Voice box is a fascinating project, a collaboration between a poet (Ollie Evans), a singer (Sarah Maria Sun), a composer (myself), as well as thinkers, sound engineers and IT researchers from Harvard, Amsterdam, Cambridge and elsewhere, all coaxed and coordinated by Lea Luka Sikau.
I’ll write more on this anon – it’s developing week by week. Right now, if I had to give a quick sketch, I’d say –
You go into an antechamber, a Zwischenraum. An unseen voice asks for a sample of your own voice, which you give. You proceed to a larger room, where you hear singing, two voices. The words are dense, teasing, addictive. In the music, you hear the speaking voice sing. As you move around the space you discover that your movements affect the quality, the ‘personality’ of the first voice. The voice is in flux: it changes in depth, in timbre, even, it seems, in gender, and this is in direct response to you, and how you move.
Last year, after putting it off for quite a while, I finally faced up to words which are incredibly familiar to anyone who’s sung in an English church or chapel choir – the Magnificat – as I said in my post about it, they were so familiar and so inextricably associated with the musical settings they’re sung to, that it took considerable time and effort to leave all that behind and find a way to approach the words afresh.
And now I’m setting them again, but this time I have something completely different in mind from the rather austere, timeless ritual quality which I tried to evoke in my first setting, which gave the words to the whole choir (men and women) all together, so that they were taken up as if by a whole community, joining together to enact a ritual as one. This time I wanted to concentrate on the more personal and particular aspect of the scene – a young girl, alone, suddenly visited by something supernatural, inexplicable, indescribable.
I’m writing my new setting for the choir of girls’ voices at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge – which is made up of girls between the ages of about 7 to 16. I can be fairly sure that the music will be different from a traditional Anglican setting because I am basing it around an electro-acoustic tape part created from the sounds of girls’ and women’s voices raised in laughter, shouts and song. The actual girls of the choir sing in unison, strongly, with a kind of fierce joy, and their voices and the organ are immersed in the swirl of sound from the tape.
The choir will give the first performance in their final Luminaria (a beautiful service of based on one of the old monastic rites) of this term, on November 27th at 6.30, conducted by Edward Wickham.
Last week we were in the studio recording the singers for a DVD of A Sudden Cartography of Song. This is a ‘video-opera’ Alistair and I wrote last year, which was put on in the Spitalfields Festival, in Wilton’s Music Hall. Because video was such an important strand in the whole experience, DVD seems like the right medium for this piece. We are aiming to have the whole thing completed by the end of the summer. It will be great to see and hear the finished result.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on a new piece for Lesley-Jane Rogers and the Bergamo Ensemble, under their director Michael Downes. I’ve found a fantastic story about a poor pedlar who has an extraordinary dream – it’s an old folktale, and this particular telling of it is from the diary of Abraham de le Pryme, a 17th-century cleric who knew Pepys and Newton, among others. This will be my second folktale setting, following on from The She-Wolf which was premiered by Marie Vassiliou a couple of years ago. And now I’m beginning to think about a third…
The new piece is called The Pedlar of Swaffham, as is scored for the whole ensemble (which is the often-used combination established by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire: soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano). It’s going to be premiered together with a new work by Roderick Watkins in a concert at 3pm on Saturday 27 October in the Canterbury Festival, and will receive a second performance at Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Cambridge at 8pm on Sunday 28 October, before being recorded the following day.