle, these are combined when longer lines and passages are punctuated by accented multiphonics (a technique used to achieve a particular type of rich, resonant, sound containing multiple notes) and high notes, which then proceed to break down into loud, resonant sounds that are constantly shifting. 

As with a lot of my work, there was close collaboration with my performer, Olivia – lots of questions to make sure things were working as I had imagined, or to ask about specifics regarding certain extended techniques.’

‘Pocket Watch’ is one movement within the REVE  specially commissioned suite.  The full suite can be found on the Euromaticism website

A Pocket Watch composed by Lara Poe and performed by Olivia Palmer-Baker

Olivia Palmer-Baker – Bassoonist

I think the bassoon was a smart instrument for Lara to choose when responding to the Cowper watch. It would have been too obvious to choose percussion, and perhaps the higher-pitched instruments can’t access the ‘depths’ that a bassoon can, both in a literal sense but also in the sense with regards to the character of the timbral possibilities in the extended sound-world – particularly unique and unplaceable sounds. The piece was a microcosm that passed through many precise worlds; it was a challenge to transition so quickly between the ideas, but a fruitful challenge, as the material was worth persisting upon and polishing. As you can hear, there are a variety of sounds employed: the slap tongue and key noise, like a ticking watch; chromatic descending ‘multiphonics ‘ – simultaneous clusters of tones; exploring the natural harmonics of a ground tone; and of course the rich variety of harmonic material. Lara skilfully brings these complex ideas together and creates a piece showcasing possibilities of the bassoon, whilst staying true to its reflection of the Cowper watch.

For me personally, learning this piece and performing it in almost complete solitude (during COVID lockdown) was both a challenge and a blessing; whilst I had no audience in performance to react upon, I had the possibility to find a space with the right acoustic and the right atmosphere in which this piece requires. One feels very vulnerable playing as a complete soloist and, instead of reacting upon other musical material, one must either react to the environment or to something within themselves. With live performance environments in this time often limited to being a recording device and a camera in a practice space, the latter method is something I have had to utilize more, for sure in this case, and that has been a challenge but a challenge worthwhile, as part of our collective need to urgently keep creating – the end of these times are almost in sight!

William and Theodora had hoped to marry. Although they were first cousins, it seems that her father (William’s Uncle)  Ashley Cowper forbade the match due to William’s lack of prospects and the tendency of the pair to ‘melancholy’, a form of depression.  Theodora never married and continued secretly to send William money and gifts throughout his life.   She outlived William, and it was only after her death that his poems to her surfaced and were published.  In these poems William calls her his ‘Delia’.

Letter to Rev John Johnson from Lady Harriot Hesketh (William Cowper’s cousin and Theodora’s sister)

‘I Rejoice from my inmost Soul that the dear Soul himself thought of giving, I mean his Watch to my Sister Theodora. Yes, indeed he said very truly ” that is well known ” — it is well known to me, that watch was given to him by my Sister and was a Repeater of my Father’s — She gave it our dear Cousin because she knew he would value it for that Reason — pray dear Johnny take great care of it—wind it up exactly at the same hour every night, and take the first good and safe opportunity that may
offer of sending it to Mr. Hill, who, I will take care shall deliver it to my Sister who I believe you once saw at my House. I am indeed so rejoiced more than I can describe, that he thought of giving it her and that he said those words, which shall be faithfully transcribed to her with the Watch and will make it seem a Diamond!’


Author Credit:

Lara Poe is a Finnish-American composer who is currently based in London.  Poe has worked with musicians such as London Symphony Orchestra, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, the JACK quartet, the Semiosis Quartet, Kalle Hakosalo and Duo km2, Duo Cello Jaya, Laura Farré Rozada, Aija Reke, Jonathan Radford, and the Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra.  Her works have been performed across a wide range of venues, including LSO St. Luke’s, the Dimenna Center in New York, Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center in Tanglewood, Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo, Brahms Saal of the Musikwerein in Vienna, Snape Maltings, and the Sala Thalia in Sibiu, Romania.  Current engagements include a commission for the Flux Quartet, to be performed at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in August 2021.

