Proyecto orquestal Laredo 2017

Dos semanas en Cochabamba


(To my anglophone readers: the following is an outline in Spanish of the project I undertook in my native city, Cochabamba, in August 2017. Invited by Instituto Laredo, I spent two weeks discussing curricular ideas and preparing a concert of the Symphony Orchestra of Instituto Laredo. The concert took place on 24 August to a capacity audience of around one thousand. With many others, I consider the project an undiluted success.)



Invitado por el Instituto Eduardo Laredo, tuve el gusto de trabajar en mi ciudad natal durante la segunda mitad de agosto de 2017. Es la época habitual de las vacaciones con la familia, así que hube de apelar a la comprensión familiar para acordar una vacación sin mí. Así es que la familia se fue a Niza, yo me fui a Cochabamba.

Los términos de la invitación eran 1) analizar las mallas curriculares actuales y futuras y formular juicios constructivos con miras al establecimiento de ciclos de educación superior en el Instituto Laredo, y 2) preparar y dirigir un concierto con la Orquesta Sinfónica del Instituto Laredo. Ambos aspectos tienen su trasfondo que vale la pena mencionar.

En lo curricular, el proceso ahora en curso es la realización de una idea largamente acariciada por el fundador del Instituto, Don Franklin Anaya Arze (1912-1998), quien me había explicado muchas veces su ambición de instituir una carrera de música en el seno del Instituto. Don Franklin veía en esta idea la continuación natural del trabajo lento y arduo que ya se realizaba, el de proveer una educación integral artística, humanística e intelectual, y como conducto para canalizar el talento de los que desearan seguir una carrera musical.

Han tenido que pasar muchos años para que se pueda hacer un avance tangible en este proceso.    Don Franklin ya no está con nosotros, pero el actual director, Franklin Anaya Giorgis, enarbola la causa con la convicción y energía necesarias para llevar a efecto los planes.

El proyecto de educación superior en el Laredo no ocurre en un vacío; ha habido antes programas comparables en Bolivia. Dada mi larga ausencia del país no tengo la visión más completa de los avances realizados, pero puedo mencionar que el Taller de Música de la Universidad Católica (La Paz) produjo dos promociones de licenciados en música separadas por 25 años, con menciones en dirección y en composición. El Conservatorio Nacional, también en La Paz, ha consolidado sus atribuciones de titulación, estando ahora facultado para otorgar títulos de licenciatura. En Cochabamba, la Universidad Mayor de San Simón ha instituido la carrera de música que otorgará “Licenciatura en Música con Mención en Gestión de la Educación Musical Orquestal y Coral.” Tuve el gusto de dar dos clases allí el año pasado y encontré a un grupo dinámico y entusiasta liderado por Luis Moya y Giovanni Silva y grandemente fortalecido por la presencia eminente de Alberto Villalpando y de figuras más jóvenes y sólidamente formadas como Hugo de Ugarte y Bertha Artero.

Lo que se quiere hacer en el Laredo es distinto de lo que se ha hecho o intentado hacer antes. Aun en un caso óptimo en que los programas actuales continuaran y los anteriores resucitaran, el proyecto Laredo los complementaría muy bien, ya que se trata de un programa de estudios de interpretación orquestal, para el cual el Instituto tiene la experiencia y la infraestructura necesarias. Pero no nos precipitemos. Hay mucho trabajo preparatorio que hacer antes.

En mis conversaciones con los profesores del Instituto Laredo pude informarme de los contenidos y modalidades de enseñanza en los ciclos primario y secundario. Los planes para el ciclo superior están ya avanzados y fue posible analizarlos en detalle. Los indicios actuales permiten abrigar grandes esperanzas en este proyecto y desearle al Instituto Laredo mucho éxito, por el bien de las juventudes musicales bolivianas.

En cuanto al componente orquestal de mi trabajo en Cochabamba, el trasfondo es largo pero lo resumiré. Es sabido que en 2010 trabajé con los coros y la orquesta del Instituto Laredo para el reestreno de mi Misa de Corpus Christi. La orquesta había sido preparada por Augusto Guzmán - quien además había sido uno de los promotores de la idea - y yo sólo tuve que dar los últimos toques. En aquella oportunidad acordamos que yo dirigiría el estreno en El Campo y Augusto Guzmán el concierto en Tarata. Ambos estuvieron repletos y fueron muy bien recibidos. Posteriormente hubo otras presentaciones de la misa en mi ausencia, dirigidas por Augusto Guzmán.

