Welcome to Resident Styles my musical musings as Glyndebourne’s first Young Composer in Residence. I’ll be writing about my life as composer in residence at Glyndebourne, what happens behind the scenes and what a composer gets up to when writing new operas for Glyndebourne.
Tuesday, 8 April 2014
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes at Glyndebourne, not just in producing an opera but in writing a new one as well. Over the last month or so I’ve been toiling away with two amazing creative teams on two new operas for Glyndebourne, (one for 2014 and one for the 2015 Festival). This development work involves a process of generating the music and theatre and testing it out.
What have we actually done? Well for the first project, we spent a week with 15 young people aged 16-19 and opened the floodgates on the theme of sci-fi. The topic ignited their imaginations and we began to play around with ideas ranging from a planet where hotels are made of vegetables, to a place where the birds are the poets. What to do with these crazy ideas? We played lots of drama games, started to imagine characters and mini scenarios, all with the thought that this could be part of a new opera. We also imagined the sounds that an exploding star might make and had lots of fun making soundscapes involving dreamt up animals and celestial beings.
In the middle of all complex play, the librettist on the project wrote two scenes that brought together some of the ideas the young people had generated. I went away and did some lightning fast composing and came back ready to test the music with the young singers, a pianist and some volunteers on percussion (myself and members of the education team). Luckily the music worked and the young people seemed to feel a real connection between what I had composed and their ideas. This was a really exciting moment to see in the space of a week how ideas can be generated from just a word “sci-fi” and then transform into the beginnings of a new opera.
The next development week was a bit different from the first in that this was the second development week for this piece we are staging as part of the 2015 Festival (the first one was back in November 2013). Nonetheless the week involved a lot of laughter and play, as we tested out the music I had written. What is unique about this process is to discover the characters I am bringing to life through the music and to be able to tweak and refine them with the singers in the room. This is so different from a rehearsal period when everyone is primarily working to learn the music and get it right. In development you can change things and take input from everyone involved,you can make the characters and the music as strong as they can possibly be, without the pressures of a rehearsal.
By the end of this development week we reached about the half way point in the opera. There are two more development weeks scheduled in 2014 for this piece so by the end of the year we should have tested the whole opera, before I orchestrate the music. This is almost unheard of in opera, but should absolutely be the norm. A new musical or a new play goes through a whole series of development, scratch performances, showings and workshops before it makes it to the stage. Glyndebourne is working this approach into these two operas and it is making for amazingly informed and tested new work.
Wednesday, 30 October: Looking to the future
Working on Emigrating Ideas for Glyndebourne’s under-30s’ night at the end of November has led me to think about my own experiences of engaging with opera when I was younger.
As a student in Germany and Austria I noticed how the arts – especially music – were central parts of national identity. In both countries, opera houses and orchestras exist in every small town with larger and more famous ones in the various state capitals such as Munich or Hamburg. These opera houses and orchestras (alongside theatre companies and various other arts organisations) are integrated into the life of the community (providing employment as well for a large body of professional musicians) and occupy a very visible place in the lives of the people there. People regularly go to the opera and hear classical music, and the auditoriums are full of people young and old.
In the UK I observe the excellence and engagement of the youth work that the arts organisations undertake and produce. This is an important goal and focus of work for any arts organisation looking to build the audiences of the future and who aim for their work to be enjoyed by the whole community, not just small sections of it. Glyndebourne understands this and through its under-30s’ programme it offers young people genuine access to the highest level of opera-making in the UK.
At Glyndebourne I have been fortunate to write a chamber opera (Lovers Walk) for its youth company. Despite my music being totally unknown to them, these young participants were fearless and embraced the idea of giving the first performance of a new piece. They performed with passion and total commitment. Projects such as this are vital for cementing an interest in contemporary music and opera in young people, which will give us the audiences, performers and commissioners of the future.
Many organisations such as Glyndebourne see the importance of encouraging young people’s involvement in classical music and opera, on and off the stage. I firmly believe that opera is for everyone at any age and as a sector we should be looking at how best to make open up this world. This work is now happening and it will mean a healthy future for the arts and for us all.
Tuesday, 29 October: Emigrating Ideas
It’s been awhile since I have checked in with Resident Styles and there is plenty to catch-up on.
Wakening Shadow came to the stage after intensive weeks of rehearsals and was a big success. Everyone involved did an amazing job and I was able to hear my first full chamber opera for professional musicians, realised with the best performers and a creative team who gave the work a strong dramatic sense. I loved combining my music with Britten’s and it has taught me many things about balancing different types of music in a dramatic work.
