Six emerging Welsh composers, working in diverse genres, came together to write pieces for James McVinnie and the newly restored Organ in Theatr Soar. As Jamie emphasised along the way, writing for the organ usually involves writing for the buildings where they are installed. Unlike other instruments, organs are conceived for particular spaces, to sound well in their unique acoustics, and for certain musical traditions.
This instrument-recently restored to splendour by Nottinghamshire builders Goetze & Gwynn-is no exception. Over a period of three months, the composers returned to Merthyr at weekends to listen to presentations from Jamie and myself on the challenges of writing for the instrument: its particular sound qualities, the way in which its design and ranks of pipes are reflective of a particular time and approach to organ building and music making, the restrictions and opportunities of writing for two keyboards and one pedalboard. They brought sketches of their pieces at various stages of completion, from initial ideas to near-finished pieces for our comments and suggestions. And now, we're excited to be sharing them with an audience, in the site for which they were conceived. In this sense, these pieces can be said to be 'site-specific works'.
But this site has come to mean more than just the instrument and the building. Alongside these practical workshops, the composers have been fortunate to hear presentations from musicians and historians with expertise in the fascinating history and rich musical traditions of this storied town-inextricably linked as it is with the history of the industrial revolution, the labour movement, and of working-class culture in Wales. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has been a revelation for everyone involved, myself included. This building stands as a remarkable living monument to the belief that beautiful-and sometimes challenging-things should be available for everyone.
Richard Baker (Lead composer)
Owain Hughes (1991) Valley Talk
My composition for the organ at Soar is inspired by speech. I have utilised the rhythms and phrasing of local dialect to form melodic and rhythmic shapes in this piece. I wanted to write something I could relate to, being from Merthyr Tydfil and growing up in Aberfan. There are two humorous main ideas that I used as a basis for the composition. The first was my mother saying to me at home, 'What you on about mun?'; the other, which I overheard in a supermarket, was a lady saying 'four pound's four pound init!', talking about the great deal she had just given someone she was serving. These two phrases are an example of the colloquial language used around the area, which I have woven into the basis of this composition to be played on the organ. I took both of the phrases and transcribed the rhythms and pitches. I then utilised them as the main themes in the piece and constantly developed the ideas, taking them through different rhythmic and tonal worlds. Throughout the composition there is a lot of light and shade. I would like to think that the music reflects my diverse influences, taken from both my jazz and classical backgrounds. I have also tried to use local music as a source of inspiration and have studied lots of historical and present day organ music. I think the organ is somewhat overlooked these days, but is a brilliant sounding instrument which offers lots of different textures and timbres. I have very much enjoyed getting to know this instrument and I think going forwards the pipe organ is something I would like to study more and utilise further in my own music. I am a Merthyr Tydfil born multi-instrumentalist (Guitars, Keyboards) and have been on the Welsh Music Scene since the age of 75, playing in various bands and also leading my own projects. I am versatile musician who is very open minded when it comes to my creative endeavours. As a keen composer, I currently play and write my own material, whilst also lend myself as a session musician and arranger. I have a particular interest in ensemble writing, but am always trying to expand my horizons writing for new instruments. I have a broad palette of influences ranging from Classical music to more jazz/improvisational music; one of my main inspirations is the music of Frank Zappa. I graduated from The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2020 with First Class Honours in Jazz studies and am always striving to better myself as a both a player and composer.
Andrew Cusworth (1984) Esgyn Soar
On the 18th September 1890, Capel Soar's new Conacher organ was opened by the Zoar Harmonic Society in a performance of Handel's Messiah. At the time, and for many years afterwards, the fortunes of the town and its inhabitants were made and unmade by the iron industry, and, if it was sung that night, the aria Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron' must have carried extra resonance for the performers and their audience. Yet, Merthyr's industrial star, at least in the sense of iron, was already wavering, pointing towards a less certainly-rooted future for the town and its communities; towards an as yet unseen need for a future reinvention; towards, amongst many things, the rebirth of Zoar Chapel as Theatr Soar, and the rejuvenation of the Conacher organ. Esgyn Soar takes its inspiration from the process of learning about and exploring the musical and cultural histories of Theatr Soar and Merthyr Tydfil: the rises, falls, and reinventions of one of Wales' most recognisably post-industrial towns. The name 'Esgyn Soar' is a play on the translation of 'soar' (the name of the theatre, and the English word 'soar' and it's equivalent, 'esgyn'). It is formed out of a playful semi melodic line and two fragments from the aria 'Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron' from Messiah, a quiet reference to both the organ's opening concert and the industrial heritage of the town. These ideas are extended into a piece that is part meditation and part toccata; part prayer, part humour; part quiet anger at the ravaging exploitation of the town by industry and its decline, and part hope for its cultural future, as embodied by Theatr Soar and the project to restore and celebrate its organ. Andrew Cusworth is an award-winning Welsh composer who is best known for his choral music. He has written for musicians ranging from community choirs to internationally renowned soloists, and values opportunities to write for particular people, places, and occasions. His works have been performed and broadcast around the world and include pieces for Car ABC, John Turner, Car Dyfed Choir, Salisbury Cathedral Girl Choir, Ca Imus Ensemble, and the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral. Andrew studied at Cambridge, where he was an organ scholar at Magdalene College, and holds a PhD from the Open University for research on the archival record of Welsh traditional music as a form of cultural history. He currently works at the University of Oxford.