Pasó el tiempo y cuatro años después, en 2016, estuve tres meses en Cochabamba, componiendo una obra para Juilliard[1]. Mi presencia en el Laredo fue privada más que profesional, siendo la prioridad mis labores de padre de familia. Pero asistí a un par de ensayos orquestales con la idea de diagnosticar la factibilidad de que se interpretara alguna obra mía, a sugerencia del Director del Instituto. Escuché a la Orquesta Juvenil, que estaba siendo preparada por la profesora Noemí Uzeda; estando esta orquesta en una fase inicial de su conformación (era febrero o marzo, a pocas semanas del inicio del año escolar) me pareció que sería insensato imponerles el reto de una obra contemporánea. Y escuché a la Orquesta Académica, que estaba siendo preparada por Miguel Ángel Salazar. Esta agrupación me impresionó por su disciplina y solidez técnica. Era evidente que se trataba de un grupo selecto de alumnos trabajando junto a profesores instrumentales. Con esa orquesta se habría podido hacer algo nuevo, pero ellos se estaban preparando para otro proyecto importante y no habría sido responsable distraerlos. 

La misión que se me propuso para agosto 2017 era la de trabajar con un grupo grande que reuniera a la Orquesta Juvenil y a la Orquesta Académica, con la finalidad de elevar el nivel general del trabajo orquestal en el Laredo. No era una misión fácil, dado el poco tiempo disponible y la disparidad de niveles de los participantes. La primera dificultad fue escoger un programa que retara a todos sin desmoralizar a los menos avanzados. El programa fue tema de detalladas discusiones a distancia con un grupo de profesores en el que los interlocutores activos, además del Director, eran Álvaro Cadima, Noemí Uzeda y Miguel Ángel Salazar Hidalgo.

Ellos me aseguraron que se realizaría un trabajo intensivo antes de mi llegada, con los vientos a cargo del Profesor Cadima y con las cuerdas a cargo de la Profesora Uzeda.  A mi llegada supe que también se habían realizado algunos ensayos generales con el profesor Augusto Guzmán.

Otros factores en la gestación del programa fueron la presencia en el proyecto del joven violinista Andreas Siles Mellinger, a quien todos deseábamos incluir como solista, y la influencia benévola de Miguel Ángel Salazar Hidalgo. Andreas Siles, exalumno del Instituto Laredo y actual estudiante de música en la Universidad de Viena, ha sido objeto de mi interés por algún tiempo, desde aquel día de 2010 en que un niño de diez u once años se me acercó para pedirme que le oyera tocar el violín y me impresionó con su capacidad y convicción precoces. Este joven talento ha ido desarrollándose hasta alcanzar un grado de profesionalismo que permite esperar grandes cosas para su futuro. Con él se discutieron distintas ideas de programación. La elección del Triple Concierto de Beethoven fue posible gracias a los buenos oficios de Miguel Ángel Salazar, cuyos contactos y alianzas permitieron asegurar la presencia de los otros dos solistas.


Inicié ensayos con las cuerdas el 14 de agosto y con los vientos el 17. Encontré a un grupo altamente motivado, resuelto a trabajar y muy receptivo a las indicaciones. La prevista disparidad de niveles era evidente y en su momento me causó preocupación. Llegué a dudar si la Octava Sinfonía de Beethoven había sido una elección sensata. Pero una vez emprendido el viaje, la única dirección posible era adelante, y así lo entendieron mis jóvenes colaboradores. Ninguno de ellos, ni estudiantes ni profesores, daba visos de dar marcha atrás. El reto era grande, pero el equipo se mostraba resuelto. Trabajamos hora tras hora, día tras día, muchas veces hasta el agotamiento. Éste era visible en los brazos acalambrados, en los ojos rojos y en los bostezos que se veían aquí y allá, sobre todo en los días finales. Pero más visibles eran el entusiasmo y el esfuerzo por mejorar. Nunca hubo señales de desaliento ni de desconcentración. Los jóvenes músicos practicaron, los profesores supervisaron y ensayaron junto a sus pupilos, y Miguel Ángel Salazar, además de hacer ambas cosas, se constituyó en director asistente, brindando su oído atento y observaciones juiciosas. Todos trabajaron, persistieron y, cuando hubo dificultades, lucharon. El resultado, como no podía ser de otra manera, es que vencieron sus dificultades, avanzaron, y llegaron lejos. El progreso fue sencillamente deslumbrante.


