Guest article by Joanna Wyld

In anticipation of the premiere of our new opera, The Gardeners, on 18 June at Conway Hall, Robert Hugill has written about the genesis of the work

The story of how I came to write the libretto, and the significance of that experience, starts a little further back. When I was studying music at university, I loved writing about it, but I also loved writing it – under the guidance of Robert Saxton – to the extent that I went on to take a Masters in Composition, taught by George Benjamin, Rob Keeley and Jonathan Cole. But I also had to make a living, and composing is a notoriously precarious profession, so I channelled my creative instincts into writing about music. Soon, I felt pretty confident that I’m a better writer than composer, and have loved writing every programme note, every CD liner note, since. Yet alongside that experience there has always been the urge to produce something original for its own sake, so when a friend asked if I might be interested in writing a libretto for Robert Hugill, not only did I jump at the chance, I also felt rather stupid that the idea hadn’t occurred to me before. ‘Librettist’ seemed the perfect fusion of my interests, my loves – but was I up to it?

I met Robert Hugill at his house and he welcomed me with tea in his sunny kitchen. Absurdly, this is the only time we’ve met in person, but there’s a long history of composers and librettists working together remotely and through correspondence, so we’re in good company. Robert’s vision for The Gardeners was clear from the outset. He had read an article about a family of gardeners tending war graves and felt that this subject was ripe for operatic treatment, exploring issues of radicalisation as well as family dynamics. The Dead themselves were to feature, audible only to the Old Gardener – at first. The written style was to be pithy, using short phrases, and adapting lines from poetry by A.E. Housman and Rabindranath Tagore.

Before starting to write, I ordered myself a volume of Tagore’s texts and started to get to know them, as well as re-reading the article. I’d originally envisaged poring over other libretti – I’m a bit suspicious when I encounter writers who don’t also read extensively in order to learn from others – but Robert’s ideas were so clear that the first scene came naturally, and it felt right not to muddy the waters with too many other voices. I wanted Robert’s voice to come through, as well as my own and those of Housman and Tagore. That seemed enough.

However, I did have an idea of what I was aiming to avoid. Ronald Duncan’s libretto to Britten’s chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia (in which I’d played the flute years before in a production directed by Ryan Wigglesworth), has come in for some criticism for its rather trite sewing up of a complex and sensitive subject. My aim was to dodge where possible the same pitfalls, by allowing tensions to surface and ambiguities to breathe without neatly resolving them. As a result, The Gardeners asks more questions than it answers, but with issues such as radicalisation this seems appropriate; this is a contemporary problem with no easy solution.

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For the choice of language, my experiences as a composer came into play. I love setting words to music (I still occasionally write songs for my band), and it helped me to remember that process whilst writing this libretto. Words which, when combined, sit well together and possess a musicality, a distinct rhythm, inevitably lend themselves to musical treatment. I also remembered reading letters between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath discussing the weight and density of words, and how the energy of two paired words needs to be complimentary rather than overly similar. Hughes wrote to Plath about her poem, Touch-and-Go: ‘… there is a traffic confusion I think in “Fierce flaming game of Quick child” – do you think “Quick flaring game Of child, leaf or cloud” because the “Fierce flaring” are two consecutive likenesses, and have been too often the double tap of the hammer… Well in verse the tendency is to follow an adjective that’s working with an idle timing one, so that adjectives tend to go in pairs. Well in “fierce flaring” an old couple has come up…’ Plath changed “fierce flaring” to “quick flaring” and the difference is palpable. I bore this in mind and tried to avoid ‘traffic confusion’ or ‘the double tap of the hammer’.

As for characterisation, I hoped to give a clear sense of each personality without resorting to types, allowing room for each of our artists to bring their own interpretation to their character. The Angry Young Man’s frustration can be damaging, but we also understand why he resents the invaders of his country, and he grows during the course of the opera. The Old Gardener casts a long shadow over his family, and the Gardener is caught between these two strong figures, trying to keep the peace. The Mother and Grandmother offer insight and wry observations in their attempts to mend relationships; both do their share of peace-making and eye-rolling, but neither is spared the sardonic wit of the other.

