Benedict Cumberbatch has his work cut out. When The Imitation Game hits the big screen later this year, we’ll know how he’s solved the Alan Turing riddle. That is: how do you portray a man who – by common consent – had a long list of eye-catching mannerisms (a grating, high-pitched laugh, a stammer of varying frequency and intensity, for starters) without completely misrepresenting Turing as a sort of jabbering loon, like Russell Crowe’s Turing-inspired character at the nadir of his nervous breakdown in A Beautiful Mind?
Turing led the world in so many disciplines – cryptanalysis, mathematics, computer science and programming, artificial intelligence, morphogenesis and more – it is barely conceivable that he should have achieved so much by the time of his death at the age of 41, 60 years ago. When I started researching Codebreaker, my new work for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra based on the life of Alan Turing, I was seduced by Turing’s multi-layered mind. The idea formed that maybe, rather than it being decidedly odd to ask 150 singers to ‘play’ Turing, in fact it may be the perfect solution to the riddle. Perhaps the rich complexity of Turing’s intellect would be far more appropriately brought to life by 150 people than by one.
Not many of Turing’s most private thoughts and feelings have been passed down to us. So coursing through the singers’ text for Codebreaker are poems that I imagined would give voice to them. Oscar Wilde (his epistle ‘De Profundis’), Wilfred Owen, Sara Teasdale, Edward Thomas and Robert Burns are all there, but there’s also a speech by Gordon Brown (the government ‘apology’ to Turing from 2009) alongside tender memories of Turing as a child, loosely based on Sara Turing’s touching biography of her son.
Despite the fact that Codebreaker is written on a grand scale (more than 200 singers and musicians will be onstage at the premiere) my aim was always to create an intimate experience, as though the listener is literally sitting across a table from Turing as he bares his soul. This poses a special challenge to the choir. I tend to conceive pieces cinematically whilst I’m wrestling with the dramatic structure, and in the case of Codebreaker I focused on two particular movie characterisations: Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. It’s fascinating to watch De Niro and Day-Lewis completely absorb their own personalities within the character they are playing, and how the camera hardly leaves their face for a moment. Their characters fill the frame. I wondered how it would be to have 150 singers lose themselves within the same character simultaneously. To the extent that during the rehearsal process they start to find new colours in their voice, perhaps wear their hair in a new way, dress differently. So that’s what I’ve tasked the Hertfordshire Chorus with: a kind of massed Method acting.
Will it work? Well, the beauty (curse?) of being a ‘pencil-and-paper’ composer is that you’ll find out at exactly the same moment as I do at the Barbican premiere on 26th April… Nervous? Me?