Si me cuesta abstenerme de señalar casos específicos es porque la distancia recorrida en este trayecto no fue la misma para todos. Aquellos que en un comienzo me habían parecido inseguros, poco preparados para emprender una sinfonía de Beethoven, pero que al cabo de una semana de trabajo sin descanso los vi tocando esa misma sinfonía seguros, resueltos, absortos en un trance de concentración, ellos merecen mi especial respeto. No los nombro, pero ellos saben quiénes son. ¿Tienen ellos más mérito que los otros, los que fueron solventes desde un principio, pero que con la disciplina y el esfuerzo que pusieron lograron también llegar más lejos - yo diría bastante más lejos - del punto de partida? Pregunta ociosa, quizá. No es necesario hacer distinciones. Todos avanzaron, todos lucharon, todos evolucionaron notoriamente a lo largo del proceso, y todos participaron con pasión en un concierto en el que vibró la energía de la juventud.


La noche del concierto en el Hotel Cochabamba el salón, con capacidad para más de mil personas, se veía lleno. El público de Cochabamba fue atento y generoso. Los jóvenes músicos mostraron que las horas y los días de trabajo no habían sido en vano, concentrándose para rendir todo lo máximo que su preparación permitía y desenvolviéndose, en suma, como verdaderos profesionales. Fue motivo especial de orgullo ver y oír a Andreas Siles Mellinger como solista junto una de las pianistas más destacadas del país, Adriana Inturias Villarroel, y junto a un cellista colombiano, Santiago Bernal, cuya carrera se asemeja a la del mismo Andreas Siles. Los tres se mostraron a la altura del gran desafío que constituye el Triple Concierto de Beethoven. En la Octava Sinfonía la orquesta realizó lo que se esperaba de ella, tocando con aplomo y energía, recreando el carácter vibrante, transparente y atlético de una obra que, aunque compuesta por un hombre de 42 años, rebosa de entusiasmo juvenil, frescura y humor. 


La idea de reunir a la Orquesta Juvenil con la Orquesta Académica para crear una superorquesta del Instituto Laredo resultó, en mi evaluación, un éxito. Gracias a una convergencia de programas de trabajo que hasta entonces habían funcionado por separado y con contenidos distintos, y gracias al espíritu colaborativo de sus profesores y estudiantes, el Laredo se adjudicó un triunfo. Así lo quise resaltar en mis palabras previas al concierto. Algunos asistentes interpretaron que al decir eso yo discriminaba entre los alumnos, una interpretación sorprendente que felizmente, según he podido establecer, no fue una percepción generalizada. Estando yo, como estaba, intensamente enfocado en la música que iba a dirigir, es muy posible que haya escogido palabras que no fueran las mejores. Respeto el parecer de las personas que me hicieron llegar su preocupación, pero estoy seguro de no haber dicho lo contrario de lo que quería decir, ni lo contrario de lo que mis actos demostraban.


El éxito es bueno en la medida en que causa felicidad e impulsa el progreso. El éxito del proyecto orquestal Laredo 2017 causó felicidad a muchos; lo sé porque vi sus caras, oí sus palabras y sentí el ambiente de triunfo colectivo. Todos los involucrados están orgullosos de lo que han conseguido, y si hay alguno que no lo esté debería estarlo. Cerrar los ojos al éxito y las causas del éxito sería un error que innecesariamente mermaría la felicidad e injustamente bloquearía el progreso. Este éxito, tal como dije en público, se debió al espíritu de unidad y colaboración que animó el proceso. Fue un triunfo de todos los participantes. Se lo puede repetir con otro líder, pero no con otro espíritu. 
















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[1] https://www.juilliard.edu/ -- https://www.facebook.com/TheJuilliardSchool/

More on Notes from Underground

Who better to write - or talk - about this piece than the man of letters who produced the words, Sean O'Brien. Apropos of the - then - impending repeat performance at the Newcastle Poetry Festival 2017, O'Brien gave an interview on the subject. As to me, I probably said as much as I need to say about this piece in last year's blog entry.

Today's is only an update on this piece's afterlife so far. The Newcastle performance - Gateshead, in fact, in Hall Two at Sage - was one to be proud of. Voices of Hope, still fresh from their BBC Choir of the Year triumph, gave a committed, thoughtful, polished performance. Marcus Farnsworth showed impressive knowledge and understanding of the piece with his deep, characterful and vocally splendid rendition. Hugh Brunt held everything together as conductors should: firmly, confidently, without fuss. The players of Royal Northern Sinfonia did what one expects them to do, past masters of their instruments that they are.