I sent each scene to Robert at regular intervals. He would tweak the text as needed, and in turn would send back his composition as it unfolded – and I would enjoy listening as The Gardeners grew. At each stage we discussed the direction of the plot, and although the whole process took some time – we’re both busy people with other commitments – it felt remarkably straightforward. I hope to have the chance to write more libretti in future, but in the meantime, I loved working with Robert Hugill, I’m really proud of The Gardeners, and I look forward to its premiere. See you there.

The Gardeners by Robert Hugill with libretto by Joanna Wyld receives its world premiere at Conway Hall, London, on Tuesday 18 June 2019, conducted by William Vann

Further information and tickets

© Joanna Wyld, April 2019


img_0904Joanna Wyld was born and educated in London before reading Music at New College, Oxford, where she was an Instrumental Scholar. She was listed as one of the Women of Distinction in 25 Years of Women at New College.

Joanna established Notes upon Notes in 2004 and has been writing liner notes, programme notes and other copy for a wide range of artists and record labels ever since. She also worked on Stop The Traffik for Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, a book used as a resource by the UN.

Joanna won the 2014 OUP spoof Grove Dictionary article competition, as well as both second and third runner-up slots.

She curates playlists for classical streaming service IDAGIO, and recently appeared in a Southbank Centre video introducing a concert at the new Queen Elizabeth Hall. Joanna is Editor at Odradek Records, and has written her first libretto for an opera by Robert Hugill.

Notes upon Notes

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

One of my earliest memories is going to our neighbour’s house to play on their piano. Irene had been a professional singer and I remember spending a lot of time making up music – I must have been 4 or 5 – and she was really encouraging.

I got hold of a recording of Debussy’s La Mer when I was 11 or 12. I grew up a few minutes walk from the beach and I remember being absolutely blown away by Debussy’s ability to paint pictures with sound. The piece is still one of my favourites.

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

I went to the Royal Academy of Music junior department when I was 14. I was at a very sporty comprehensive boys school and those Saturdays opened up a whole new world of opportunity. My lessons were supported by a county council scholarship and it saddens me that these specialist opportunities for ‘normal kids’ from ‘normal schools’ are now so scarce. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience.

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

I had a real crisis of confidence about my composition at university. There’s a real pressure nowadays to have everything sorted early on I definitely feel that it took me until my 30s to write music which I was happy with and which I felt was honest and representative of me. Some composers do get themselves sorted very early on and the composing and publishing world perpetuates that, but through my teaching work, I’m aware how off-putting this can be for those who need to develop their creativity more slowly.

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

I always feel that the rough guideline of a commission helps to put a few marks on the terrifying blank piece of paper. Some ideas of timing, instrumentation and occasion do help to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write some pieces for special occasions [wedding anniversaries/birthdays/weddings] and it’s lovely to be reminded in this context that music is a gift: we are as composers giving music to an audiences and performers and its important to be mindful of that when we’re composing.

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

It’s a real treat to write music for musicians we’ve got to know. I wrote quite a few pieces for the Schubert Ensemble and it was a real pleasure to develop a real working relationship with an ensemble. The concerto I wrote for Simon Blendis [From Crystal Heav’ns Above] grew out of my relationship with the Schubert Ensemble and it feels like a very personal piece because of that.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written a series of concerti over the last while. Aside from the violin concerto for Simon, I was commissioned by the Presteigne Fetival to write a new concerto for pianist Tom Poster [Laments and Lullabies] and wrote an oboe concerto [The Rider from Artemision] for Magdalen College School in Oxford last year. There’s something about the concerto genre which I love – the inherent narrative and drama seems to suit me.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

So this is the question I’ve been dreading. I mentioned the crisis of confidence I had in my late teens and twenties and it was due in part to spending time with composers with a very clear idea about what was ‘good contemporary music’. I’m delighted that many of the composers I teach now have a delightfully broad and eclectic outlook but I really felt a bit suffocated by what I felt was a very narrow band of composers writing music which didn’t speak to me.

People often describe my music as lyrical, a label which I’m happy with. And I always consider audiences and players when I’m writing – that triangle between composer, audience and performer is the holy trinity of composition as far as I’m concerned!

How do you work?

