Juggling

Life is a bounteous thing. There are so many paths; so many experiences to have. There are people with whom to share life, be it your family, old friendships and acquaintanceships, or new meetings; places to walk or see; books, music, art &c. to be absorbed; work to be done, be it creative or functional; and ideas and aspirations to be pursued. It can be difficult to know where to turn. Every day there are a multitude of decisions that are made that shape and come to define what and who we are. In my life, with our four young children (ranging from 8 months to 7 years), and multitudinous projects and aspirations on the go, as a composer, academic, writer and singer, it can become seriously overwhelming, trying to decide what to get done. This blog has stagnated, in part because I have not known what to write about from the many things going on, and in part for trying to get on with those things in the first place! This last month or so has seen me singing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Gurney’s Western Playland for the first time (amongst other singings), lecturing on Gurney and First World War music, writing a CD booklet note for a new disc due out in October, as well as making some substantive progress with my book on Gurney, completing the composition of an extended work for soprano and piano and trying to build momentum on a rare commission, trying to keep on top of the numerous orders for orchestral parts for forthcoming Gurney performances, and edging closer to the submission to the publishers of both the first volume of the big Gurney poetry edition (2 weeks, fingers crossed!) and a volume of his songs.  I’ve also had an article and a poem published.  This is all before we get onto the family and the job searching and applications I am making to try to afford to keep a roof over our heads. I am certain that this is a light load compared to many; but I think it is the juggling that takes its toll, not knowing quite which hat you need to be wearing.

It has been suggested that I ‘give something up’; that I whittle down what I do in order to focus on just one thing or another. The problem is, what? They are all important parts of what I am.  The family, the singing, the telling-the-world about all the things that excite me, and my original work.  I did stop this latter for over a decade, but it has grown increasingly important to me; even necessary.  It was my frustration at not being able to express myself and exorcise ideas from my brain that drove me back to it in 2011; and while I have enjoyed being out of the cathedral system in which I served for two decades, I do greatly miss the regular singing and return to it with renewed joy when the few opportunities arise for me to sing.  If anything I should like to do more singing, but what gives in its stead?  And there is that eternal question which performers ask, and indeed composers of their works: how do I get more performances than I am getting?  The only answer, I think from experience, is to get out there and meet performers and promoters and to arrange your own outlets — all of which is, I think, more difficult when located in rural Devon rather than a bustling metropole, perhaps.  I haven’t yet ‘put myself out there’ in Devon, following our move here a few years ago.  Something on the ‘To-do’ list — although we do not yet know whether we are able to put permanent roots down here, as we crave.

There are things that suffer: I always try to give 100% of myself to whatever task is in hand, and being a perfectionist in my work I do try to work things through meticulously, which takes time.  In crossing between tasks, however, it can take yet more time to eke one’s way back in, to pick up where one left off.  In that crossing between tasks, sometimes, days or weeks later, one finds a small detail niggling at the back of your mind that you might have missed.  Occasionally a ball is dropped, and something that might only take a day to polish off can end up waiting three months before it is ‘got round to’.  Emails — one of the banes of modern life, but a wonderfully useful tool when used in moderation — can very quickly sink below the screen and end up being forgotten.  The deadline of a performance or lecture date focus the mind wonderfully, there being no leaway with such events that require you to stand up and present something at a particular time; but other things can get a little lost in the midst of all.

On a more personal note, I am not in touch with my friends as frequently as I should like, but I am fortunate in being able to see my family far more than many another working father would, which is a great great joy.  (Being here when the children return from school/nursery; and our 8-month-old little boy is just starting to explore speech sounds, although only two words with association have yet been formed: ‘cat’ and, just this lunchtime, that most important of words, ‘Tea’.)  But I still worry about how much time I spend at my desk when they are around, and how I can be a better husband; a better father.  This worry grows as I look to a possible future as a full-time academic — should any of my applications ever bear fruit, wherever in the country such a post might take us.