Before that, at the Sigismund Toduța Festival 2016, Notes from Underground received a performance that shed a different light on the piece at the Philharmonic Hall in Cluj-Napoca. The young conductor Vlad Agachi had the difficult task of making the piece happen with a student orchestra. It is, of course, no ordinary student orchestra, but that of the Gheorghe Dima Academy. They generously appointed an entire orchestral string section rather than the expected one-player-to-a-part. The result showed me a whole new range of possibilities I had not foreseen, and made me decide to reorchestrate the piece for full orchestra.  Cristian Hodrea was an imposing vocal presence and Cappella Transylvanica gave a breath-takingly well prepared performance. I felt privileged to see their talents poured so generously into this music.

Fierce River

Since the première at Lincoln Center, Río Bravo has undergone a significant revision. The aim, as ever, is to make the piece as effective as possible for the widest possible range of performers. This claim may seem questionable given the pervading technical difficulty in most of my work. But the truth is I do try. 


I am not at liberty to share publicly New Juilliard Ensemble's recording. Until such time as a recording can be made available to a general audience, here is a computer demo of the revised version.  We now the limitations of computer demos, but dissemination is important, so needs must.

In honour of the location of the river that gave rise to it - no pun intended - I think I will re-title it, now in English:  Fierce River. 

Río Bravo

Río Bravo is a piece for large chamber ensemble, of eleven minutes’ duration. It was commissioned by Joel Sachs for his New Juilliard Ensemble. 

The size and makeup of the ensemble are similar to those in Notes from Underground, the work I wrote in 2015 to poems by Sean O’Brien. For this reason, among others, I had intended the new piece to be a natural continuation to the previous one. 

As well as feeling like the natural thing to do, it is always reassuring to be able to pick up from where one left off.  A phrase by Octavio Paz comes to mind: a poet has no biography - his work is his biography. It would be untruthful to say that my work is intentionally autobiographical, but there are many ways in which surroundings, atmospheres, social context and historical moment determine one’s musical thinking. In this broader context, one’s state of mind, which is the result of past, recent and contemporaneous experiences, are, inescapably, a strong factor too. 

Then there is the element of continuity. I would not class this as inescapable, but it does also seem a natural thing to do to take material from the last piece as the springboard for the new one. Often towards the end of a compositional process, with the deadline looming large, something happens, and idea comes up that serves to break a deadlock, to turn a corner. This idea performs its useful role, the purpose for which it was conjured up, but then, instead of staying there, it refuses to go away. It shows to have an afterlife, an energy which the immediate use that was made of it has not exhausted. That is the typical candidate to be a springboard for the next piece. 

For the Juilliard commission, I had decided quite clearly what I wanted to do: my intention was to revisit the Kobold. For those who don’t know - and I certainly didn’t before my collaboration with Sean O’Brien - the Kobold is a presence, a being, a sprite. This is not the place to explain at length, but suffice it to say that the Kobold is often found in underground locations. O’Brien invoked it as a creature of the mines, and this, of course, has strong echoes of el Tío, the presence that rules the mines up in the Andes. 

The Kobold gets only a passing mention in O’Brien’s Notes from Underground. Accordingly, the musical treatment it receives there is perforce ephemeral. In 2015 this left me with a thirst for more; the Kobold had much to offer yet, and I had only skimmed its surface. The Juilliard commission was to be the opportunity to grapple with it as it deserves: a whole new piece devoted to it. But it was not to be.

Life intervened. December 2015 saw some of the worst floods ever seen in England, and the very worst occurred in the north. The river Tyne flowed through Newcastle with a strength not seen in 240 years. Whole areas in towns such as Corbridge were invaded by the overflowing North Tyne. My particular location up in Northumberland – bordered by the river Rede, and within a few hundred yards of its confluence with the North Tyne – was certainly not spared. On 5 December the Rede grew to many times its usual, flooding fields and dwellings. Compounded by runoff water coming from the neighbouring hills, this made for a rather worrying situation. Mercifully the old stone house where I live was spared the worst (“They knew how to build houses in them days” goes the local wisdom. And where to build them, one might add; near two rivers we may be, but we have seen a lot of weather in the last decade, but somehow have come out unscathed). But the sense of threat persisted. December wore on, the rain refused to abate and the same combination of meteorological factors happened, albeit with lesser intensity, another four times. A sense of relative safety only returned around mid-January. 

