‘One Before Zero’ – an oratorio for the Battle of the Somme

Benjamin Ellin, the award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer, has been commissioned to create a classical composition focusing on the concept of peace and this year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The resulting Oratorio One Before Zero is one movement for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo soprano and boys’ choir.

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(picture source: 1914.org)

This large-scale musical narrative work is inspired by the moment before battle, before zero, zero hour, the time at which hostilities commence.  Benjamin Ellin explains: “It’s the time when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions dominates the mind and soul of any soldier”.

The work is in English, French and German and aims to illustrate musically and linguistically how the race to war, the loss of life and the destruction of humanity affected all sides in this devastating war.

Benjamin explains the inspiration behind the new work: “The Imperial War Museum provided a great deal of the research materials that helped inform my understanding of the period and I used the archives of Royds Hall School in Huddersfield which was a military hospital during WW1.  I enlisted the talented writer Ben Maier to help me ensure the work flows as a  continuous and complete line. The work has a personal connection too. My great relative, Private Samuel Vincent Boot (No. 19463) was killed in WW1.  I used his army number to develop a lot of musical material and develop the narrative.”

The performance will take place on 11th November 2016 at the renowned Maison de la Culture in Amiens in Northern France which is located just behind where the front line was established in WW1.  A second performance is scheduled on 12th November 2016 in Beauvais, Maladrerie Saint-Lazare.

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In this Meet the Artist interview, Benjamin discusses his musical influences, the challenges of his career as a composer, and the creation of ‘One Before Zero’.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

I heard a performance of the Nutcracker at the Royal Ballet as a young boy – my mother took each of us (myself and my two older sisters) to see a ballet when we were young by way of a musical intro – and I was hooked. I persuaded her to buy me the tape recording in the shop and listened to it constantly. Whenever I hear a great piece of music, in whatever genre, I just want to write music or do something creative.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

There isn’t one single thing. My initial musical impulse often comes from the environment I am in or the world events of our time. I also love the sounds that are around us generally and how they often turn in to little musical ideas all by themselves. For instance, one of the tracks from the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ is inspired by the sound of the Victoria Line tube at Highbury and Islington; the piece is called Three Fishes Laughing.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

Being pigeonholed really – or people trying to. For me, music is genuinely indivisible and once you try to put people in to boxes you are missing the point. Sadly it seems, at times, this obsession is a by-product of lazy elements of the ‘business’, but I have always believed that the most inspiring characters around do more than one thing and I genuinely just happen to love and feed off different musical arenas.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The shape of a piece is very important. Once the overall structure is set in your mind, even if it changes slightly in the process of being realised, you can really start to write it out. For ‘One Before Zero’ that really was the main issue; deciding on the form and arch because after that a lot of decisions have been made for you. The challenge is knowing what to not use or not do and structure helps that process of illumination a lot. Pleasures? I love harmony and the juxtaposition of chords and the resonances they have; that and treating the audience to the theatrical elements of music so they are – hopefully – truly gripped and engaged.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

If you have a relationship with a performer or a group then you can try and build the musical material around them in subtle ways; this is a joy. A challenge is to always respect the skill and talent of the musicians. They have to play your music and you hope that they actually want to. I don’t believe music is all about the composer in an egotistical way but always about the collective.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I am proud of my Violin Concerto which was premiered last year with the Philharmonia Orchestra, my Trombone Concerto for Joseph Alessi, my tracks on the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ and the works I have written in conjunction with Violist Rivka Golani and the people of the Siksika nation in Canada – amongst others…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

That is a difficult question – in fact, all these questions are! In short a mix of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Vaughan Williams and the jazz world of Miles Davis and Count Basie amongst others. Jazz and blues were major influences growing up in that they were the main style of music that I heard and I still love them. In general, as a composer, I don’t seek to reinvent the wheel but I’ll always express myself as honestly and boldly as I can.

How do you work? 

It largely depends on the piece or the commission. Sometimes a solid idea for a gesture within a piece starts the process and other times I have to work relatively slowly. Waiting for inspiration is all well and good, but sometimes it doesn’t always flow and you have to then rely on your technique – however good it is – when a deadline is there! I also like to sow ideas in my mind and let my subconscious chew them over for a bit; they nearly always find a way of becoming a key part of the process.

