Following the brilliant success of their first album Here we are, the Hermes Experiment are now following up with SONG, a typically original, delightful and surprising selection of brand new music. I’m delighted that it includes my Quiet Songs, settings of tiny, exquisite poems by the wonderful French poet Yves Bonnefoy.
It’s the week before Christmas, and I’m working on a new piece which sets to music a dark, pained, brave poem called ‘Collects for Lent’, by Stephen Romer. I’m really enjoying digging deeper into its melancholy and its resolute honesty as I work on my setting. I would be enjoying this anyway, but it’s highlighted by the contrast between the sentiments and the season of this poem and the inescapable jingly jollity of Christmas as encountered in the shops, on the tv and the internet – in fact, everywhere. Not that I have a Scrooge-like disdain for Christmas cheeriness, not at all. But it does feel good to emerge from all that for a time each day and touch on something different, on feelings that run through this period as through any other but simply get blotted out for a brief while – at least, on the surface.
It’s a poem that confronts loss, and the difficulties of dealing with it and finding a way forwards. It’s a very personal poem, a meditation, almost a confession; left to my own devices I would probably have set it for one singer, who would become the ‘I’ of the poem. However, the commission required a piece for a group of six singers, three women and three men, to which I have added an alto flute and a harp. The six singers did not seem an obvious choice for this poem, at first, but I decided to try sketching something out and seeing what happened. If I then found that it just wasn’t going to work I could always suggest looking for a different poem. But in fact, writing for the six singers has opened up my approach to the poem in various interesting ways. Sharing out the lines to different voices immediately spatialises and dramatises the poem’s monologue – it forces you to consider the different roles already contained within it. At the other extreme, some parts of the poem are not shared out but are sung by all six singers together – but this also changes the dynamic: a personal confession, clearly emanating from an individual suddenly becomes the collective, almost ritual utterance of a chorus.
The piece is being written for Vox’Sing, a vocal sextet based in the French city of Tours, who will perform it there in a festival of music and poetry next May which will include several other pieces of mine too. I’m currently a little more than half way through the piece, and finding the poem’s darkness very fulfilling. This is one of those perennial philosophical puzzles – why does poetry, art or music which treats sad things, give us pleasure, and strength? It’s a curious effect; I hope my music will in turn get drawn into the same virtuous circle.
I’ve been writing some songs for the Hermes Experiment – who have been making some very interesting music with their unusual combination of soprano, clarinet, double bass and harp, and their imaginative and open-minded programmes. It was a hard combination to write for, at first; in particular, it took a while to find a way to integrate the bass into the overall sonority. Uncertainty about what words I would set added to the confusion, too, as I dabbled tentatively with various different texts. In the end I found things took off the quieter I got, the more I explored delicate, translucent sounds. And finding that delicacy, a kind of musical water-colour, coincided with trying to set a wonderful little poem by Yves Bonnefoy. Once I had sketched out this song I felt that the character of the music was coming into focus. But I also felt that the song was too little and fragile on its own, and it needed to be part of a little group. In the end I found two other short poems from the same collection, and in ways that I couldn’t predict, even after I had chosen the poems, the other two songs found quite different ways to compliment the mood of the one I wrote first (which ended up going second).
I’ve mentioned Bonnefoy before, a couple of years ago, when I discovered a long, searching poem which wouldn’t let me go, and I ended up writing a ‘setting’ of it, but just for instruments (flute and piano). The music was very closely entangled with the words, line by line, but there was no singing or even speaking so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, but there was no singing (or even speaking) so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, unheard, even while it shaped the music at every moment.
These new songs felt very different from that. The three short poems date from nearly thirty years later, and are both modest and breathtaking in the way they evoke the trace of touch and thought through the slightest and most innocuous of impressions. The instruments were all different, now (and therefore, the basic texture of the music, too) but even more importantly, the words here are actually sung, literally present in the performance of the music. -Which is normal when poetry is set to music, but after working with Bonnefoy’s poetry as a kind of unspoken spirit, hearing it sung out loud felt strangely vivid and unexpectedly larger than life. Last week I heard a rehearsal, and it was fascinating hearing both the sounds and the words take on a real ‘live’ presence. I’m very much looking forward to the premiere, in Limewharf, London, on November 15, where there will also be new pieces by Giles Swayne, Kim Ashton and Aleksandr Brusentsev. [ see Sound and Music blog ]
It was a huge honour to welcome the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy to Robinson College, Cambridge, last week, to give a reading of his poetry and to hear a concert of music inspired by poetry. Bonnefoy is unquestionably a major figure in poetry worldwide and his reading drew enthusiasts from far and wide. He read with extraordinary straightforwardness and simplicity, and within this there was a striking dignity and solidity to his words.
