One of the key moments in the creation of the libretto for 17 Days was the discovery of the works of the English poet Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). I fell instantly in love with her direct, unadorned, yet deeply evocative style. So much so, that I ended up using two of her poems in 17 Days: Do dreams lie deeper and A quoi bon dire. Returning to her poems again several months later, I can see why - on a purely technical level - I was drawn to them. The line lengths are short, there are few awkward polysyllabic words (which play havoc with a beautifully shaped musical line) and the poems bloom with lovely long vowel shapes.
The subjects that she chooses to write about (at least in the poems I have chosen) are gently poignant, not railing against the Gods in any melodramatic way, but focusing instead on moments of keen longing. As an example, here's the last stanza of A quoi bon dire:
"And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair."
Incidentally, the first two lines of the poem as Mew wrote them are: "Seventeen years ago you said / Something that sounded like goodbye". In my setting I changed "years" to "days", the coincidence of the fact that the miners were trapped undiscovered underground for 17 days being far too strong for me to resist a little poetic licence.
Mew herself was a fascinating character: a fiercely private person, she kept her hair short and had a habit of wearing gentlemen's clothing. Her life ended in tragedy. Inconsolable after the death from cancer of her sister, Anne, Mew committed suicide by drinking Lysol (a cleaning detergent) in March 1928. She is buried alongside her sister in the north end of Hampstead Cemetery, NW6, not far from where Crouch End Festival Chorus rehearse today…
"And how does one bury the breathless dreams ? -
They are not of the earth and not of the sea,
They have no friends here but the flakes of the falling snow;
You and I will go down two paces -
Where do they go?"
(From Do dreams lie deeper? by Charlotte Mew)
Two children's choirs will be joining Crouch End Festival Chorus at the world premiere of 17 Days: Finchley Children's Music Group and Coldfall School Choir. I've always loved writing music for children's choirs because they invariably sing my music with touching enthusiasm.
Which isn't to say that writing for children is easy, not by any means. Writing a piece that is readily singable without patronising or talking down to the children is notoriously tricky. Writing such music within the context of a much larger fully 'grown up' piece is altogether more complicated.
In 17 Days, the children have a pivotal role to play. At the beginning they set the scene, playing the dual roles of news reporters flying in from afar to cover the unfolding crisis, and angels on high reflecting on the events. They sing: "News is coming in of a collapsed mine in northern Chile, which has left over 30 miners trapped. Nobody knows if they are alive or dead." Their unearthly tune is punctuated by violent outbursts from the brass and percussion and is constantly underpinned by the slightly menacing, propulsive rhythms swelling up from the adult choir. The children - and their melody - fly above it all…
Later in 17 Days, the children again take centre stage in the setting of Emily Dickinson's poem, Hope. Here they sing:
"And sweetest in the Gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest Sea;
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb of me."
Again the children's melody appears to lift them above the drama of the scene below, this time embodying Dickinsons "little bird" so abashed by the storm. The innocent and moving beauty of Dickinson's text is reflected in the abundant tunefulness of the children's melody and will be amplified further still by the natural innocence of their performance. It should be a magical effect - I can't wait to hear it!
Giving the miners a voice was one of the biggest challenges of 17 Days. In spite of the dozens of newspaper articles, books and documentaries that have been written to try to describethe miners' existence during the period before their discovery, there is still a hole at the centre of this story - the miners themselves have largely kept their pact of silence.
And yet I felt it was critical to the structure of the work that we reflect events from the miner's perspective below ground, so I commissioned the poet and playwright Carol Lashof to write a sonnet on that subject. The resulting poem, We live in mud, is the black heart of the piece. I've collaborated with Carol on a number of projects over the years, including two operas, and she has a very special ability to write not just great poetry, but also to write singable texts instinctively.
Here is a great example from halfway through the poem: 'Aloud I say that help will come, but fear, / like dust, comes in with every breath, and I -/ I am so afraid of losing you, my dear.' Elegant, simple, heartfelt verse with lots of generous vowel shapes - aloud, fear, breath, losing, dear - all absolutely perfect for me as a composer and also gratifying for the singers to perform.
CEFC are truly the most adventurous and exciting choir in the world at the moment and it's truly humbling to hear my music performed so beautifully at the rehearsals. All I can say is that it's going to be a very special concert indeed. Grab some tickets while you still can - I'll see you there!
Life changes in the blink of an eye, or the striking of a piano key. As I type, my 12-day-old daughter sleeps in a cradle beside me and my elbows rest on a three-inch deep stack of instrumental part proofs and a completed full score of 17 Days. So while I haven't written a new blog for a while, I'm sure you'll understand that I have been productive in other areas…
When I last blogged back in July I was in the midst of composing the ecstatic 15-minute climax of 17 Days; a depiction of a miners' thunderous journey up the rescue tunnel to resurrection. The words at the beginning of this sequence are from Emily Dickinson's poem Hope: "Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without words / And never stops at all." I imagined the miners opening their arms, sprouting wings and flying up the rescue tunnel. Poetic imagery often unlocks my musical imagination, the truth that the miners bumped and bounced their way up to the surface in what was essentially a slow and rattling elevator was rather too prosaic.
Dickinson's next stanza has a touching innocence: "And sweetest in the gale is heard / And sore must be the storm / That could abash the little bird / That kept so many warm." I decided that the children's choir should take the tune for these lines as their voices more naturally exemplify the fragility of the "little bird", hope.