I was the slowest composer I ken for a very long time but I do write more quickly and more instinctively than I used to. I think you get better at trusting your own judgement.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I mentioned Debussy earlier and my interest in his music is a constant. Michael Tippett has always been a big inspiration: his music is so full of energy and colour and he was someone who very much ploughed his own furrow: the music is very distinctive, adventurous and creative. In the same mould, perhaps, is Judith Weir. I know a piece of hers after I’ve heard 2 bars: her musical language is not really like any one else’s and I’m always drawn into her sound world immediately. I’ve shared my life for many years with composer Alasdair Nicolson and he’s a great inspiration personally and compositionally. His music has real clarity and he’s one of the finest orchestrators I know.

I grew up in a music-loving household. Mum and Dad spent their 20’s at concerts of all of the jazz greats [Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong]. I know the great American songbook recordings back to front and Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations are second to none.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m delighted when an audience member pops up and says how much they got from a performance of one of my pieces.

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

Be yourself, trust your instincts.


David Knotts first came to public attention as a finalist in the 1994 Young Musician of the Year Competition when the London Sinfonietta premiered his first large scale work, Songs of Parting. The exceptional warmth and lyricism of these Whitman settings brought interest from many quarters and a string of commissions from some of the country’s finest soloists, orchestras and chamber-music ensembles followed.

These have included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Endymion Ensemble, English National Opera, the Composers Ensemble, the Britten Estate (to celebrate the re-opening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall) and a series of pieces for the Schubert Ensemble.

Born in West Sussex in 1972, David Knotts began formal piano tuition at the age of seven. His interest in composition soon followed and he studied for five years as a junior exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to study with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and completed a doctorate in composition with Martin Butler in 2004. In 2007, he was made an honorary associate of the Royal Academy of Music where he has taught since 1994 and is also a member of staff at Trinity College of Music.

The genesis of David Knotts’ intensely lyrical and personal style can be traced back to his early settings of Walt Whitman. Since their première, he has been preoccupied with poetry and prose as a source of inspiration. Many of his titles reflect this interest in writers ranging from Virgil (Secret Gardens) to Viginia Woolf (…and fall and rise, and fall and rise again…/To the Lighthouse) and Tasso (Adorni di Canto) to Zhang Dai (Nightwatching: ways of looking at the moon). There is also a keen interest in folk poetry: Albanian laments in A Sea Green Partridge of April, Cretan love poetry in Bring Down an Angel and Spanish ballads in The Count Arnau.

David has also been drawn to compose for the stage. He has worked extensively with writer, Katharine Craik, a relationship which has produced two chamber operas, Stormlight and Bake for One Hour. His 2006 opera, Mister Purcell – His Ground was premièred at the Royal Opera House and his latest operatic venture, a macabre cabaret opera with writer and singer, Jessica Walker entitled An Eye for an Eye was premièred at the 2013 Bath and St Magnus International Festivals.

Recent highlights have included The Count Arnau for Bassoon and Orchestra, commissioned by the BBC and performed by all of the BBC Orchestras and a new piece for the Schubert Ensemble, On such a night as this is! premièred at the South Bank in a concert to celebrate the birthday of composer, Howard Skempton. This piece was subsequently featured in a tour of the US and was featured in the BBC’s festival of the music of Judith Weir and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Recent commissions have included a collaboration with Barnsley poet, Ian McMillan for Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble, (Outstruments: A Sound Adventure)The Long Way Home for the Lawson Trio (recorded on the Prima Facie label) Tsirana for Pipers3, Fossegrimmen for cellist Gemma Rosefield and a violin concerto for Simon Blendis, From Crystal Heavn’s Above. Recent commissions have included Laments and Lullabies, a piano concerto for Tom Poster for the 2015 Presteigne Festival,Toads on a Tapestry, a large scale cantata with poet John Gallas commissioned for the nationwide Magna Carta celebrations and Grimm Tales for guitarist, Craig Ogden. Future plans include an opera based on Shakespeare’s late romance, Pericles.

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(Photograph by Alasdair Nicolson)

Menopause is the hardest teacher I’ve met. Harder than fame

– Tori Amos, singer-songwriter

No one likes to be reminded of increasing age and for women the menopause is perhaps the most obvious indication. Symptoms can begin in the mid to late 40s and may grumble on for years before one enters the full menopause; for others, the experience is relatively short-lived and trouble-free – those are the lucky ones!

