Posts Tagged ‘woolf’


A London adventure in Leeds

June 11, 2016

a-london-square-in-winterVirginia Woolf & Music is a fascinating series of concerts and discussions exploring the rich relationship between Woolf’s writing and thinking, and her experience of music and musicians.  I was delighted to be asked to write a short setting of some of Woolf’s words for voice and piano, to be premiered during the 26th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf in June 2016.

Setting prose to music is a strikingly different experience from setting lyric verse.  Perhaps some of Woolf’s more ‘musical’ passages, such as the poetic and lyrical refrains of The Waves, might have lent themselves more immediately to this kind of treatment – but I didn’t want to tear a short passage out of an intricately interwoven progression that spans the entire book.  Woolf’s Diaries and Letters were suggested to me as good places to look – and certainly, they are bursting with life and quick sharp perceptions.  But in the end I settled on a passage from an essay, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’.

I’ve called it A London street in winter.  It begins

How beautiful a London street is in winter, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

A deeply evocative scene, in which we both do and do not stay – for Woolf’s imagination is quick to burrow behind the vivid and immediate sights and scents and take us on unexpected journeys, even if in the end she checks herself, and asks to ‘be content with surfaces only’.

I tried to keep my setting clear and unfussy, so that rich and complex sentences can still be understood, and words are given space to resonate.  And I tried to make musical clarity and unfussiness leave space for mystery, suggestion, the unspoken and the half-thought.

A London street in winter will be given its first performance by Annelies van Hijfte and Lana Bode at 7.30 in the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds University on Friday 17 June.


Vanessa and Virginia

August 2, 2010

This is a play based on Susan Sellers’ novel about the artist Vanessa Bell and her fascinating, complex, extraordinary relationship with her novelist sister Virginia Woolf.  This beautiful adaptation by Elizabeth Wright for two actors, and involving a moving backdrop based on Bell’s paintings is being produced by Moving Stories, and I’m writing the music.  We’ve now started working on it, and the process is rather different from how I usually write.  When I arrived after two weeks of rehearsals the actors and director had already done much wonderful work building up character history, body language, quirks of movement and so on,  and the first few scenes were up and running.

I watched the scenes, and then asked them to run them again immediately, while I improvised on the piano, responding instinctively to the atmosphere, pace and direction of the scene.  This means losing oneself in it and not trying to retain conscious control of what one is doing.  Which is all very well, but it means that at the end, it’s often very hard to remember exactly what it was that you played, especially the bits where it really took off and flew.  The solution was to video the sessions, and then play back and write up the bits which I want to use.  Of course, from there, there’s a process of editing and fine-tuning which is more like how I normally compose.  But the main part – responding to actors speaking and moving all around me, and just playing – and has been very refreshing for me.

The play opens in Aix en Provence in September, and then tours various theatres in the UK and also Krakow til September 2011.