It doesn’t take long to move on to the next Glyndebourne project. Glyndebourne Tour is upon us – the shows are funny, tragic and above all wonderfully performed – and I’m making my own contribution at an evening exclusively for under-30s. All tickets on this evening for The Rape of Lucretia cost just £20 and I will be presenting a pre-performance concert with my young chamber group Ensemble Amorpha. Called Emigrating Ideas, it brings together contemporary music from the UK and Canada looking at how music from these two countries combines and influences one another. On the bill is the world premiere of a piece I have written especially for this concert called Handspun Slogans, scored for Bass Clarinet, Cor Anglais, French Horn, Cello and Harpsichord. Alongside this are pieces by Thomas Ades, Ana Sokolović and Christopher Mayo.
I particularly wanted to be a part of the under-30s event as I believe it is essential that arts organisations make this demographic key to their work. I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I hadn’t had the chance to go to special family music days as a youngster and get discounted tickets to see first class music and opera as a student and a 20-something.
I’m also spending ten days in Glyndebourne at present, working with three singers, a pianist and director/writer on a new chamber opera. It is essential to get time with musicians well in advance of a performance and before really composing the piece to test material and see what music and dramatic ideas are the strongest. I have composed about 40 minutes of music for these workshops so we will have a lot of music to play around with. Our aim is to find the real language of the piece we want to make, so that after these ten days the director/writer and I can go away and make a first draft of the opera. Busy, exciting times all round.
Friday, 9 August: Wakening Shadow on the horizon
We are almost there; the orchestra (the London Philharmonic) has arrived as part of the Wakening Shadow team this week and burst the opera into glorious colour. Suddenly the three Britten canticles I have orchestrated have taken on new vibrancy and their original format has been embedded in a much larger piece of work. My new scenes are exciting to hear for the first time, as they are played by the orchestra. I can now hear the percussion section and the detailed writing that does not always come across when everything is to condensed for one piano player - this being the practicalities of the opera rehearsal process!
Not only did the orchestra arrive this week but the set, costumes and lighting have also been added. This dramatically enhances the atmosphere of the piece and gives our characters genuine visual depth. This piece is quite abstract at times with reoccurring symbols and themes such as light, darkness or fire which can now be seen through the use of lighting and props which really helps the piece make sense on stage.
The concepts that underpin this work have been discussed, changed and turned upside down in over a year's worth of preparation and all this before the first day of rehearsal and all by myself, Vladimir and Daisy. It is great to see these ideas working on stage and in sound. We still have a few days left before we open on the 12th of August and today the signers have properly met the orchestra for the Sitzprobe. They will be in for some surprises when that clear piano note cue is actually a hidden violin harmonic or a loud crash on the bass drum. I’m sure that these surprises will keep everyone on their toes and only add to the energy in the rehearsal room.
Tuesday, 17 July: From one Festival staging to another
Wakening Shadow rehearsals have begun and what an amazing experience it has been so far. The singers are immensely talented and came to the first rehearsal with a thorough knowledge of the music, ensuring we started working immediately on the finer details of the dynamics, articulation and characterisation in the music.
What this allowed was for me to see Glyndebourne’s Music Director, Vladimir Jurowski - up close - working on my music and how he has been able to get not only the sound we want from the singers but to go further and give my music large scale consistency - in colour and shape - and I have rarely seen a conductor able to draw this out so expertly.
I have been assisting Vladimir in weeks one and two of this process, allowing me to learn a great deal about conducting. Remaining focused on my work as a composer, whilst assisting Vladimir, has allowed us to have another assistant to guide the work technically as I remain focused as a composer on what I want my music to do and say and to collaborate with the singers in terms of getting the best musical results. For new pieces this is always an evolving process and I am constantly attuned to slight changes that will improve the overall impact of the work. This is a fundamental part of my learning process and acquiring as much experience as possible as Glyndebourne’s young composer in residence.
In week two we began production rehearsals and this saw Daisy Evans beginning to craft the visual and physical aspects of staging. Wakening Shadow is not an easy piece to direct. It has no characters; it is abstract and has no obvious story. The core creative team (myself, Vladimir and Daisy) know what the work is about and where it is heading, but without the standard device of a narrative it is a different challenge when trying to connect with an audience. Daisy is doing a great job and the singers are all on board with the abstract nature of the piece and use of movement to give it meaning. We are creating some very intimate moments between groups of threes and pairs in the work, which is book-ended by two large full ensemble scenes. We have a couple more weeks before the orchestra join us and time is flying by - I can’t think of any better way to spend my summer than in rehearsals at Glyndebourne.