The main symptoms of the menopause are well-documented – the hot flushes (an unpleasant creeping feeling of intense warmth that quickly spreads across your whole body and face) and night (and day) sweats, increased anxiety, insomnia and tiredness, brain fog, mood swings, aching limbs…..

There are days when you wake from a night disturbed by hot flushes and poor-quality sleep and wonder how you will get through the day, functioning on the most basic level, let alone trying to practise and refine complex music. In addition to long periods of inadequate sleep, I also experienced unpleasant joint pain in the ankles and wrists which made sitting at and playing the piano uncomfortable.

Hot flushes overwhelm one at unexpected moments and in a performance situation can be deeply distracting, especially if accompanied by perspiration (itself a symptom of performance anxiety), which can make fingers slippery, turning the keyboard into a skating rink.

‘Brain Fog’ is perhaps the most debilitating, especially if you are used to being alert and ‘on the ball’. It can cause problems with memory, concentration and motor skills – all significant functions for a musician – and can affect mood, leading to negative thoughts, anxiety and depression. It is thought by researchers to be caused by hormone changes in the body: falling estrogen levels can actually affect the way in which the neurotransmitters work in the brain, which causes slower transmissions and slower nerve contacts.

With this cocktail of symptoms, motivating oneself to practise and work can feel like a Sisyphean task. Fortunately, there are self-help remedies, HRT and lifestyle changes which can help alleviate or manage the symptoms of menopause, enabling one to function as near to normal as possible.

The following have worked for me:

Hot flushes: loose, light clothing, especially for concerts helps a lot. I always have a handkerchief to hand when performing (it can be left discreetly on or in the piano). I also carry a rosewater facial spray which gives a nice cooling spritz on the face and helps create a sensation of cooling down. A small fan can also help (handbag size battery operated fan or a Spanish style fan). Try to avoid hot flush dietary triggers such as alcohol or chocolate.

Tiredness: sometimes one just has to give in to the tiredness and take a break or even a short power nap. Regular exercise can also help regulate sleep.

Aching limbs and joints: evening primrose oil relieved these unpleasant symptoms for me, in a matter of days. If the body hurts, don’t push it to practise too much but rather aim for “little and often”. Warm up properly and never play through pain

Brain Fog: the good news is that this symptom tends to pass as hormone levels settle or are regulated with HRT. Self-help solutions include staying well-hydrated and avoiding dips in blood sugar levels. Quality sleep helps too, and on the days when I feel particularly “foggy”, I try not to overload myself with too many commitments or work projects, take plenty of breaks, and pace myself so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

Above all be kind to yourself, and seek medical advice if you are finding the symptoms particularly troublesome.

In common with other women friends of the same age, despite the unpleasant symptoms of the menopause, I have entered my 50s with a new energy (mental and physical), greater creativity and a strong sense of self-determination, self-worth and confidence, and I hope others feel the same.

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Pity Pachelbel’s Canon in D, beloved of A Certain Classical Radio Station and many a bride who has selected it for her wedding music (I had this piece at my wedding, played so badly by the village organist it was rendered unrecognisable!) . It’s heard so often, it’s received with groans of  “Oh no, not that again!” whenever it is played.

People accuse this music of being clichéd or boring, but it is neither of these things if played well. It’s musically interesting, apparently simple yet sophisticated: a repeated pattern (“ostinato”) in the bass, initially heard unadorned by solo cello/continuo, forms the foundation for a work which grows in texture and drama, alternating between fast and slow notes, two- and four-bar units, and major and minor chords. The interplay and overlap between the upper voices (three violins) create complex harmonies, including some piquant crunchy disonnances. The “ostinato” or ground bass is a popular device – taken up by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin (Berceuse) and Bill Evans (Peace Piece) and many others. I’ve even heard Pachelbel’s ground bass in a song by a Hip Hop band which my son likes.

