What is the musical equivalent of an optical illusion? An aural illusion? Whatever it is, it is what I was aiming for when I wrote Codebreaker. The initial commissioning brief of Codebreaker was to use the forces of a large choir and symphony orchestra to tell the story of Alan Turing’s life through music. The obvious, and perhaps easiest, thing to have done would have been to have the choir act as a narrator relaying the events of Turing’s life with the orchestra illustrating those events musically. But after reading Andrew Hodges’ superb biography of Turing, I realised that this straight-on narrative approach wouldn’t allow me to explore the most fascinating aspect of the Turing story, that is, his extraordinary mind.
What kind of a mind do you have to possess in order to achieve so much in such a short space of time, that was the question that most intrigued me. So the illusion I hoped to conjure with Codebreaker was this: by asking every single one of the 150 singers in the choir ‘play’ Turing, to sing from his perspective, each singer representing a firing synapse in Turing’s brain, that this would bring his emotional and intellectual world to life so that those in the audience would be left with the distinct impression that Turing himself had been on stage, bearing his soul. Yes, it’s fanciful and presumptuous to imagine that such a thing is possible, but I’m a composer, ‘fanciful’ and ‘presumptuous’ are pretty much bullet points one and two on the job description.
So did it work? Well, I’m probably the least qualified person in the world to know either way, I’m too close to the creative process, still too tangled up in the technical detail to have the appropriate distance. But I was inundated with unusually emotional responses from those who were present at the world premiere, people were clearly very deeply moved. This was perhaps best summed up by Benedict Cumberbatch (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his sensational portrayal of Turing in The Imitation Game) who sent a message to say: 'I gripped the side of my seat trying not to weep. And failed... Deeply moving to all those increasingly familiar with Turing's story and profoundly beautiful, illuminating and touching to those who are to discover him through this piece.’
And now, as the second performance of Codebreaker approaches on May 17, what I’m most looking forward to is seeing how the interpretation of the choir has been coloured over the past year. I have a feeling that this performance will be very different from the first, packing an even harder emotional punch than that remarkable premiere. Hertfordshire Chorus and their Music Director David Temple have this music in their veins, they are the people who bought Turing to life for a brief moment last year, and they are going to do it again. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.