Monday, 17 June: Delight as Vanity proves a hit - now on to Wakening Shadows
Since my last blog the Festival has opened and my first Glyndebourne work for 2013 received its premiere. On the opening weekend of the 2013 Festival Vanity had the first of its three performances. This new work, presented for the ladies of the chorus, two solo singers, a tenor and a bass-baritone plus a violinist, was to my delight well received. It was presented in the beautiful Organ Room at Glyndebourne, which was specifically chosen for the performance because of its beauty and ability to divide the ladies from the men – in staging terms. The female roles were presented on the balcony and the men below. This staging increased the theatricality of the piece which is driven by ideas of male vanity, beauty and fading love.
The performances themselves couldn’t have gone better. Each of the three performances offered something new for the listener as the musicians got deeper into the piece and more accustom to presenting it publicly. It was a real pleasure to work with all the people involved and there was a sense that everyone felt a real ownership of the piece. This came across in dedicated and highly musical performances of the work, something that a composer dreams of. If you fancy reading some of the reviews of Vanity there are two to choose from; Classical Source and Music OMH.
Since these busy and exciting first weeks of the Festival I have been back at my desk completing some chamber music, which will be performed in the autumn at Kings Place and at Glyndebourne. These include a new clarinet quintet and an ensemble piece for horn, oboe, cello, clarinet and harpsichord. Composing aside, I have been starting to get ready for Wakening Shadow rehearsals. These begin on the 1st of July and I will be playing a very different role from the usual composer in the background, quietly keeping an eye on everything. This time I will be assistant conductor to Vladimir Jurowski, so need to learn my music in a very practical way. I have therefore been singing my new opera to myself and getting out my baton and starting to familiarise myself with the choreography of conducting this 75min chamber opera.
I can’t wait for this next intensive stage in the opera creation process to begin. I will be learning a great deal of new things no doubt. I will be keeping you updated on the progress through July and into August before the four performances in the week of the 12th of August so stay tuned.
Tuesday, 14 May: Excitment builds as Festival 13 prepares to launch
It has been an exciting few weeks as the opening of the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival fast approaches. I have been deeply immersed in rehearsals for my new piece Vanity and avidly watching rehearsals of Katharina Thoma’s new production of Ariadne auf Naxos.
Ariadne opens this year’s festival on May 18th and watching it come together is one of the huge benefits of being part of the Glyndebourne family. I have seen how Vladimir Jurowski conducts during production, through to the arrival of the orchestra, shaping the musical journey over the unique rehearsal process of staging an opera at Glyndebourne. There are lots of treats in store for the eyes in this production and I’m sure it will be a great success.
My first 2013 Festival production Vanity has one more rehearsal to go before its premiere on May 19 (it’s performed again on the 24th and 26th). The violinist Matthew Truscott (leader of the OAE), joined us last week and suddenly the sound was transformed into my original composition. Having heard the violin part played on piano during earlier rehearsals, now I heard how the intimacy and colour changed with the entrance of the violin in the mix – it was a breath of fresh air for the piece. We could also start to see how the violinist, tenor and bass could all be soloists with individual voices and how these three joined or separated from the female chorus.
We have played around with the layout of the performers in the Organ room, where the piece will be performed. Jeremy Bines (chorus master and conductor of Vanity) and I had always thought it would be nice to create a physical representation of the different roles of the men and women in this piece and their particular take on notions of vanity, beauty and love. The result is something physically dramatic that will add to the music. The organ room is a beautiful space to perform in, filled with period features and large portraits hanging from the walls. It all starts this week and there is real excitement in the air.
Thursday, 18 April: Countdown to Festival
The last few weeks have been a very intense time of composing, seeing new work and developing future work. My main task has been composing my new chamber opera for this year’s Festival, Wakening Shadow. I am currently writing the final scene. It is a special place to be in the composition of a 75minute work. All the ideas, themes and drama of the work need to come together at the end, the music needs to be pointed and add something that has not yet been said in the rest of the work. It is exciting music to compose, using the full cast of nine singers and the orchestra of 15 LPO musicians. There are certainly some large tutti sections where the work cries out to the audience, and also moments where the whole cast sing as one voice. I’m nearly there and once the work is complete I will hand it to the musicians and production team. At that point I almost stop being the composer and become a part of a new team. For this piece I will be the assistant conductor for Vladimir Jurowski, so once I compose the final bar it will be on with the conductor’s hat as I start to learn my own work in a whole different guise.
Between composing projects I have managed a few trips abroad to catch some new productions. The one that has stood out the most, by far, was The Threepenny Opera, in Berlin. It was directed by Robert Wilson and performed at the Berliner Ensemble. This was always going to be a huge thrill. Nothing disappointed and I was treated to a phenomenal performance, gripping and funny, a ‘tour de force’ of directing and powerful, fresh and highly dramatic music.