Last week I attended a candlelit concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields, given by members of the LMA Orchestra. The enjoyable programme focussed on music by Bach and Vivaldi, including Bach’s wonderful Double Concerto for Two Violins, Air on a G-string, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D. There were only seven players, and, apart from the cellist and harpsichordist, they performed standing up, which immediately lent a different dynamic to the music and its performance. This was noticeable in every piece, but I was particularly interested to hear, and see, how they would approach Pachelbel’s Canon. We were sitting close to the musicians, in the side pews, which gave us a good view of how they interacted, physically and musically. They leaned into the music, gestured towards one another as the theme was passed between them, bringing greater clarity, vibrancy and emotion to the musical lines. It was almost as if they were drawing a diagram of the structure of the music through their movements. It was a refreshing take on this well-known piece and I heard it afresh, appreciating its sophistication. In addition, the entire programme was beautifully played, every line crisply articulated, finessed and refined. And by standing to perform, the musicians lent a greater sense of the energy of ensemble playing to their performance.

I had a similar experience with another very well-known piece which has been subjected to many rather clichéd readings and which gained huge popularity after ice skaters Torvill and Dean used it in their ice dancing sequence at the 1984 Winter Olympics – Ravel’s Bolero, also a work which uses an ostinato device (the repeating rhythmic figure in the snare drum). I learnt the piano 4-hands transcription some years ago and, while this wasn’t the best rendering of the music, in doing so I really appreciated Ravel’s skill in creating and sustaining drama. As in Pachelbel’s Canon, the ostinato figure brings a hypnotic atmosphere to the music, while the melody is passed amongst different instruments (also as in the Pachelbel), continually re-orchestrating the theme. The work has a constant crescendo, rising to an extreme fortissimo climax in C major. The trick is to not to peak too early, so to speak, but to sustain the rising sense of drama over the course of some 15 minutes of music. Done well, it’s mesmeric and engrossingly sensuous.

There’s a good reason why these works, and others which suffer from over-playing on the radio or in concert, are so popular: they are really great pieces, whose popularity does not mean they are “bad music”. And when they were first written these works were not considered ubiquitous or clichéd, but fresh, different and exciting.

Guest post by Douglas MacGregor

My mother died when I was only seven years old, but I never grieved. It was not until twenty-five years later that all that suppressed grief hit me. The experience took over my life for a year and, as a musician and composer, I naturally turned to music to help me through.

At the same time, I was doing a Masters in ethnomusicology at SOAS and I completed my dissertation in the cross-cultural role of sacred music in grief and death rituals where I linked the ‘dual process’ psychological model of bereavement to musical practices around the world.

The culmination of these two experiences – one highly personal and emotive, the other more objective and researched-based – led me to found a new project called Songs of Loss and Healing, which aims to explore further the connection between music, loss, grief and healing.

Music and loss 

The link between music at times of death is virtually ubiquitous: from David’s biblical dirges and the myth of Orpheus to modern pop music, from hymns and requiems to traditional laments, folk songs and ritual musical practices the world over. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld even pondered whether some of the earliest forms of music would not have been primitive polyphonic laments upon death.

Through my research, however, I noticed that despite the ubiquity of the link between music, loss and grief, very little was actually understood about the role of music. We might all have an inkling of how music has helped us with our own losses, but there is very little formalised or academic knowledge, especially when it comes to what is happening on the emotional and psychological level. Non-academically, there also seems to be little music-related information or guidance for those in times of loss save for a handful of articles and a few playlists.

In traditional societies, music has almost always been tied to rites and ritual surrounding death. It often harnesses raw emotion and channels it into the ritual outcome, bringing communities together in shared sentiment around collectively held beliefs in death and the afterlife. Numerous ethnographic studies indicate that many of these musical ceremonies have a very real psychological effect in helping the participants cope with loss and grief.

The Yolngu, aboriginal people in Northern Australia, for example, have highly performative musical funeral rites that last for two weeks. Women spontaneously start singing weeping songs upon a death and, over the coming days, these songs turn into personalised narratives of the deceased taking in kinship and ancestral connections and totemically related landscape. These rites lead the bereaved along a path from raw emotional outpouring to a culturally negotiated grief, separation from the dead and re-integration of bereaved back into society. Remembrance is then possible through such songs of place and kinship.

In modern Western societies, many have turned away from traditional systems of belief as funerals, grief and remembrance become ever more personalised and idiosyncratic. But this does not necessarily mean that people have found equivalent replacements, especially so when it comes to overwhelming experiences of grief.