While it can be difficult to juggle several careers (as such) — aspects of my work which it is easy to pigeonhole and separate out, to undertake alone as a sole pursuit — the exciting thing about them all is how they feed into each other and enrich each single occupation.  My academic work on poetry informs my understanding of the poetry I sing; the performing of that poetry through singing enhances my understanding of it, which feeds into my research and writing about those works (I am fortunate in being asked most frequently to perform the British music I study); that same act of singing, both of music and words, and the wider study of words and music, enhance both my composing and my own poetry.  My family is the bedrock of all; the constant against which all else shifts and grows and renews.

So yes, life is bounteous thing, and while I could, theoretically, give up some aspect of my work, making additional room for the other aspects, it would diminish both myself and those other pursuits to do so.  It would be very difficult for me to give one of them up, and anyway, I am unable to choose which it would be.  The creativity became a physical necessity and so I had to take up that mantle again; the more academic tasks excite me and I feel hugely proud and privileged to have played a part in bringing new works out of the archive to publication and performance, and to be setting the record straight on one certain Mr. Gurney.  As for the family: before I turned 30 I imagined myself to be a bachelor, devoting my life to research.  One chance meeting changed this, and our family has become the greatest thing I have ever done.  So I cannot give up anything.  Nor can I do as I have so often been implored, to keep it all as a hobby and go and get a job in a bank.  If anything I should like to turn my hand to additional things, to letterpress printing; to visual art, in which I dabbled long ago; and to do more walking, gardening and cooking, all of which I love.

So often in life, we have to choose.  We have to set ourselves in one pigeonhole or another.  When dealing with the systems of ‘civilisation’, be it for car insurance, loans or other such a thing, you need to be able to define yourself as one thing or another; you need to be able to give a single label occupation.  Life isn’t like that.  We grow in many directions, and to cut off one of those directions can compromise what we are.  So I shall carry on juggling.  I shall keep on composing, writing, singing, researching, being a husband and father, for all of these are what I am.  I shall keep trying not to let a ball drop, and to keep bringing the various ideas and projects to fruition.  It may take me years, but I get there, and each time something is finally put to bed one of the amassing reservoir of new ideas will take its place.  New works, new research projects, new challenges and adventures for the family.  A juggle, a worry at times, with often not enough of a living to be financially comfortable, but worth every moment.

Advertisements

Exclusive opportunity to hear a Gurney String Quartet!

Next weekend, on Sunday February 11th, there is an exclusive opportunity to hear the first performance of Ivor Gurney’s late D minor String Quartet, composed in December 1924-January 1925. The Bridge String Quartet are to perform the work at the University Women’s Club, 2 Audley Square, London, in an event which is seeking to raise funds for a forthcoming recording on EM Records.

The Gurney Quartet survived by chance, where all of his other late chamber works are missing—presumed destroyed, and has been reconstructed from surviving, heavily revised, parts by Michael Schofield — the Bridge Quartet’s violist. The Adagio from the quartet, reconstructed by myself, was recorded a few years ago, so it is tremendously exciting to be able to hear the whole of the piece. I shall be talking about the history of Gurney’s Quartet, and will also be introducing and singing the baritone solo in Gurney’s 1920 song cycle The Western Playland, which will be performed in an edition I made a few years ago. As I have said elsewhere on this blog (See Here), The Western Playland has had a difficult history, post-publication, and is nowhere near as well known as it should be. It is a remarkable piece, and I hope that its forthcoming recording with Roderick Williams, the Bridge Quartet and pianist Michael Dussek, will revive its fortunes. For Sunday, it is slightly nerve-wracking being Roddy’s ‘stunt-double’ for an afternoon, but it is amazing how much physically performing a work increases the amount one gets inside it and come to know more about it, even having spent many hours editing and writing about the piece.