As with all Wilson productions you could see the director’s hand in each of the performances. This gives a long-range continuity to the whole show. That said the characterisations by everyone were larger than life, without being slapstick or cartoon like. You gained a deep emotional attachment to everyone, and I was moved by each and every performance.
I am spending a few days at Glyndebourne this week to develop work for 2015 with the director/librettist Ted Huffman, once again taking advantage of Glyndebourne’s unique setting for concentrated creative work. This is so important in the genesis of a new piece and I can’t wait to see what we come up with. Alongside this I will be popping into rehearsals of my first new work in this year’s Festival. Vanity is an Organ Room recital which opens on the 19th of May. I am looking forward to seeing how the ladies of the chorus have found my particular take on Shakespeare and vanity. Watch this space.
Wednesday 11 February: Musically evolving
It has been a period of head down and compose for me this month. I have been deep into writing Wakening Shadow, punctuated by meetings with Vladimir Jurowski to discuss the score and meetings with Daisy Evans the director, to talk about the theatre of the work as it evolves and changes with the more music I compose.
It hasn’t been all work and no play if I tell the truth. I have been lucky enough to see some varied and stimulating performances of late. This includes Daisy Evan’s L’Orfeo for her own company Silent Opera. The instrumental music for the opera is mixed in headphones with the live voices of the singers. Daisy takes her cue from silent disco and the effect she creates in opera is one where the performers are freed from the stage, able to perform amongst the audience. There is also a captivating experience when you take off the headphones and no longer hear the instrumental music, instead you are left with unaccompanied singers, performing in a very private way to one another amongst an absolutely silent and still audience.
I have also seen some performances recently at ROH; The Minotaur and Most of the Boys, which offer incredibly different musical and theatrical experiences yet both show me something new about how to move performers and music in a space.
I have been at Glyndebourne studiously doing some of my composing. This gives me a good solitary place to work and a constructive change of scene. I usually end up writing a lot in these day or two sessions and it is without doubt that Glyndebourne itself helps shape my composing. I’ve also checked out some of the Imago rehearsals and heard some beautiful singing (a love duet in particular) and seen a set which fills the main stage and divides it up into interesting looking compartments.
The rest of February will be full of composing and hopefully I will get to the last third of Wakening Shadow by the end of the month. It won’t be long till rehearsals for Vanity begin and I start to hear some of the music I have been working on coming to life.
Thursday 10 January: New Year, new work!
Happy 2013! It has been back to my desk this week after a two week festive holiday taking in London’s cultural treats and enjoying walks in the lake district. I spent some time mentally reviewing 2012 which was such a fantastic year for me, far too many highlights to go into here but a quick recap reminds me that the year ended brilliantly with the commission of a new carol for the Financial Times; When Icicles Hang By The Wall, which was seen by over a million readers and offered a new carol for the singing masses in 2012.
By far my biggest thrill of 2012 was having my first opera Lovers Walk premiered at Glyndebourne, I was lucky enough to have other works performed in two other international opera houses, a new wind quintet of mine was premiered at the Sydney Opera House and I had six performances at the Royal Opera House, so a busy end to a busy 2012 and now it’s all about the exciting new performances for Glyndebourne in 2013.
I’m currently working on one of two major works for performances at Glyndebourne. Firstly Wakening Shadow, a new opera about humanity which incorporates three of Britten’s Canticles and new original scenes that create an abstract piece in terms of character and narrative and takes the audience on a strong musical and thematic journey.
I will be composing Wakening Shadow until June, as it is a 75 minute piece. I am a quarter of the way through which is an interesting place to be. I know much of the music and tone of the piece but there are many unknowns still to be discovered in the music. The climactic scene of the work is coming up in 25 minutes and I'm really directing the music towards this point.
Other work for me at Glyndebourne this year is Vanity, created for the female members of the chorus, bass and tenor soloists and a solo violin. The work sets four of Shakespeare’s sonnets and will be given three concert performances starting on the opening weekend of the 79th Glyndebourne Festival. I have composed the first draft of Vanity and later this week I will be meeting chorus master Jeremy Bines to discuss the work. This is one of the great things about my residency at Glyndebourne, the people I will be rehearsing and making my music with are on hand for consultation and discussions throughout the year, making for truly collaborative projects and a very informed composition process. I can’t wait for 2013 to get going with so much excitement and new work on the horizon!
Friday 7 December: Christmas calls
Having completed some intensive preparation at Glyndebourne working with a director on some exciting new work, I am reminded of another reason why I am thrilled to be Glyndebourne’s first Young Composer in Residence. Being able to get away from the demands of daily life and focus on a project, in surroundings that are so conducive to creativity, is an opportunity that is second to none. During the course of our intensive session we turned an existing scene into something that is beginning to look like a full work and from plenty of brainstorming we have developed a comprehensive structure with details of scenes and music sketches. A few days in the country very well spent..