Please tell us more about your new work ‘One Before Zero’, to be premiered on Remembrance Day. 

In short it is a large oratorio for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo and SATB male choir to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

Not so short, well, subconscious played a major part here too. I first worked in Amiens several seasons ago when I wrote two smaller pieces for a new festival there. As soon as I went on a research trip I was hooked on the area, the cathedral and the history of World War 1. I knew I wanted to write something about it and that was a good start for mental gestation! Then I had the chance to work with the orchestra in Picardie as both a composer (I wrote a new work for them) and also as a conductor in several performances. Therefore I got to know the players a little and I also got to work with their Music Director Arie. By the time the commission came I had soaked a lot up about the people, the area and so I could start from a decent place. The desired use of an all male SATB choir provided another set of options for the work as it was clear to me that the choir should be the soldiers and the baritone soloist is one of them whilst the mezzo represents the home front, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of everything that was going on through the mirage of propaganda and misinformation through media…how things change!

Then, after lots of reading and textual research I decided on the structure of the piece. The soldier (baritone solo), drained, exhausted and battle-hardened from war stands at the front of the stage. Gazing out at the audience he begins to question who are the people across the stretch of no man’s land in front of him who he will shortly be ordered to attack, to kill, or indeed be killed by. Who are they? Are they anything like him? How did he get to this point where a mere order from a higher rank can result in him, a hitherto ordinary man, attacking with such aggression and ferociousness.

This awakening marks the start of the work. The title itself (ONE BEFORE ZERO)  underlines the importance of this moment before battle, before zero, zero hour  – the time at which hostilities commence – when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions can surely fly through the mind and soul of any soldier.

The text is also a mixture of source letters, propaganda and diary entries from the time and also a number of commissioned texts by Ben Maier – a writer who I work with regularly. The new texts help knit everything together and I wanted to move away from using war poetry as it had already been done several times. The piece is in three languages, English, French and German as the aim of the piece is to underline the human cost on all sides of this conflict.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Again, there have been many for all sorts of reasons. I think my first concert as a conductor at the Philharmonic in St Petersburg was very special. I studied in St Petersburg and saw a concert there during my studies with the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Amazing. Then, years later when I used to do stage managing I stage managed a concert with the EUYO and Ashkenazy there. A few years after that I made my debut as  conductor and with one of my own pieces, WHITE CRUCIFIXION, so it was a powerful feeling of full cycle!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be really honest with yourself about what you are trying to do, what you love and what you are doing. Lots of people will try and knock you down, directly or just through ignorance. If you genuinely love what you do, no matter what, then just keep going – however hard it gets. Take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously so that it becomes destructive – ego is the ugliest trait in people and especially in music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?  

Music Director of a Professional Orchestra, writing a small handful of film scores a year, touring and collaborating with Tafahum, guest conducting with a handful of organisations and carving out commissions that I am interested in.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Now, as a father, a good afternoon picnic with my wife and children followed by prating around with them, and possibly some creative work in the garden with my daughter helping.

What is your most treasured possession?  

I would say my family, but they are not a possession, so, therefore, I don’t have one.

What do you enjoy doing most?  

Lots of things and as much as I can. I learn about other things from doing something seemingly different so I love variety in work and in life.

What is your present state of mind? 

A mixture of love, contentment, frustration at the world and hope in the many beautiful things that still manage to exist.

‘One Before Zero’, a new oratorio in one movement commissioned by l’Orchestre de Picardie for the Network ONE® – an Orchestra Network for Europe – to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be premiered in France on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2016. Further information and tickets

Award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer Benjamin Ellin is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Founder of the Contemporary Fusion ensemble Tafahum, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.

His belief in the positive power of music within society is reflected in the wide-ranging projects of which he is currently a major figurehead. From his own ensemble Tafahum, major projects and collaborations at London’s Southbank Centre, his own commissioned works with the First Nation communities of Alberta, Canada to his commitment to outreach and development work as well as appearing on stage with leading ensembles across the globe, Ellin’s belief in a musical world without boundaries is equalled by a tireless commitment as a guest artist and as a Music Director.

www.benjaminellin.com