If you would like to attend the performance/talk next Sunday (11th February) please email info@bridgequartet.com to let them know you are coming. Tickets will be £15 on the door, but the Quartet would like to know numbers in advance for the purposes of wine and cake!

A Christmas Offering

In recent weeks I have been revising and completing a piece which I first drafted a year ago: an Aubade for Christmas Morning, for 2-part trebles and string quartet. It is a setting of a short poem by the Finnish poet Bo Carpelan (1926-2011), in a translation by David McDuff, ‘The green tree, the blue sea’, from Carpelan’s collection The Cool Day (1961). It is not an openly ‘Christmassy’ poem, if there is such a thing. Indeed it doesn’t even mention that, or any other, season — nor indeed any time of day. It is extraordinarily simple in its means. A tree holds its arms above a child; the sound of the sea mingles with the child’s breath. These interactions with the child happened ‘years ago’, and yet the tree and the sea remain: through them we have a connection with that child. The child might be any child, but the apparent need to hold that connection, to feel that link, made me think of a particular child whose birth we celebrate in late December. My aubade echoes the procession of these ideas: the peace of the child; the passing of time; and the joy at the realisation that the connection with the child remains. Whilst I completed that first draft some while ago, the end has always nagged at me as being unsatisfactory. It was just too unabatedly joyful; its end to too decisively affirmative. Those who know me will testify to my curmudgeonliness. I am what is most properly known as a ‘grumpy bugger’ — but that is not to say that I don’t know joy. I merely express it in more introverted ways. One of those ways is through my music, where one can risk just a little joy, but — as in the case of the Aubade — it can’t be too forthright in its expression. So, I revised the end, the joy easing into a peace imbued with that joy; a peace born of the knowledge that we share those connections of the tree and sea that witnessed the child’s being. The Christmasness (if there is such a word) of the setting is affirmed in small nods to both ‘The Sussex Carol’ and ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ in the acompaniment.

There are, I suppose, two questions that might be asked: why did I turn to a Finnish poet, and why the curious and unusual accompaniment for string quartet? The answer lies in a short piece by the remarkable Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, whose work I admire enormously: Vintern var hård — ‘Winter was hard’ (click here to hear the piece on YouTube). When exploring Sallinen’s works, in the wake of my discovery of his music through the fabulous Barrabas Dialogues, I stumbled upon Vintern var hård. I was struck by its remarkable texture — treble voices and string quartet — and its austere atmosphere. However, I was frustrated, solely from a musical perspective, that the piece didn’t progress or develop significantly. I felt there was so much more scope for the thing. However, Sallinen is in fact absolutely correct in his conception of the piece! He sets a poem from Bo Carpelan’s 1969 poetry collection The Courtyard, which is a series of poems which draws upon Carpelan’s recollection of his 1930s childhood in Helsinfors. The collection is inhabited solely by what he describes as the poor; the beaten; the silenced. Austerity is both the subject and the means of the poetry. In the short poem set by Sallinen, there is insufficient bread for the dissatisfied ducks, never mind the people; the water is freezing and ‘even the money froze inside the bank’. ‘Saturday evening’, he writes, ‘could only be celebrated every second Saturday.’ Winter was hard. Therefore the unyielding austerity of Sallinen’s setting — the purposelessness in its staid demeanour — is wholly in keeping with the poem. He is taking heed of Carpelan, echoing absolutely his image.

To answer my musical thoughts, I thought I would explore a piece of my own for the ensemble; and what better way to pay homage to that work by setting Carpelan, as did Sallinen. I have a ‘thing’ about Finland–Swedish poetry, and indeed Nordic music, so was only too glad to become better acquainted with Carpelan’s work through the means of David McDuff’s invaluable translations. (If you are so inclined, I do urge you to seek out his translations both of Carpelan and, more especially, the contemporary Finland–Swedish poet Tua Forsström, the latter available from Bloodaxe.) And so my Aubade for Christmas Morning was born, set with the kind permission of Carcanet Press, the publisher of McDuff’s translation of a set of three collections by Carpelan, gathered together in a volume from Carcanet titled Homecoming (1993).