Over the last couple of weeks I have been composing Wakening Shadow a new opera for Glyndebourne that will have its premiere at the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival (August 12th, 14th, 16th, 17th). This piece will be much bigger than my first Glyndebourne commission, Lovers Walk because the band is a chamber orchestra of 15 musicians (drawn from the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and they are supported by a cast of just 9 singers. It is a very different approach because there is no libretto, the piece includes 3 of Britten’s Canticles that I am orchestrating (roughly half of the music in the piece) and the other half is new material with lyrical text from literary luminaries such as Byron, Shelly and Brodsky, their poetry contextualises the Canticles and turns the piece into an opera with strong themes and dramatic progression.
Alongside my next operatic composition for Glyndebourne, I have been lucky enough to be commissioned to write a new Christmas carol for the Financial Times newspaper. When Icicles Hang by the Wall, is a unique commission working with some of Shakespeare’s text from Love’s Labours Lost. Composing a Christmas carol was a wonderful, new experience for me and recording the piece was exciting; on piano was Sir David Tang, the renowned FT columnist and fashion’s man about town, plus 6 singers from the London Chamber Choir who sang the carol beautifully. The carol itself is festively joyful (if not a bit spooky in the middle) and is the type of composition that people can put on their piano and enjoy a great Christmas sing a long together with friends and family, nothing too taxing! Having an opportunity to compose a traditional Christmas carol has been a nice little break from the intensity of Wakening Shadow, but today it’s back to the day job to see how much I can complete before Christmas.
The FT’s festive carol will be published tomorrow (8th December) on the cover of the FT’s House and Home supplement and is supported by an interview with me looking at the composition of this unique piece. A video of the carol being recorded will be hosted on the FT website from Saturday. Don’t miss it!
Monday 5 November: Bonfire of the vanities
Lovers Walk took to the stage in a flurry of energy and enthusiasm and now as the dust has settled and a few weeks have passed, it’s a good point to reflect on the last stage of the operatic process.
We had two performances, one on October 14 at the Birley Centre, Eastbourne and a second night on the October 20 at Glyndebourne. Both performances were sold out and successes in their own ways. After the whole thing was over the overriding emotion from the young performers was “lets do it again, lets sing it some more”, which is a nice buzz to get from your singers.
In the lead up to the 14th there was a lot of stress, panic and uncertainty all round. Were we going to get there, was the piece ready, would it work? All the worries turned out to be nervous anxieties that turned into real bravery and convincing dramatic performances on behalf of the young cast. They really went for it when they were unsure and this paid off with singing I had not heard before, acting that was strong and moving, and an opera that I was proud of.
Moving to Glyndebourne a week later, we didn’t want to rest on our laurels, plus we were going into a new space with only one 3hr rehearsal to adjust to the new stage. This new space provided a physically larger platform for the cast to explore and move in. This meant that the work became freer in its physicality and as a result the music became more natural, elastic and joyously strong, especially at the end of the work, where the cast have to give their fullest voices at a time when they are most tired. This second performance really built on the first one and I think had we had another five or so performances the work would have got better and better.
I am extremely grateful to everyone involved in Lovers Walk, it has been a great first project for me as composer in residence. It saw me having to take the pure essence of what I wanted to say, in its simplest form (given the experience of the singers and also the small band) and try and make this work. Having had to focus the work in this way has given me technical skills and assurances for the next big projects. As I now start writing for the LPO, the Jerwood Young Artists and the Chorus for a new opera in 2013 I feel that I have a solid basis of operatic understanding, from which I can add the complexity and detail that a professional cast and larger orchestra will allow for.
Stay tuned for blogs about “Vanity” a new work for the female members of the chorus, tenor, bass and violinist, setting Shakespeare sonnets and the new opera for 2013.
Wednesday 10 October: Count down to the Lovers Walk premiere
Our whirlwind rehearsal schedule has come to a close and the piece is now on its feet, the entire cast and creative team can taste the performance in the air and with the excitement building we are ready to perform.
I have come to learn the realities of stories I have been told about staging opera. This game is nothing like rehearsing a piano sonata or even a large symphonic piece. Opera has so many variables; collaborators, musicians, creative voices and talent which all needs to be harnessed and balanced to make a good piece of work great, and truly come alive. When any one of those cogs falters you can have a problem.
The last few rehearsals have been about problem solving and trouble shooting, areas that all opera productions have to navigate towards the end of any rehearsal period. These challenges are not unique and they are all conquerable. If you don’t have a cool head and a positive outlook however, opera may not be the career choice for you. The payoff of the work being realised (and brilliantly at that) albeit only in snippets in the rehearsal room at this stage, makes it all worth it.