The experience of seeing the Rede, a melodious companion of many years, turning into a roaring, destructive monster, had a strong effect. So did seeing towns close to me, like Hexham and Corbridge, flooded, and hearing the many tales of distress from Cumbria in the west. What was going on was impossible to evade. Not for the first time, I found myself in situation where compositional plans seemed an indulgence that reality could not afford. Of course music cannot change things, let alone climate - or climate change, for that matter. But, in times disaster such as this, as some people where writing to the press, others were praying and others were talking things over in the pub, I could not abstract myself from the pressing reality to write music about Kobolds. I had to write about storms, about rain, and, above everything else, about river. I persisted for a while, insisting on my fruitless sketches about the Kobold. Then I yielded to the surrounding reality, and began to plan a piece about the river. The … was fairly obvious. There was to be a gentle, melodious music to start with, and then the same material was to be transfigured to be stated as menacing, violent, destructive. This did not take much thought at all, and the general state of emergency urged me to get down to work - as did the agreed completion deadline for New Juilliard Ensemble. I even had a title in mind: Río Manso, Río Bravo. (Note to bilingual readers: I have not forgotten Spanish titles do not carry capitals in every word, but this title was to be a playful allusion to possible river names.)

Since I was surrounded by stormy weather and by daily news about floods and destruction, it was the second section in the proposed scheme that felt most relevant, so I started composing that. What came out was, unsurprisingly, music that was aggressive, urgent, obsessive even. I intended to develop that to a length equivalent to one-half of the piece’s duration. But it grew, like the river. It grew beyond its allocated duration, and it took over the piece. This was not the time for gentle rivers. This was the time to be aggressive, urgent and obsessive. 

The resulting piece, Río Bravo, was premièred on 21 April by New Juilliard Ensemble conducted by Joel Sachs. It is always thrilling to go to New York, specially if it is to hear a new piece at Lincoln Center. The players from Juilliard are always outstanding, and this time was no exception. I had been apprehensive about the demands of the percussion part, particularly the vibraphone sections. I need not have worried, since the appointed percussionist turned out to be none other than Sae Hashimoto, a virtuoso of uncommon character and technique. 

Joel Sachs put together a fascinating programme of recent music. Special revelations were composers Saad Haddad, Joshua Cerdenia and Rica Narimoto. Each had an individual statement to make and the the players and conductor gave confident renditions of one impressive piece after another. 

The New York Times printed the most noncommittal review I ever remember reading. Perhaps many composers have a similar story to tell. Hostile reviews, I have had a fair share of them. Indifferent ones too. But non-reviews? The only comparable precedent that comes to mind is a review in The Guardian apropos of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Bliss in 1969: “In it, Mr Davies uses combinations of instruments.” End of review. 


After the Gathering at Alwinton Church

In the bewitching setting of Alwinton Church, near Alwinton in the Upper Coquet Valley, Norhumberland, there is a concert series that has been making ripples for several years now, Alwinton Church Summer Concerts. It is curated by one of the doyens of British contemporary music, the composer John Casken and, reflecting this man’s enlightened ideas, the programmes are distinguished by an edgy eclecticism. 

Once I had the pleasure of collaborating with Professor Casken to co-promote a project in his series, arising from the knowledge exchange venture Northumbrian Exchanges at Newcastle University, and involving my esteemed colleagues Jamie Savan and Matthew Rowan

More recently - two years ago, I believe - I was recruited as an adjudicator for the Alwinton Composers’ Competition, another initiative of John Casken. This included a workshop of the shortlisted pieces and a première given by the magnificent ensemble Psappha.  

It is therefore a pleasure to see my association with Alwinton continue, this time with the première of a work of mine, yesterday, Saturday 7 May. 

The work is After the Gathering, a commission from Kathryn Tickell and The Side. As any British music lover knows, The Side is one of Kathryn Tickell’s current bands, one that explores the traditions championed by its members, namely folk and traditional on the one hand, and classical and contemporary on the other. Acting consistently with The Side’s well-integrated diversity, they have commissioned composers from differing backgrounds to write pieces that explore common territories between these genres. One commission went to Django Bates. Another to Ian Stephenson. Another came to me. 

The common ground in this case is my longstanding love of traditional music of the Northeast of England, and of Kathryn Tickell’s work in particular. I chose her tune The Gathering for a more extended treatment, one where the original melody is never stated from beginning to end, but where some of its distinctive elements are developed in the context of a texturally and harmonically experimental soundworld. As ever, while doing this I found myself once more addressing that perennial interlocutor, the inexhaustible landscape of Northumberland. 

The four musicians of The Side - Kathryn Tickell, Amy Thatcher, Louisa Tuck and Ruth Wall - did a splendid job engaging for the first time with a piece which is by no means easy. If this was the first performance, the thought of how this music will sound when they have been playing it for a while sends me aflutter.  

I was touched by the good response of the audience. The series has a loyal, sensitive following, and given the calibre of the artists I was in no doubt that the church would be full. But I must admit to some apprehension prior to the concert, as to how the new work would be received in the context of a programme full of the unadulterated beauty of traditional tunes, and new tunes by Tickell and Thatcher. But it seems that I need not have worried. The audience was either exemplary polite, or they followed and reacted to the piece with interest and warmth. Thank you, Alwinton. 