With such an esoteric accompaniment, I suppose one might perhaps turn one’s mind to arranging the piece for something more generally useful, like trebles and organ. The problem is that, if I were writing the piece for organ, it would be an entirely different piece: I would not have written it as it is. It has been conceived for the string quartet and I don’t think it would work satisfactorily on the organ. It might perhaps be feasible to arrange the accompaniment for organ with violin obligato, but I’m not wholly sure. For now, however, it will stand as it is, and I shall move on to other works that are craving my immediate attention. In writing the work in the way I did, I had in mind Lichfield Cathedral, where, until December 2014, I was bass Lay Vicar Choral in the cathedral choir. In recent years they had been having a string quartet join the choir to accompany Christmas morning eucharist alongside the organ. Sadly this hasn’t happened since I wrote the piece.

Do you have a quartet at your disposal alongside a girls’ or boys’ choir? Or are you perhaps performing the Sallinen and wondering about a companion piece? Do get in touch if you would like to see the score. I shall be having it printed before long to make it available.

A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 

Gurney & Thomas in Arras

On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference.  I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas.  The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded.  That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.

The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken.  A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’

‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’  In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’  There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’

Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew.  It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present.  Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915

Shifting perspectives: The growth of a work

Since late last year I have, in a few idle moments, been writing a work for unaccompanied SSAATTBB choir that has been in my mind for a few years: a Lenten reflection on mortality, ‘We are but dust’. As always, the process of writing has become a voyage of exploration. The ideas with which the work was conceived have grown and developed, and I am hopeful that this Reflection will come to fruition in the next couple of months (too late for this Lent, alas, but in good time for next). 

One of the passages I have written I like very much, but there is a problem: the music has become too overblown for the context — a passage from a poem by Edward Thomas (set alongside a verse from psalm 103). The Thomas needs something more subtle, so I must scrap the passage which had grown. 

A few weeks ago I was reading William Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas. It is a remarkable and beautiful weaving of mythology, which I shall be revisiting soon. Whilst reading ‘Night the Second’, two lines stood out at me:

Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain

To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss.

Somehow, part of this suited the music I had had to cut from the Reflection; and these lines could also provide a wonderful counterpoint to the thoughts on mortality in the Reflection. It occurred to me that, with its common theme and shared music, it might form an Epilogue to the piece, or better still an Epilogue to a pair of such Reflections. So I now have a set on my hands, in development; a set in which the two initial Reflections might be performed singly, but the whole might also be done, with a connecting Epilogue. The multiple architectural requirements need some consideration, and will work out in the writing. More fundamentally, a second text needs to be settled upon. I have one option in hand, but it will take a while for me to know if and what will be the right course and text for the piece. In the meantime I shall be able to complete the original, first Reflection, and send that self-contained part out into the world. 

I very often curse my brain for coming up with ideas, so creating work and projects that I often do not have the time for; but I do get excited by the ideas and the process of bringing them to fulfilment. Whether it is of Gurney and my other scholarly pursuits, or my own ideas, I keep striving to clear the decks, bringing projects and ideas to a close and so exorcising them from my brain so that they don’t keep pestering me. The only problem is — at times frustrating, at times thrilling — that completing and bringing these ideas to fruition, exorcising them from the mind, only makes room for yet more ideas that clamour for my attention and time. I can’t suppress a slight frisson of excitement at both the prospect of completing current projects, so sharing them with the world, and at what might fill the relative void when they are done. 

A New Collaboration: The Canticle in Exile

In December I was sent some Christmas texts by the poet and librettist Euan Tait. I had first encountered Euan and his extraordinary facility, craft and vision, in his libretto for a choral symphony by my friend Paul Spicer, Unfinished Remembering. We crossed paths a couple of times thereafter, and began an occasional correspondence; he heard my setting of Gurney’s Bach and the Sentry and attended the premiere of War Passion, and we began to talk about whether we might perhaps collaborate on a work. 