We have three more intensive rehearsal days before we open. This includes technical rehearsals and the entrance of the orchestra (well a quartet of clarinet, trumpet, cello and piano). In the build-up to the premiere I will be taking to the airwaves on Reasonance FM with two of the singers from Lovers Walk to promote the Eastbourne premiere, talk through the composition and rehearsal process and my role as Glyndebourne’s first Young Composer in Residence.
Tune in to Resonance 104.4fm at 4pm on Thursday 11 October to hear more from me, the composer, talk about Lovers Walk and hear a sneak preview of some of the music from two of the singers who will be performing live on air!
Monday 24 September: The latest report from Resident Styles as he nears the Lovers Walk finishing line….
Lovers Walk is now 3 rehearsals in and we can see the finishing line ahead. Our first rehearsal after the summer saw us trying to remember the distant work of our intensive Eastbourne adventure; the hard graft of learning the dots and plus the fear of the size of the journey ahead of us. By rehearsal 3, our talented musical director Lee had even been able to go into the finer detail of articulation and dynamics, linking these with character and the motivation of the “greek” style chorus. I was impressed, these kids can really sing! I’m looking forward to a full run through and to start implementing the detailed character work and ultimately staging the piece.
Typically the staging is when the theatre really kicks into action. If the music is sung well and sounds nice we’re half way there but if it doesn’t make good theatre it ain’t opera. I have been working closely with director Thomas Guthrie to see where we can discover something in the work which is unique to the young people performing it. What a great way for this wonderful company to feel real ownership of their piece!
Big questions still remain such as what is the piece about? For me a good work of art continually asks this fundamental question. If the answer is too obvious and the work too transparent, it generally doesn’t demand subsequent performances, but if a work continues to draw us back to ask questions of it and then of ourselves it is a work of art which will continue to be relevant beyond its time and one that keeps on giving.
I hope that Lovers Walk can come to the stage in such a way that the young performers feel confident in their performance and engage with the audience in such a way that they want to see and hear it again.
Over the next few rehearsals I will be keeping my eye on the music and working with Thomas on the drama, whilst treading that fine line between the (presumed) all knowing composer (when it comes to ones own work) and the pesky perfectionist. It’s up to the conductor and director now to get the work on stage and I love being part of the whole process – such a thrill!
Friday 31 August: Resident Styles takes a busman’s holiday in the UK
An eventful few weeks for Resident Styles; to my delight I completed the full score for Lovers Walk (I had completed the vocal score three months ago) and my aim was to add a level of complexity to the instrumental writing which I have achieved – I hope! With only a piano, clarinet, trumpet and cello to work with the instruments provide a large range and timbral palette as an ensemble. The aim of the Lovers Walk instrumental music is to shape and push the stage action, reminding the characters and audience of key themes in the piece and the conflicts the characters face.
One of the opera processes I relish most is the close collaboration with project creatives which usually (in my experience) ensures working closely with the composer, librettist and director. Thomas Guthrie (Lovers Walk director) and I have been keen to break down the questions that remained unanswered during the Lovers Walk rehearsal phase. Who are the chorus? What do they do? How do they shape the action? What is their relationship to the principle characters? Together we discovered some of these questions must be answered by the singers, encouraging them to play with dramatic ideas and discover their own way to make the music personal. As composer, this is exciting as it presents the opportunity for the company’s singers to really own the piece.
I also believe the earlier the collaborative process begins the better, and this is certainly the case for my main project in 2013. Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Daisy Evans (director) and I have met a number of times over the last few weeks to work on the 2013 piece; it will involve 13 LPO members and a cast of 8 singers from the chorus development programme, I don’t want to give too much away but we are working well as a trio, having developed a rare and valuable way of working allowing me to form a clear idea of the piece on stage before turning it into a piece with music.
Part of my residency at Glyndebourne involves soaking up plenty of new work, exposing me to as many ideas as possible. Recently I travelled to the Edinburgh International Festival where the most exciting (and operatic) piece of work I saw was Gulliver’s Travels by director Silviu Purcărete. The piece did many of the things that I think theatre is made for and that opera builds on such as a greater focus on non-language aspects of performance. This often brings music into the picture and in this production it saw a prominent place for an organ score and singing by the actors. This worked well and was a natural extension and part of the drama, rather than an accompaniment to it. There was also a focus on the absurdity of theatre (people pretending to be something they are not) and no attempt made at realism, whilst still conveying a strong sense of believability. There were people as horses, marching business men, dancing dwarves, all totally justified dramatically but without the need of a logical explanation. There were also a number of silent scenes without music or text just simple movement, natural and stylised - something I am keen to explore. A favourite moment would have to be the use of a real horse as a crescendo from people pretending to be horses.