Let us not forget this year’s composers’ competition. The adjudicators this year were John Casken, Alistair Anderson and Kathryn Tickell. They chose Gather Here (no relation!) by Helen Walker.  This was a very sensitive treatment of the four instruments in an idiom that integrated well some tradition with some contemporary scoring practices. The piece fitted perfectly The Side’s approach, and it is not surprising to hear that they are intending to adopt Gather Here in their regular repertoire. 


Notes on Notes from Underground

This project is attracting some public attention. Several weeks before the date I heard the première was nearly sold out. The local press has given it some coverage, a number of Twitter accounts have mentioned it, and last Saturday’s The Guardian (10 October 2015) printed an excellent article by Sean O’Brien himself, ‘How I fell under WH Auden’s spell’, outlining O’Brien’s rationale for the project. 

It is satisfying to see professional wordsmiths engaging with the project, and to let the professionals handle it, so to speak. My only attempt to explain my side of the story was slightly lost in translation at The Journal - I don't use “focuses” as the plural of "focus" and I would not describe any part of an orchestra as “elite sub-sections” (what would that mean?).

Rightly, since the commission and the première are part of the Durham Book Festival 2015, much of the attention focuses on the words, on O’Brien and on Auden. I feel fortunate to bask in some of that reflected glory, grateful for the commission and hopeful that the audience, even if attracted more by the words than by the music, will appreciate the concert, the première and the sublime three movements from Das Lied von der Erde in Schoenberg’s arrangement. And yet, conscious that those whose primary interest is musical may be interested in the composer’s viewpoint, I want to add a few remarks to complement those already in the public domain. 

Notes from Underground is a song cycle for baritone, chamber choir and large chamber ensemble, with words by Sean O’Brien (b. 1952). Both the words and the music were commissioned by Durham Book Festival 2015. 

From the earliest conversations it became clear that there was an affinity between poet and composer. O’Brien spoke about words, places, histories and people, all of which resonated powerfully with me. It was captivating to hear how vividly he could describe the ideas he was after, even before he had put pen to paper. My own personal history made me receptive to the world O’Brien was portraying. I am an inveterate lover of the landscape of Northumberland, where I have lived since I moved out of Newcastle in 2007. My centre of gravity is not particularly near the North Pennines, but I know the area, and am attuned to crags, hills and valleys; I do, after all, come from the Andes.

Having said that, my knowledge of Auden’s world is superficial by comparison with O’Brien’s. He, O’Brien, has been my gateway into the older poet’s world. He immersed himself in Auden - probably for a very long time - and I immersed myself in the poetry O’Brien created for Notes from Underground. 

1. And I grew sore afraid
 The first poem starts with the woeful line ‘And I was sore afraid’; a challenging one to set, not least for intelligibility. ‘Sore’ as an adverb is not the common usage of the word, so it seemed important to set it as plainly as possible to enable the listener to understand it. And yet, the mournful fear being expressed demanded a degree of intensity, best achieved with a dramatic gesture and, preferably, a high note or several for the singer; neither of these would help intelligibility. I therefore opted for repeating the phrase several times, first in a comfortable range where the singer could enunciate them clearly, then more dramatically, with the high notes required to match the intensity of the words. 

Overall, the first song is dark, as it could not fail to be, considering the text.  Double bass, contrabassoon and low piano intertwine to produce a gloomy sound fabric, with a simple pitch progression to avoid excessive muddle. In a simple, age-old device, the pitch progression goes up to suggest the mysterious letter’s direction of travel from the underworld. 

The structure is simple: the same upward-moving progression is treated in three different ways - three variations, so to speak. The only other music besides this is the ‘calling bells’ gesture from Approaching Melmoth (2000), revisited twice in this song for reasons too long to explain, and the Kobold. 

The presence of a kobold - the Kobold - in the penultimate line posed a conundrum. Of course I did not know what a kobold was; I had to look it up: it is a sprite in Germanic mythology. It was thrilling to discover that its name is believed to be connected both with the English goblin and with the element cobalt - both for perfectly good reasons the reader can glean from more authoritative sources. There are kobolds of various shapes and sizes, and one of them is known to inhabit the underground, notably mines. Hence the kobold’s presence in O’Brien’s exploration of Auden’s North Pennine world. The way O’Brien introduces it,

‘Who is the monster crouched inside the stone? 
In this great dark I dread to see his face.’

seemed to portray, on first reading at least, a sinister, frightening, possibly revolting creature. I was looking forward to the evil convolutions I was going to write to punctuate this part of the song. But, on closer inspection of the lines that follow and of some of the available literature, the kobold became less harmful in my mind, giving rise to a tamer creature that was ugly - but not awful - pitiable, grotesque and vaguely ridiculous. Such is the Kobold - with a capital K in O’Brien’s text - that makes an appearance towards the end of the first song. 