We were hoping to meet and talk in the summer, but life and a house-move intervened. So, in December, Euan sent me some Christmas poems. Euan’s poems were remarkable for the freshness, vitality and reinvigoration of what I have sometimes thought to be hackneyed ways of the well-trodden path of Christmas. But, for personal reasons, I felt ill-suited to them, and that I couldn’t take on their setting with sincerity. In my reply to Euan I mentioned that I had been wondering whether I might find a way to channel my worries for, and about, the current refugee situation into a piece. The Calais camp had not long been cleared; reporting of the battle for Aleppo was at its peak; and I was struck by some lines from an article by Robert Fisk in The Independent, which came to my attention at that time: ‘Barbed wire along the Hungarian border, barbed wire at Calais’. Where is the compassion and humanity in denying temporary refuge to those who are fleeing war and death? I feel voiceless and powerless to change the political juggernaut, but I thought that I should say something in the way I best can. I sent my email to Euan, explaining this, late at night. I was a little worried about his being disappointed in my declining his Christmas poems. When his reply came the following morning, I was staggered to find an extraordinary new poem attached which voiced so powerfully my thoughts about the refugee situation. It immediately sang in me, suggesting its own music. Here was our first collaboration: Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile. In a few snatched moments in the last few weeks, between Gurney and the family, the music has begun to emerge onto the page. 

As you will see in the title, the work is a Canticle. Not a canticle as in the hymns said or intoned/sung at morning or evening prayer, but in the manner of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles. 

It is curious, perhaps, that with the death of Benjamin Britten, his Canticle ‘form’ died. Britten composed five such canticles, for varying chamber combinations.  The one constant is, as one might expect with Britten, is the tenor voice, with the canticles — like so many of Britten’s vocal works — being written for his partner Peter Pears.  The form is slightly difficuly to define, which may be the reason for its not having been taken on as a medium by other composers. For Britten, they grew out of the work of Henry Purcell; his Divine Hymns. They are semi-dramatic works in several sections; miniature cantatas and scena that often address a religious theme, but more often than not using texts of secular origin. 

Euan has long wondered about trying to rescucitate the Canticle, and this new collaboration marks — as the title implies — the first of a few such works that we intend to create together. (He has already sent, or read to me, his proposed texts for two further canticles. The flow, virility and bounty of his gift is miraculous and enviable. My music comes much more slowly.)

The text for this first canticle is a perfect successor to Britten’s canticles, and it is very much in that mode. It is a vehicle for the showing of humanity. It is a narrative of a woman fleeing with her son: Miriam; an Everywoman, who could be Mary fleeing with Christ in the wake of Herod’s diktat of slaughter, or the flight of   too many others from war or persecution. Euan’s poem encompasses the destruction of their lives, the decision to flee, the enmity with which they are viewed by some (‘We are strangers to you, not enemies’), and the great power of the humanity and compassion that might be shown by just one individual. 

I have returned to Purcell in my thinking about the form, and in my setting I have broken free of Britten by scoring it for soprano, with piano accompaniment. My early ideas added a clarinet to the mix, but this fell by the wayside the last time I was able to work on the canticle. I am excited by this new work, at being able to say something about the current (and historically recurrent) situation, and at my collaboration with Euan, which through our correspondence and first proper meeting last week, has become a sharing of friendship as well as of poetry and music. 

Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile will likely take me until the summer to complete, with my needing to focus my energies upon my Gurneian occupations, as well as in my wanting to complete a short choral work in progress. I have sounded out a soprano about perhaps bringing the canticle to performance and will share news of how things develop as and when they do. 

‘The cold was the borders of their mouths…’


To find out more about Euan Tait and his work, please do take a look at his website, euantait.com. Details of Paul Spicer’s Unfinished Remembering can be found Here, and a recording available Here.