The structure of the work then suddenly ruptures, as though the ascending miner breaks suddenly from their reverie and is filled with an overwhelming sense of exultation. The words at this point come from the King James Bible (John, 11:25): "I am the resurrection and the life". These were the words that opened the piece some forty minutes previously but set to new music; the tone and interpretation of them transformed from exclamatory to doubtful, and finally to jubilant.
The words for the final pages of the work are also from the King James Bible (Isaiah 26:19): "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust. Awake!" The tone of the music here is a mirror image of that which opened the work: congregational, loud, powerful and full-hearted.
The climax of 17 Days is a blaze of glory that is made all the more radiant by the pitch-black darkness of the music and words that precede this fifteen-minute crescendo. And the dark heart of 17 Days will be the subject of my next blog… Excuse me, it's time to change a nappy!
If you've ever been in the same room as a composer who's working at a piano you'll be familiar with the concept of aural torture. The other week, I spent well over an hour pounding out tonic and dominant chords in just one key, C major, without any significant variation in rhythm or volume (loud). Luckily, I was the only person within earshot or I've no doubt that I would have been "silenced" by whatever means necessary at about the twenty-minute mark. And rightly so. There's no acceptable excuse for such obsessive, self-absorbed behaviour. Unfortunately, it's a vital part of my creative process.
The American composer John Adams once said that every generative musical idea he had ever had he had whilst improvising at a piano. Composers differ on this point, some don't even touch a musical instrument when they're composing, but personally I couldn't agree more with Adams. The unfortunate thing for those unlucky enough to bear witness to my creative process (my wife and cats, mainly) is that the music can take a long time to form and take shape in my imagination. Which means that I can sit at a piano for hours playing the same two or three chords over and over, making infinitesimal changes to the attack, dynamics and harmony each time.
And the effect from my point of view at the piano is all-embracing, my entire consciousness if focused on this single musical colour, reality fades from view. To an onlooker, on the other hand, it must look like a pigeon pecking endlessly at an empty crisp packet, trying to extract a crumb from it.
But why is it so slow? The truth is, I'm not sure. But I think it has something to do with the impermanence of musical ideas in my aural imagination. Musical ideas, chords, fragments of melody take a long time to bed themselves in to the sound world I'm struggling to create. The consolation, I hope, is that the thoroughness of this approach shows in the finished work. Every note you will hear (or sing) at the premiere will have had to justify its existence thousands of times before it is even committed to the page. Just pity my neighbours.
Until I sat down to write this, my first 17 Days blog, I didn't quite realise how difficult it was to write about my own music. There's a sense that I don't want to look too closely at my creative process in case I break the spell. But at the same time, I would like to use this blog as a way of telling you a little about how I am approaching this vast new piece for Crouch End Festival Chorus and hopefully to shine a light on the kinds of exertions and mental assault courses I have tackled and continue to tackle in the creation of 17 Days. After all, composing is a pretty unusual thing to do with your time. The very idea of trying to imagine an original musical language and structure and then trying to write it down on manuscript paper is, frankly, nuts.
But the creative process fascinates me. I'm actually a bit of a nerd when it comes to discovering little details about other composer's working processes like: what grade of pencil do they use? Do they sit at a piano? Do they use Sibelius? etc. I guess that I'm really looking for confirmation from a peer that the way I create music myself is in some way valid. In practice, I find it useful to constantly shift perspectives on a composition as I'm writing it. Like a painter moving around the room to see their canvas from as many different angles as possible, I find that I'm pretty much in a constant state of flux moving from the piano, to the computer, to composing in my head (usually whilst cycling). But for 17 Days I've tried to impose a modicum of discipline on this approach. And so the music often begins in my head. This happens very consciously, I don't dream musical ideas (at least not ones I can remember) and I rarely find that music sneaks up on my without me knowing. Instead I have to make a conscious effort to imagine what the music would ideally sound like to fulfil a specific function in the piece. It can often take many hours of this kind of purely cerebral composition before the music starts to take on a concrete form.
The next step is to start trying to find the notes at a piano. It's usually at this point that the original conception of the piece dissolves and distorts to meet the capabilities of what my fingers can conjure at the piano. So it's absolutely vital for me to avoid slipping into comfortable hand-shapes at the keyboard, over-used gestures that will tether the free-flying music too firmly to the ground. I do this in a number of ways: by crossing my hands over to find chords, moving the piano stool up and down the keys, standing up, closing my eyes, anything, in fact, to avoid slipping into anything too comfortable. If I negotiate this particular obstacle with an acceptable degree of success I will then write the music out completely longhand (with a black fine-tipped pen, in case you were wondering. Although I'm pretty sure you weren't). I will then copy the music up into Sibelius. Which is when some real enemies to genuine creativity loom out of the darkness like a swarm of thirsty vampire bats. But I'll get back to that another time…
17 Days is a work in progress for large chorus, children's choir, brass ensemble and percussion. The 17 days in question are those spent by a group of 33 Chilean miners and their families in August 2010 when a substantial section of the San Jose mine in Northern Chile collapsed, trapping the men 700 metres below the ground. The initial concept for the piece came from David Temple and immediately I could see the dramatic potential of the scenario. Coincidentally, the idea was originally discussed the night before the miners started emerging from the mine in front of an audience of billions. That all seems like such a long time ago now. I've passed through so many different creative directions, dead ends, rewrites and mass deletions that I must have written over four hours of material that will never be used. And there is still a fair old distance remaining to travel. As it stands today, the piece is 29 minutes long and it will be 39 minutes before it's finished and rehearsals can get underway. Which, of course, is when the fun really begins.