In Birmingham I saw Mittwoch aus Licht by Stockhausen. A truly amazing experience, I almost feel like it was life changing... The scale/grandeur/monumentalism of the work is overwhelming, it opens up new levels of possibility and boldness for what art can do. I imagine composers feeling similar when they first heard the Ring Cycle or Wagner’s Rienzi. Mittwoch’s music is focused with clear direction, character and purpose and it thrusts theatricality into situation and performers.
Stockhausen’s electronic music is amongst the best and does not date like so much electronic music driven by technology rather than sound. The electronic greeting was no exception, I could have listened to it all night, its pacing brought you into the mind set of a long piece that needed the scale to “work out” the music. Graham Vick imposed mini tableaux’s onto the music hinting at the themes of the “opera”, I thought this took the work as a dramatic whole, rather than just a succession of musical and visually disconnected events, precisely what a director should be doing, finding ways to use the stage to give the music depth that it cannot do with sound alone.
The World Parliament was one of the stand out acts. The singing was fresh and phenomenally well performed. Stockhausen broke the music into choral moments, solos and varying sizes of groups. What was amazing was that for an hour of vocal music, it never got stuck, it always moved forward and I was transfixed. The staging was simple so you were not distracted and the circular arrangement of the singers gave you the chance to continually search for sound sources - simple and so effective.
The Helicopter Quartet was life changing. Such was the impact of the scale of the work and the clarity of idea, beautifully executed. This was simply a blending of the rotor blade sound (that varied with speed and angle) with glissandi and tremolo from the quartet. I love it when a piece carries musical ideas to the nth degree and makes everything count. The use of counting out loud by the quartet players at equidistant points also gave a built in tension adding another theatrical/dramatic strata. The visuals of the quartet members within the helicopters were transfixing, changing views and angles of the landscape all visible through the helicopter windows. Above all this though was the music that drove forward and had an inherent drama.
I am still recovering from this performance and I think it will stay with me for many, many years.
Friday 17 August: Glyndebourne’s 2012 Festival season receives Styles rapturous applause
It has been a busy couple of weeks since I last checked in to Resident Styles. A schedule full of rehearsals, world premieres and Glyndebourne’s stunning Ravel double bill.
The Birley Centre and Eastbourne seem a long time ago now but it was only a week ago that the Lovers Walk team had their last intensive day of rehearsal. By the end of the week things had really started to take shape. I sat in on the principles working through the four scenes that make up the piece, and their distinctly different music that characterises the relationships that drive the piece were really starting to leap off the page.
Fitting this small group work back into the larger chorus we started to explore how the chorus will work as a guiding force for these four relationships; guiding them and influencing their journeys. To do this the chorus has detailed background work on who the people in the opera are and through simple tasks such as dressing the characters they are starting to externalise this work and form bonds on stage.
We concluded the week in Eastbourne with a sing through of the finale of the piece, a big “song” for the whole cast (over 20 voices). I don’t want to give too much away but it is always nice when singers leave a rehearsal humming the tune they have been working on.
This week also saw the world premiere of my string quartet “Facets of a False Anthem”. I had rehearsed with the LPO musicians that form the Cadburn quartet earlier in the week and I was able to give an insight into the linking devises between movements and how the musical material is treated differently throughout the piece. The work is based on the song “Waltzing Matilda” and two of the movements take this material and develop it in two distinct characters; Pizzicato and rhythmic and long lines at different speeds and highly polyphonic. The other two movements catalogue this material and its newly developed forms in a presentation rather than a dialogue or musical working out, just a simple presentation of ideas that stand next to each other.
Facets of a False Anthem premiered well. It was the first time a work of mine has been played in Glyndebourne’s beautiful Organ Room, a beautiful space, perfect for string quartets as it has a genuine 18th Century feel encouraging you to believe this room was built precisely for the performance of intimate chamber music. The piece is technically challenging but the quartet rose to the occasion and gave an excellent premiere to a packed house.
It is great to hear my chamber music performed before an opera and then to think about how these two different forms in terms of their size relate to one another. Particularly as Lovers Walk is an operatic piece in length and cast of singers, but of chamber music proportions in terms of its orchestra (Clarinet, Trumpet, Cello, Piano). The greatest string quartets can have equal power to the grandest of operas and it is finding the intensity and intimacy of a handful of musicians that I will try to channel into the orchestration of Lovers Walk, which I am currently working on with only one more scene to go.