Indeed, many taboos on death and grief persist, and the belief that grief is or should be highly personal leaves many alienated and suffering alone. Furthermore, low death rates mean that many have little or no experience of death while the secularised individualism of West often means for fragmented communities and scattered families. When death does strike, individuals and families may simply lack the necessary tools, community or guidance.

Music’s Role 

Music, however, is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss. Understanding the role it can play can help artist and listener better utilise and direct this power.

Firstly, music is a legitimate space for grief – even extended forms of grief that last long after society deems it acceptable to talk about. Art has always been a space that can communicate past taboo, express the unsayable, give new perspective and open dialogue.

Music therapists have long known that music can help externalise hidden feelings, help regulate emotion, and give that emotion direction. Furthermore, in music, emotion can be communicated, allowing for a sharing of experience – it shows us we are not alone in our internal worlds and can bring us together. Music can also simply allow us to feel a connection with someone lost and remember them.

Music is so fascinating as it finds itself on the border between articulable and the inarticulable elements of consciousness; on one hand, the intellectual and narrative, and on the other, the emotional experience, the subconscious or the soul. Especially in times of loss when we may most keenly feel our emotional undercurrents, music helps us connect with and discover ourselves. It can potentially bridge the gap between intellectual and emotional responses.

My personal experience

When I experienced delayed grief quarter of a century after my mother died, music not only helped me discover, explore and express what was just beyond my conscious view – grief, trauma, half-forgotten memories, intangible senses of place and presence – it also helped me to process those feelings, gain ownership of them, and direct them gradually towards a place of healing.

By the “end”, I had written 7 pieces of solo guitar music, manifestations of and meditations on grief, memory and healing. Each piece is being recorded and filmed in a different specifically chosen non-studio location. The pieces are being released each month along with an accompanying text designed to contextual the music and explore the role music played for me.

Songs of Loss and Healing

It seems to me, however, that a much wider conversation needed to be had and much more exploration to be done. The project Songs of Loss and Healing aims to open up that conversation, to explore this musical connection further, and simply to reach people through music.

In the modern world, our relation to death and grief is changing. With that, musicians and composers should be at the forefront, engaging with, responding to and re-interpreting the ancient link between music and death. For readers of this blog, it might be of particular interest, for example, to see a classical pianist such as Igor Levit in his new album ‘Life’ talk so directly about his personal grief and remembrance through classical music.

In grief, the more we discover and accept, and the more we allow ourselves to feel non-judgmentally, the more likely we are to experience grief as healing. Whether we want to feel and express the existential torment of grief or whether we would like to spiritually re-connect to the departed through song, music, with its keys to the transcendent and to our emotional inner-worlds, is uniquely placed to help us cope with loss. Music can be a consolation, but it can also be much more.

Songs of Loss and Healing aims toexplore and spur this on with a series of interviews, articles, podcasts, releases and collaborations across genres and cultures. It also aims to develop a community engagement angle by providing online resources, organising events, and raising awareness on the potential of music in grief.

 

Songs of Loss and Healing is still in the early and exploratory stages. Right now, we are looking for artists with relevant experience who would like to contribute or be featured.  

Links: www.songsoflossandhealing.com

 

 


Douglas MacGregor is a composer and guitarist. Read more

 

a23_inumvx_2019-01-05-17-00-29Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was always drawn to music from a very young age. We used to live in Poland when I was about five or six, and the house we rented had a piano in it. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I would spend hours trying to reproduce the music that I heard on TV, or write tunes to go along with my favourite books and stories. Soon after I started taking lessons, and when I realised writing music for films and for stage was an actual, real job, well, my heart was set on it.

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

Film and theatre music has always been a huge influence on my life. I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music, so I was mainly introduced to the orchestra by way of the screen and the stage. Bernard Hermann had a big impact on me as a child, as did Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, John Williams, and Alan Silvestri…to name just a few! My parents also had some cassettes of Offenbach operettas which we used to listen to in the car on repeat, so that also really drew me towards the operatic voice. Later, at music college, I was thrown in at the deep end and discovered the world of contemporary classical music. As you can imagine this was quite a change from John Williams and Offenbach! It was a complete revelation for me, opening up a world of textures and sounds I had never even considered.

