eternity / is the sea / with the sun / gone away
Stephen Romer’s poem Collects for Lent is an intense and searching meditation. Images of wintry rivers, grey seas, monastic ritual, birds and signs of the year’s natural cycle are sketched in tiny phrases that are as pithy and dense as they are simple, and drawn together in a chronicle of pondering, mourning, endurance, ending with a glimpse of possible rebirth.
Setting these words to music was a wholly positive experience; despite the darkness of the text and the suffering from which it springs, I found it a source of energy, direction and clarity.
The full score was completed and sent off to the performers – the French vocal group Vox’Sing, together with two fine instrumentalists from the Tours Conservatoire – at the end of January. Both Stephen and I coached them in the pronunciation and the poetic import of the words, and after an intense period of rehearsal they gave a wonderful first performance in a beautiful restored Grange in the countryside outside Tours. In an earlier concert violinist Liza Kerob played In a quiet room with a poise and depth of feeling that was very moving. I am sure these will prove to be the first of many happy collaborations.
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.
For a couple of years I’ve been wanting to write a piece for the harpist Michelle Abbott, who works in Hong Kong and also in the US. Finally this summer a good moment emerged, and with it a quiet theme, gently circling, or rather spiralling. This theme is the core of the piece: it has a life of its own, continually ticking over, watching, weighing up. Mostly it is cool, elegant, but occasionally it shows strength and speed.
It was fairly soon after drafting out this main theme that I got the idea for the title. A gazelle is elegant, poised, attentive, beautiful, a little mysterious. In Arabic literature it is associated with the beloved, and there is a genre of Sufi love-poetry whose name ghazal probably comes from the same root.
The harp is a special instrument, and an intriguing challenge for pianist-composers because its music looks on the page like piano music, and to some extent feels like it too, but this is a trap. Finding those shapes and gestures which really speak in the tones and resonances of the harp requires as a crucial first step forgetting all about the piano. There are also technical issues to do with the pedals and the tuning of the strings which require thought, but actually they’re easy enough to master. What has been fascinating has been to try to discover the harp’s mother tongue, or rather, imagine it. It has felt a little bit like trying to imagine the thoughts and sensations of a gazelle.