29 March 2015

Collier's Rant

In 2013 the Festival of the Northeast commissioned me to write a choral arrangement of a song of the Northeast of England. The specific project was Create, a multi-choral concept instigated by Folkworks at Sage Gateshead.

I chose the song The Collier's Rant. The material is of the greatest simplicity: four descending pitches four times, and a brief chorus with the phrase structure ABAC. The cycle is repeated a number of times with different words. Not much to work on, some might say. But, of course, in the simplicity lies the appeal. The less there is in the original, the more space there is for a composer or arranger to be creative.

And then there are the words. Try this for an opening: As me an' me marra was gannin' to wark, we met wi' the deevil, it was i' th' dark. If you can navigate your way through the Northumbrian dialect, which I can only claim to be able to do to a limited extent, you are hit by a force of expression, a strength of imagery and a raw poetic drive that leaves you breathless.

How much of these qualities I would have appreciated if left to my own devices I am unsure. What I do know is that, when I was researching for the project, my ears and eyes were opened by the revelation of a recording by Sedayne, a remarkable artist whose rendition of The Collier's Rant came to my attention on YouTube.  On discovery I was overcome by the torrent of ideas - musical, emotional, dramatic, industrial, tragic, ironic - that lay hidden in that simple tune and those enigmatic words. Intrigued half-comprehension on reading the song in Crawhall's A Beuk o' Newcassel Sangs was replaced by mesmerised fascination, for me strongly reminiscent of the experience of watching Goya's late work.

The 2013 commission held out a very appealing prospect for textural treatment of the material: five choirs were to come together, each with its own idiosyncrasies. I wrote an ambitious arrangement, which I then had to reduce for four choirs, and eventually for three. It may be this paring down of the original ideas that left me feeling that there was more to Collier's Rant than I had been able to execute.

Thus, when The Maltings Berwick-upon-Tweed requested a companion piece for Arreglos bolivianos, preferably one with a local connection, I did not hesitate long before I decided to return to Collier's Rant and to explore it afresh, this time for a string orchestra.

The resulting piece, also titled Collier's Rant (omitting the definite article in the original song's title), is scheduled to be performed on 19 April at The Maltings by members of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Chris George.

Meanwhile, here is a sneak preview, with the customary caveats about computer demos (see comments in previous posting).

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