2. Down a deep well
The second poem did not reveal any hidden surprises. First perceptions survived a second, third and umpteenth reading. The direct style and the use of repetition immediately suggested a folk-oriented treatment, a suggestion reinforced by the provocative line ‘For no one is well in this country’, of traceable Audenian pedigree. 

The poem has two stanzas, and they are identical. You may feel tempted to scrutinise every line and every comma in search of differences between the stanzas, but there is none. There are two ways the composer can respond to this duplication: you treat the repetition in a totally different way for maximum contrast, or you follow the poet and restate the song verbatim. I opted for the latter, and my impending deadline was only one reason; the other was a curiosity to see what would happen to the timeflow if words and music went on a round trip yoked together.

Another structural feature of this song is the downward motion. This is a pervading theme in this short poem, where the word ‘down’ appears three times, the word ‘fell’ twice and the word ‘well’ three times - once in ‘deep well’ and the other two times in the word’s other sense, but in this context the ambiguity is plain to see.  

Music cannot convey specific meaning (discuss!), but one thing music can do particularly well is move in a specific direction, especially up or down. If in the first song the poem invites an upward direction of travel - from the deep underground to the speaker’s level - in the second song the invitation is just as clear to travel down. ‘Down a deep well’, down a mine shaft, down towards the centre of the Earth - endlessly down, it seems to me. That is what the music aims to do. It could have been done more methodically, but there were two constraints: one was the need to avoid caricature; the other was the need to make the most of the only opportunity in the whole work - and, as it happens, in the whole programme for 15 October 2015 - to be buoyant.  

3. Now I am lying low
This movement is set in an underground place. In ten lines, the poem - arguably the most beautiful in the series - sets a vivid stage that could be the bottom of a well, a subterranean river, a mine’s tunnel, a grave, or the mother’s womb. A universe of possibilities, all rich in sonic associations. The things I could have done with this if I had had more time! But, project circumstances aside, I take consolation in the thought that to explore all the latent sounds contained in this poem would have demanded a longer development, throwing the overall structure off-balance. So I had to be selective.

I focused on the key word ‘low’, on ‘gravest harmony’, on ‘the sound of water running, running down’ and on the overall subterranean atmosphere, implying some dullness of sound and sense of oppression, but implying also the space for echoes of various kinds. Quite enough for a sound palette there. At times it seemed that O’Brien was composing the music for me. 

On a less literal, more poetic level, I responded to two potent images in the poem: ‘So far below/You cannot tell the living from the dead’ populates the mind with Dantean figures moving slowly in a cavernous space. ‘O mother, mother, are you there,/And if not in my grave then where, then where?’ takes us to the naked core of all thought and existence, to where we come from, to where we are heading to. How far down this way the music can accompany the words I am not sure, but I am glad they are there together. I hope you can learn as much as I did from crossing that Styx with O’Brien as your Virgil. 

4. You have no shadow
This is some kind of trial, as presaged in the first song’s ‘There is a court where I will have to plead’. The choir are prosecution, jury and judge. The accused is mostly silent. For the ritualised gestures I kept in mind passages in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. For the ice and cruelty of the scene I could not help thinking of Tom Cruise facing his masked accusers in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.   

The choir’s pitch material originates in the second song, in one of the many interconnections that underlie the material, which are probably not interesting enough for the general readership for whom these notes are intended. Towards the end, in response to the choir’s demand ‘Admit it/Admit it/Oh, do you dare/Do you dare’, a new figuration takes shape which determines how the next song is going to unfold. 

5. They say the road that water finds
Like the second one above, this poem seemed to demand a folk-oriented treatment. Meaning what? To avoid a long digression, I hasten to say that I am not referring to a borrowed folk tune or a pastiche of an existing folk style. I mean an ease in the melodic flow through the use of some of some of the more familiar intervals and contours, a line- and verse-based phrase construction, and of course a clear form in audible stanzas. All this is latent in the poem, and I asked the poet’s agreement to repeat some lines in order to facilitate strophic symmetry. He agreed. 

The score has the instruction ‘elfin, misty, Nordic’ in the tempo marking. None of these is a musical term, but good musicians, such as those at Royal Northern Sinfonia, will probably respond to these allusions, referring to musical precedents that are familiar to them. A much-revered Nordic composer looms large - it may be distracting to name him - in some of the rhythmic configuration and in the textural scheme that governs the movement. 

