“Night Song” with the BBC Singers, 18th September 2018
At BBC’s Maida Vale studios, it’s like walking the length of a ship’s interior to reach Studio 2, except this great vessel runs, it seems, on the energies of music – a great orchestra in one studio, and in Studio 2, the source of power was the human voice and the compositional creativity of those gathered there. We spent the afternoon with six composers, and the BBC Singers, one of the greatest groups of professional singers in the UK. Under the guidance of two experienced composers, the choral pieces were performed twice – and all the composers, and one poet, were to get a rare revelation of the interior workings of the process of composition and its infusion through performance – how the original creative act impacts on performers, and how performers and others react to what a composer asks – a vital moment for all the creative artists of learning directly, live, how a work exists in the performance space, and how its communication can be clarified without any loss of its unique identity. It was therefore a catalytic experience, one of change in approach – how to communicate our vision as simply and powerfully as possible. And it’s an experience that all involved can completely trust, seeing as we were in the hands of such outstanding performers, and experienced commentators.
This “project work” approach – where the piece is performed once, discussed by the performers and the supervising composers, after the composer themselves have shared some of the vision and conception behind the work, and then performed again – has the effect of unlayering the individual works, and clearly revealing how they sit and sound within the choral voice, how the musical and textural message of the work communicates from a choir.
When it came to the turn of Night Song – written last year for Philomel, Janet Oates’ stunning new six-voice ensemble of young professionals – the work sounded clearly in the dry acoustic of the studio, it’s subtle rhythmic pattering creating and intensifying the powerful emotions within. It didn’t of course use the full choir, but six solo sopranos, who created the cumulative power of the work very movingly, the underlying emotions of the characters being alone and lost in a landscape that should be familiar, a theme of exile that I’ve explored extensively in recent work.
As the poet of the text, it was also a valuable learning experience. It confirmed for me what I’d been aiming for in the text – namely, that when it comes to texts, less is more, in that while a whole geology of meanings within a text is vital to its lasting power, for people to get involved autobiographically in a work, the text nonetheless needs allow the space for the music to grow around it, to develop into a collaboration and not a text-heavy experience.
I was left with a sense of discovery, new friendships, and deep gratitude. Thank you to so many, but especially to Dominic, whose astounding vision and gift took us to this day, this place, and a learning that will continue to affect us as our new works evolved.