This past September, Poe had a piece performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra with Dima Slobodeniouk conducting, as part of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra Nursery Garden Initiative.  While taking part in this project, Poe received mentoring from Sebastian Fagerlund.  Poe received the Patricia Plum Wilde fellowship to study at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2019 and represented Finland at Ung Nordisk Musik 2019 in Piteå.  She was also a 2018-2019 participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Scheme, where she worked under the guidance of Colin Matthews and Christian Mason.  Earlier engagemnts include participating in ICon Arts’ residency in Transylvania in 2018 with Joshua Fineberg, and taking part in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme with Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews in 2017.

Poe has received recognition in several competitions, most recently receiving the Theodore Holland Intercollegiate Composition Prize in 2020.  In 2017 she was the first female winner of the William Schuman Prize in the BMI Student Composer Awards, and in 2016 Poe won the American Prize in Chamber Music Composition, Student Division.  While studying at Boston University, Poe received both the Wainwright Prize and the Department of Music Theory and Composition Award.  She was also inducted into the honor society Phi Kappa Lambda.  At the RCM, Poe won the RCM Concerto Competition in 2018 and her orchestral piece Taivaanranta was subsequently performed at the RCM Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, conducted by Martin André.

Poe is currently studying for a Ph.D. at King’s College London, under the supervision of Sir George Benjamin and Silvina Milstein.  She began her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music Preparatory School, studying with Rodney Lister, although she moved to Finland for a few years and studied with Paavo Korpijaakko while there.  She then studied with several teachers – Martin Amlin, Richard Cornell, Joshua Fineberg, Alex Mincek, and Ketty Nez, during her undergraduate studies at Boston University.  Following her bachelor’s studies, Poe received a master’s degree with distinction from the Royal College of Music, London, where she studied with Kenneth Hesketh, after which she also pursued an ArtDip at the RCM, studying with Hesketh and Simon Holt.


Bassoonist Olivia Palmer-Baker: Innovation, exploration, and collaboration are at the core of bassoonist Olivia Palmer-Baker’s activity. Across the spectrum of her pursuits – from historical performance to experimental improvisaton – she wishes to discover new sonic possibilities, enable new musical and performative concepts to crystallise, and to create meaningful artistic experiences.

As a contemporary performer, Olivia is sought after: She has played with ensembles including the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra, Schwelbrand Orchestra Berlin, Ulysses Ensemble, and alongside Ensemble InterContemporain and London Sinfonietta, and has performed in festivals such as Klangspuren Schwaz, Snape Maltings, Royaumont, MusikFest Berlin, and Manifeste Paris. She is the 2020-2021 bassoonist of the BCMG NEXT Course, a founding member of experimental wind quintet PRISM Ensemble, a finalist in NonClassical Battle of the Bands with 4|12 Ensemble, and a former Featured Young Artist of the HardRain SoloistEnsemble.

As a soloist, Olivia has recently collaborated with composers Lara Poe for the solo commission ‘A Pocket-Watch’ as part of RÊVE ‘DREAMing Romantic Europe’, Arnau Brichs for a collaboration mostly made in Lockdown toward the piece ‘Detective Silence’ for bassoon and electronics, premiered at the Royal Academy of Music in 2020, and with José del Avellanal for the electroacoustic piece ‘A landscape for Olivia’, which harnesses and develops upon the extended acoustic possibilities of the bassoon. She has also improvised as a soloist at the launch of composer Alex Hill’s album ‘Outsidein’, as well as in online collaborations between PRISM Ensemble and guest artists, in collaboration with the Thinking Minds Project, with notable improvisers Zeena Parkins and Melinda Maxwell, and in the Exploratorium Berlin alongside Matthias Schwabe.

Olivia is currently a student at the UDK Berlin, where she is the first bassoonist ever to study joint modern and period intruments, with Eckart Hübner, Veikko Braeme and Christian Beuse. She is very grateful to be supported by the Neil Black Award from the Countess of Munster, the Wiseman Prize from the James Caird Travelling Scholarship, and the Wolfson Foundation.

February 2020: solo recital in Milan with Divertimento Ensemble, an opportunity won via their  ‘io resto a casa’ competition  ‘Blaues Fragment’ by Pierluigi Billone . For this Olivia spent a lot of time researching some extended techniques.  The recital will feature a premiere of a piece with the research put into practice.

November 2020 Baroque Ensemble (Bach)

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