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

Probably the greatest challenge in my work is convincing directors and producers to fund recording with live musicians, particularly on smaller-scale film projects with very small budgets. A lot of film music is produced electronically with instrumental samples, which can be a great tool for demonstrating ideas or mocking up sketches for editors. But even though there is a huge industry in place working to produce some very refined orchestral samples, nothing compares to real musicians. Without them, the music is simply two-dimensional. It lacks humanity.

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

The greatest pleasure is that it will actually be heard by an audience! As a film composer, we produce huge amounts of material that does not necessarily see the light of day: different sketches, pitches, or music for scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor… So it’s nice to work on something with the knowledge that it will be performed or broadcast. From a more practical point of view, film and TV work always provides a certain framework that music has to fit in to, and I really enjoy being creative within the architecture of the visuals. Often these projects have extremely tight deadlines, and I strangely find something extremely exciting and, ultimately, gratifying about pushing oneself creatively when working to the clock.

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

I’ve been very lucky to work with some fantastic musicians and I particularly value the common understanding that builds over years of working performers again and again. It really is unique. I guess there are challenges to that relationship too: remaining rigorous and not getting lazy with my notation…!

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of my score for Amma Asante’s new feature film ‘Where Hands Touch’, which comes out in the UK on 10 May. It was the first feature I scored and so it holds a very special place in my heart. I also really love working on a series of comedic operettas I’ve been writing for the past ten years which, although something of a side project compared with the film and TV work, are still very dear to me. They are tremendous fun to develop and extremely liberating. I aim to write a new show every couple of years. My current one is called Pygmalion 2.0, a one-woman opera about a scientist trying to engineer a better generation of men using artificial intelligence.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As you’d probably guess from my first answer, I’d say my musical language is first and foremost cinematic: tonal, narrative and melodic.

How do you work?

I write every day but ideas and projects tend to get finished in focused bursts. As for a particular piece, I work things through mostly in my head so will spend an awful lot of time thinking about a piece of music, envisioning it. Then I move to paper, rather than the piano; I find that if I move to the piano too quickly things can easily get altered by my fingers, which will automatically go into a certain key or add musical idioms that aren’t necessary. So I make it a rule never to play through anything I have in mind until I have written the core of it out on paper first. That way the idea feels somehow truer to its conception.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That’s a hard question. It’s an ever-changing list really, I listened to a lot of Takemitsu over Christmas. I also love Xenakis, Reich, Ravel, Chopin. I’m writing an EP for trombone, viola, and electronics at the moment, and I tend not to listen to any music in the weeks surrounding a project. Instead, during those time sI like to research traditions of music that have been lost. At the moment I’m looking at musical traditions in ancient Greek drama and what modes and scales might have sounded like 2500 years ago.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a difficult one to define, I suspect for many other artists too. Often it can be blurred with external perception and audience validation, so for me the important thing is to focus on having personal pride in what I do.

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

A strong work ethic and, above all, perseverance. It’s an industry which can be truly gruelling and often completely contradictory in its nature: one day it feels meritocratic, the next it’s about who you know and not the music you make. Maybe because of this it can be easy to get swayed by hype and trends – but the constant in any musician’s life has to be one’s work, and one’s voice.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love improvising along to narratives, and one of my favourite ‘exercises’ is to put books up on the music stand and improvise on the piano while reading them. At the moment I do this with a Belgian comic book series called Yoko Tsuno.


Anne Chmelewsky is a composer and writer for screen and stage. 

Anne composed the score for Amma Asante’s feature film Where Hands Touch, (TIFF 2018). Past projects include the music for Mark Weeden’s feature film Only People (2018), Sofian Khan’s Do We Belong (The Atlantic Selects 2018) and An Act of Worship, (Field of Vision 2017), as well as the Emmy & Golden Globes nominated Derek (dir. Ricky Gervais, Netflix / C4).

Her third opera ‘Pygmalion 2.0’ has been developed with the support of the PRS foundation, and is currently previewing in the UK. Her second opera, The Looking Screen, was performed extensively both throughout the UK and internationally, as well as broadcast on UK TV and radio. She has also written for The Independent and The Huffington Post. 

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