Last year I wrote a piece closely based on one of Bonnefoy’s poems. At the time I owned a book of his but had no expectation of ever meeting him nor of his ever hearing my piece. But, through a chain of extraordinarily lucky chances, I ended up putting on this concert in which my piece was given its second performance in front of the poet, alongside other music based closely on specific poems, and with the poem in question read immediately before the music. (This was a fun programme to devise – Richard Causton’s Sleep (based on Seferis); Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air (Baudelaire); Machaut/JT: Virelai ‘Dame, vostre doulze viaire’; Cheryl-Frances Hoad’s Bouleumeta (Euripides); Dutilleux’s De l’ombre et de silence (no poem for this one, but it was perfect at this point in the programme) and finally my piece Plus avant que l’étoile, based on Bonnefoy’s poem Deux Couleurs.) These pieces were beautifully played by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick.
M. Bonnefoy was extraordinarily receptive and generous towards the music, and wrote an appreciation of my piece which I shall treasure. I was lucky to spend much of the following weekend with him, which was full of warmth and lively conversation. He has suggested that we take a similar programme of poems and music to perform at Tours next year; it would be wonderful to be revisit and continue what was a truly magical weekend.
A friend’s gift of a book of poems by Yves Bonnefoy ended up taking hold of me for a significant part of the summer. Bonnefoy’s mysterious, elemental, almost shaman-like immersion in the presence of nature and of place is both intoxicating and (conversely) thought-sharpening. I found some of the earlier poems hard to penetrate but soon became absorbed in an amazing collection from 1976 called Dans le leurre du seuil (literally, ‘in the snare of the threshold’).
As a composer, reading poetry also involves a parallel activity, which is usually inadvertent and even unwanted – this is a kind of tasting and testing which continually tugs towards the question ‘could I set this to music?’ Very often, if I am really excited by a poem, the answer ‘No!’ quickly comes to the fore. What I’m excited about is perfectly achieved in the poem, its words, that play of sound and rhythm which is a poem’s ‘music’ and which usually has no need of, and would be destroyed by, the addition of actual music. But occasionally my experience of a wonderful poem doesn’t only centre on the poem’s own perfection but also leads outwards, conjuring a new space where something different might take shape, something inspired and shaped by the poem but artistically new and distinct. Typically this might be a song.
Something like this happened when I read the poem called ‘Deux Couleurs’ – a haunting conversation between the poet and some water he scoops in his cupped hands, and in which he sees reflections, and beyond them in its small depths a whole kingdom of new life, full of marvels. But while I quickly knew that I wanted to write music from this, I also quickly knew that it would not be a song. In fact, it almost immediately announced itself as music for flute, with piano. No doubt French music invoking water, reflections, and the conversation of the duo itself all helped to make this decision seem right and inevitable. Soon I made three further decisions, these more deliberately. The poem is in two halves, separated by a dashed line; there was already more than enough to carry me away in the first half, whose shape was itself already full and satisfying, and feeling the danger of being overwhelmed and submerged by the whole poem I decided I would work with the first half only. Second, I would ‘set’ the poem, following the play of sense and timbre and weight and depth as closely as I could, but without actually putting the words to a musical line. And as this quickly proved a vast and bewildering task I then made my third decision which was to write a series of eight short movements, each one corresponding to a verse of the poem (sometimes following line by line). To begin with I could concentrate on the movement in hand, but the further I proceeded the more I also started to think about how the eight movements would weave together and create a single span, as they do in the poem. It was an unusual way of composing for me, with both the advantage of a richly stimulating ‘source’ to respond to and the weighty obligation of the beauty and complexity of the original frequently preventing me from going off on whatever tangents had (lazily) sprung into my mind. Quite a number of draft movements made some sort of musical sense but had to be discarded because as I pursued them I realised that their link to the poem was superficial and shallow, and could not be sustained.
Some pieces come relatively smoothly, others are a struggle: this was one of the tougher struggles. But (at risk of sounding very glib!) also one of the most rewarding. I don’t have a performance of this piece in view at the moment – the idea came and there was no particular commission I could pair up with it – but I am very much looking forward to hearing this musical world brought to life. Perhaps I’m dreading it, too – it feels very intimate, and intensely associated with the magical lines of poetry that it grew out of. But when it’s performed I can’t expect everyone to have already immersed themselves in the poem before the music starts. So the piece will have to function on some level even when the poem falls away, as it will do in performance for everyone except perhaps the performers (who see the lines written out throughout the score). I won’t give the audience the whole poem, because reading it is demanding of concentration and time, and they would miss the piece almost entirely, and also because of the grave danger of turning the listening experience into a kind of train-spotting experience – aha, that must be the star, this is the cupped hands, etc. So at the moment it feels exciting to have finished it, but also vulnerable.