Hannah Paloma (2002) Awst 1931
In August 1931, Die Penderyn of Merthyr was wrongfully convicted of assaulting a soldier and was consequently hanged in St Mary's Street, Cardiff. Later, witnesses came forward proving his innocence and in 2000, a campaign for his pardon was started, and is still being fought for to this day. In my piece 'Awst 1937', I wanted to pay homage to the resilience of an unshaken community and to shine light on battles still being fought. The piece consists of three sections, circling back to the start as a reflection of determination within the community - the held drone note throughout being a metaphor for hope and resilience. The first drone represents the loss and the lack of a clear path to follow; I wanted this section to pay respects to past lives and to reflect on the space between endings and beginnings. The repeated five-note pattern in the middle section represents the past ways in which the community worked during the Rising, and later the melody and counter melody adapt and build to become the ever growing spirit of the community. Throughout the writing process, we were given opportunities to explore the organ at Theatr Soar and I decided to incorporate some of its unique characteristics into my piece. Hannah Paloma was born in Cardiff, spent her first years living in Spain, and now lives by the sea in Barry. She plays the ukulele and piano, working extensively with layering of vocal harmonies, and her music uses nature as a metaphor for the human condition. Music has always been a big part of Hannah's life. She has taken part in Music Mix run by Arts Active in Cardiff for four years, writing and performing in groups at the New Theatre and St David's Hall. In 2020 she self-produced her first album. Herding Cats, about living life to the full. During the lockdowns she performed at the Wales Millennium Centre for Butetown Carnival, as part of a livestream in aid of the charity War Child. In 2020-21 she took part in Ty Cerdd's CoDi DIY pathway, working with the Mavron Quartet on her debut EP, To the Moon, featuring the bilingual song Mynyddoedd'.
Dafydd Dabson (1985) Daw Golau i'r Dyffryn
The idea behind 'Daw Golau i'r Dyffryn' is that it represents two sides of Merthyr - the industrial, the mines and ironworks that the town grew around; and the organic, the people who lived and worked there. My first musical idea for the piece was the simple melody that it begins with, its repetitive nature and joyful rhythm giving it a folky feel. I then thought about developing this idea and bringing it back in different ways as the piece continues - representing how Merthyr's population has evolved over time. As the piece progresses there are two ideas I used to convey industry- an alternating semitone pattern similar to a siren, and a repeated major 3rd that sounds almost like a car alarm which fights relentlessly against the established pulse of the piece. The way these ideas interact, sometimes subtly and sometimes abrasively, sometimes working together and sometimes against each other, was my main inspiration while writing. The tension between these two elements, and how people adapt to technological development with the upheaval those changes can bring, is a part of Merthyr's history that I found really interesting so it's something I was keen to convey in my piece. Dafydd Dabson is a Cardiff-based guitarist and songwriter. Having grown up on the Llyn Peninsula he moved down from North Wales to study music at university. Dafydd now balances his time between gigging, teaching and recording work as well as writing for his two original projectsrap/rock/reggae band Codewalkers and Welsh-language chamber pop act Derw. Over the last few years he has also been playing for Lady Gaga tribute act Donna Marie, performing in Spain, Switzerland and Russia as well as UK venues such as Nottingham Motorpoint Arena, Liverpool Echo Arena and Birmingham NEC. Working in popular music styles from indie to hip-hop, Dafydd draws on a wide range of influences in his music - current favourites include: Bleachers, Little Simz, The National and Sam Fender.
Heledd C Evans (1997) Afon I
In this piece I've been exploring collaborative methods of performing, composing, and listening. The performer has control over note lengths and changes, responding to how the sound reverberates in the space. You are invited to listen and be with the piece however you want - feel free to move around, close your eyes, sit on the floor, etc. Heledd C Evans is an artist and facilitator based in Cardiff, working with sound as both medium and subject matter - from multi-layered soundscapes to site specific installations and performances. Heledd was recently awarded the Wales Venice 70 Fellowship and is one half of sound performance duo Ardal Bicnic, working in various locations across South Wales and touring UK-wide. Currently she is a studio resident at Shift Cardiff, and runs a volunteer-led creative radio show, Pitch Radio, on Radio Cardiff.
David John Roche (1990) Cenwch i'r Arglwydd yr Holl Ddaear
Many of the Welsh bands I grew up listening to sang about the disenchantment, deindustrialisation, and poverty of South Wales. I'm thinking of people like the Manic Street Preachers and their album The Holy Bible, but also more generally of local bands and the local music scene in the 2000s. To people from places with limited prospects (such as myself), this was deeply motivating and inspiring. It felt like the music that people made mattered. In writing for the organ at Theatr Soar, I feel like I am trying to connect different lineages. I combined the repetitious, riff-based patterns drawn from the music I grew up playing and writing in South Wales with more traditional organ writing relating to the specific capabilities of the instrument at Theatr Soar. The organ itself is tied to a time where music had a different but equally important role in South Wales - this relationship between lineages may help us to understand that we still face similar issues relating to poverty, preservation, and history. The past should inform our future actions. As someone from this part of the world, it makes me sad that aspects of our musical history could be lost or destroyed. Writing for this organ made me feel connected to a culture that I had always been close to but had never been shown. It should be more present, and it is remarkable that such a beautiful and rich piece of the past has been protected. David John Roche's music is direct, determined, and loud. Strongly influenced by heavy metal, lush orchestral music, and his working-class Welsh background, David's work has been praised for its "passages of intense expressive power" (Thomas Ades), described as "exquisite" (Adam Walton, BBC Introducing), and marked out as "bold, exciting, and beautiful" (Sir James Dyson). In tandem with a consistent string of international performances and commissions, his compositions have been broadcast, televised, and written about internationally to millions of people (RaiS, Tellebelluno, S4C, NHK, BBC Radio 3, BBC Introducing, London Evening Standard, and many others). He is currently completing commissions for the Tanglewood Music Centre, Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation, and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival (Tredegar Town Band). He is also undertaking research and production work with Meta Arts and Wales Arts Review.