‘Northness’ is an important concept in the context of this project. Auden gravitated north in more than one way, his love of the North Pennines being one example. In the early stages of the project O’Brien and I had planned an excursion to Iceland as part of our attunement to the world we were envisaging. The fact that the plan fell through only made the imagination work harder. 

This song could be said to be a return of the Kobold, but in a different incarnation: a playful, elusive, mischievous but ultimately benevolent creature. And this one is not lonely, but has plenty of company. Which probably means this is not a Kobold at all, but the arrival of the elves. There is probably nothing in O’Brien’s words to justify this association, but by this stage in the project everything was steeped in everything else and the ideas were burbling in a multidirectional stream. I am sure that the creatures inhabiting the Northumbrian landscape featured in the preliminary conversations. Even if they did not, they exist in my perception of this teeming, multivoiced land. O’Brien’s poem is full of references to land, water, ground, light, mountain. To me this was enough to conjure up hidden lives and fluttering motion. They scuttle around in the instrumental ensemble while the voices glide along in longer notes.

If the second song descends, and the third and fourth are set down below, the poem for the fifth bring us up above ground, and higher. We are now in a landscape of roads, bare moors, mountains, streams and - an urban touch? - noonday street. A crucial phrase is "carry me up to the light" which gives me licence to bring the music out of the darkness it had inhabited. 

6. Now when I was a curious boy
This is the longest text. It looks back on a history of personal experience and dreams, and beyond, a long past of lives and deaths, mining, family feuds, and, ultimately, the old primeval fear. 

Naturally this text is an invitation for the music, too, to look back on itself and to go over previous developments. They are all transformed in some way, some of them beyond recognition. As with every reminiscential exercise, it produces new findings, too, some of which are already finding their way in a new project. 

Continuity is an important need, not only within a project but also beyond, between works. The violence and the war in this poem were going to be a pretext to revisit material from one of my operas (The Wheel, 1993), but in the event there was scope only for allusions of the most generic kind: a tempo and a key signature.  A more specific allusion in the material relates to the opening violence in my Meditación No 1 of 1985. But this is all very fleeting. Too many other references from within Notes of Underground itself were vying for attention, demanding a space in the roll-call of ideas O’Brien’s final storm of evocation had unleashed.

A particular challenge was the setting of the line "love is not love that loves alone", appearing twice just before the end. It seemed to me to be something of a dictum in an otherwise flowing narrative. I asked O'Brien to explain his intention, and explain he did. I have tried to give this line the character of a serendipitous, but life-changing discovery.  

Notes from Underground

My latest project is Notes from Underground, a song cycle for baritone, chamber choir and large chamber ensemble. The words are by Sean O’Brien, an award-winning poet also based in the Northeast of England, and also a professor at Newcastle University.


The work is a commission from Durham Book Festival 2015. Earlier this year, the Festival's dynamic and forward-looking creative team approached O’Brien to propose a new commission involving words and music dealing with WH Auden, and in particular with Auden’s interest in the lead-mining areas of the North Pennines. O’Brien accepted, and he in turn proposed that I should be engaged as the composer. I accepted too, even though the timescale was daunting: these conversations were happening in March, or perhaps April, and the Festival was going to be in October; the words would have to be written first; and I had other works to complete first. But the proposal was too attractive to resist, so I agreed.

O’Brien did not take long to send me the first drafts. I found them very stimulating. It was not difficult to relate to the world he was evoking: landscape, the underworld, mines, shafts, regional histories – which are, of course, universal histories. The poems – which is what they are, and they could stand alone in their own right, without music – are pithy, contained, stark sometimes, and all the more powerful for that. They leave plenty of expressive space for the music to unfold. Which does not mean they are short; some are, but some are of a length I found challenging for the timescale of the piece. The total duration comes to about twenty-five minutes.

As soon as the academic year ended, I stepped down from my duties as head of music at Newcastle University. This enabled me to concentrate on writing music all summer. I first completed After the Gathering for Kathryn Tickell and The Side. I agreed a later time than I had been expecting for the completion of my next project with New Juilliard Ensemble. I started at length on Notes from Underground in mid-July, and after a period of concentrated work I was able to complete the piece by the agreed date, 15 September.


The team that will be in charge of the production is the best one could hope for. It includes a brilliant baritone from Germany, Benjamin Appl, the local chamber choir Voices of Hope directed by Simon Fidler, and Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell. The première will be on 15 October in the Gala Theatre, Durham.

 
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