Working with text and music from the perspective of a composer is often fraught with expectations and complications from the outset. When working without a collaborator, obtaining copyright permission to use a text, or finding a suitable text which is in the public domain can be challenging enough, but when working with a writer or poet collaboratively, there is often a tense artistic hierarchical dynamic. Some composers and writers feel that the music exists to serve the words, that the exact wording is sacrosanct and must be musically set in such way as to be audible at all times. Some composers feel that the text is mainly a vehicle for musical expression and take severe (and sometimes destructive) approaches to the editing and setting of the text to the point where it becomes indistinguishable, unrecognisable, or of little audible worth. When opinions on this hierarchy differ, both artists can often be engaged in a jostle of mutual respect, and their individual need for the preservation of their own individual voice and artistic input. It is rare to encounter an established writer who is open to the evolution and continual editing of their work alongside the creation and evolution of the musical elements.
This is one of the greatest elements of working alongside Kaite O’Reilly, the writer, poet, and dramaturge who is collaborating with the six composers throughout the CoDI Text 2020 scheme. |Having worked with her before on projects, I knew that, while she openly professes to not have musical knowledge, she possesses an innate and transcendent sense of creative artistry that she is able to instinctively apply to all areas of creative expression. She is endlessly open to the ideas of adapting and workshopping both the music and the text, and as such is a very active and thoroughly inspiring artist to work with.
Little did I realise however that this generous nature and principle of sharing would expand to cover the performers as well who, not only have been taking on complex contemporary challenges throughout the scheme, but who have also actively engaged in the creation and evolution of the new pieces written by the composers with Kaite.
The first session began the scheme under this ethos, with all members of the scheme (including Kaite and Lead Composer Joseph Davies) introducing themselves by sharing elements of their musical experiences. For the CoDI composers, this meant bringing in one piece of music from any genre which, for us, was a particularly special example of the use of text in music. The pieces which people presented were vastly diverse, not just in style, but in their approaches to text setting. I chose to offer a piece which has had a lasting impact on me as a composer both emotionally and stylistically, Britten’s War Requiem. This piece encapsulates my ideals of music and text. No only is the text incredibly vibrant, but Britten’s setting adds a layer of extra feeling and reality to the words of both his chosen texts simultaneously; the traditional Latin Requiem Mass text, and Wilfred Owen’s poems. His music seems to paint the spaces between the lines, metaphors, and sentiments. It colours the spaces between words and speaks alongside them as an equal companion. To me, a brilliant musical setting of a text is where the music and text go together as completely as taste and smell, when one feels incomplete without the other. The excerpt I chose was the setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem Strange Meeting from the final part of the Requiem; Libera Me. Other CoDI composers chose pieces which used text in a different way, including as the actual score with performers reading a passage of text a number of times under different rules each time to create the performance.
This sharing was followed by the Performers for the scheme performing some music written for their instruments. The ensemble (Flute, Viola, and Harp) played a secession of excerpts written for their ensemble ranging from the Baroque era through to Contemporary compositions by composers such as Takemitsu. They punctuated this with discussion about what worked especially well for them as an ensemble and as individuals, helping to introduce the possibilities of the instrumental line up to the composers. This not only allowed us to become more familiar with the performers with which we would be working, but also with their specific tastes, abilities, and challenge areas. This was particularly useful information, especially in the area of harp techniques as many of the composers on the scheme (including myself) have not written extensively for harp before, so a thorough demonstration of the capabilities of the instrument set us up well for beginning our own sketches. The two singers (Soprano and Baritone) then performed a solo each and one duet to introduce us to their voices, tastes, and capabilities.
For the final part of the day, Kaite and Joe gave demonstrations of their work and artistic journeys. Kaite revealed that Samuel Beckett is one of her greatest influences, especially his use of beauty and utter bleakness, and discussed her work with the differently abled community. She showed us some visual language, music, and movement collaborations which she had worked on before, and then showed us elements of Persians. Persians is a work with such high levels of dramatic and theatrical manipulation to accompany the soundscape by John Hardy and the text of Kaite O’Reilly that I felt completely emotionally overwhelmed by the all encompassing nature of the production. Joe then talked about his work as a composer, playing us some of his music, and perhaps even more interestingly discussing some of the collaborations he has worked on in the past, and the nature in which they had transpired. This lead to some highly fruitful discussion about the role of participants within a collaboration, and sealed in the flexible way with which I wanted to participate within the project.
Before leaving, we all sat with Kaite and Joe and discussed which of the group of writings (offered by Kaite in advance of us all meeting) we had been drawn to. Interestingly we had all decided to set different texts from the offered text, which just highlighted how interesting, diverse, and different each composer involved is, and how rich and exciting the set of workshops to follow will be.