To finish my week, I had the pleasure of going to the final dress rehearsal of the new Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne. If you’ve got tickets, you are in for a treat, if you don’t have any I recommend you buy them now. The two pieces are funny, engaging and absurd; all that opera should be. Oh and the music is phenomenal, lyrical and funny. I particularly liked the Owl and the Frog in L’enfant et les sortileges. For me the whole festival has shown the full breath of theatrical possibilities that I believe only opera can do. Vixen, Fairy Queen and the Ravel double bill make an especially good trio for the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival. Bravo!
Thursday 26 July: Onwards and upwards with Lovers Walk
My week begins in extremely sunny Eastbourne, in a shiny new building with the sea rolling gently just 2 minutes away; perfect conditions to start work on our new opera, Lovers Walk.
On Monday morning at 10am, the cast and creatives meet for the first time. An important moment not only for the 25 newly recruited young people involved in the project but also the creative team behind the production. It’s a defining moment at the beginning of a new project and one which I’m delighted to say all participants are excited about.
A wonderful group of personalities emerge with a budding astrophysicist in the group and some genuine creative talent amongst our 30+ team. Starting off with some ice breaking drama games we are away and fun and hard work ensue. All of this is of course integral to discovering the theatre of Lovers Walk and the motivation behind why its characters sing and don’t just speak to each other. There is something inherently absurd and sublime in people singing on stage, and that I think is the magic of opera. Take Glyndebourne’s current production of The Fairy Queen, you couldn’t get a better mix of the absurd and sublime and the 5 star reviews Fairy Queen has been receiving indicate the audience are in love with the absurdity of this wonderful staging.
We move on to singing and the group make a beautiful sound, especially in unison. Singing the first chorus piece in Lovers Walk was very exciting; I was delighted to hear and to feel that it captured the mood that I created for at the start of the piece. From my perspective the young people enjoyed singing it and the piece progressed well. A number of relationships develop and change but the physical presence of the Lovers Walk (a path where lovers meet) remains as a constant object connecting the different partners over a large span of time (130 years).
At the end of Monday and Tuesday we tried something slightly terrifying; a run through of the whole piece. We have 3 months to learn the piece and even at this early stage we are beginning to see shoots and glimmers of the characters and the development of the music rising to the surface. This keeps everyone positive and on board but discovering the characters, mood and music of this work will be a significant challenge for these young people.
On Wednesday afternoon I left director Thomas Guthrie and music director Lee Reynolds to continue the work on individual characters (creating a backstory and learning some of the music) that we had done in the morning and I headed to Glyndebourne, to rehearse with the Cadburn Quartet (members of the LPO) on my string quartet Factets of a False Anthem, which is premiered this Friday. We rehearsed in the very intimate room Janni (I love that the rooms at Glyndebourne have great names, my favourite is still Hector). I sat next to Greg the cellist and his pizzicatos through the first movement gave the piece a very funky feel. The extended unison section in the third movement between viola and cello was also a highlight, very rhythmic and very together. I won’t give any more away, you’ll have to come along and hear it tomorrow!
Friday 20 July: Lovers Walk rehearsals to begin in Style!
My first instalment takes readers on a journey looking at what life as a Young Composer in Residence really means, so read on for my first series of musical musings….
So today I am taking the usual 90 minute car trip to Glyndebourne on Monday morning, leaving London behind and heading for not so sunny Sussex, but this time I have director Ted Huffman in tow. It always feels like a bit of a road trip when taking a friend or collaborator down to Glyndebourne as we throw on a bit of radio 3 and some old tapes for a soundtrack to our road trip.
The main event for today is the final dress rehearsal of Jonathan Kent’s Fairy Queen. I have been watching a number of the productions in rehearsal, particularly enjoying Vixen and the super-aesthetic Ravel double bill. Watching as the pieces slowly build from the intimate setting of Vladimir Jurowski and just a handful of singers in the organ room or the chorus rehearsing with chorus master Jeremy Bines, getting into the detail and producing the exquisite sounds of Ravels close harmonies. This is what Glyndebourne is all about.
Adding the set is always an exciting jump from abstract music to the real physical theatricality of a piece. I saw a lot of the rehearsal for the bar scene in Vixen, and it was brilliantly funny watching the singers mime their pint pulling techniques and mixing some unusual looking cocktails! I have heard that the set for Fairy Queen allows for some fantastical objects to enter the space, so I’m looking forward to some surprises.
I have been in love with the music of Fairy Queen for many years; especially the music in acts II and III. The precise way that Purcell uses repetition and exploits limited vocal range are aspects of his compositional skill that I am always learning from. I have seen the pictures of this revival production, so this dress rehearsal in particular has got to be one of the highlights of the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival for me.
But it’s not just about seeing the shows at Glyndebourne. Ted and I are here working on ideas for pieces in 2014. Getting started early to really build a piece that has staging, music and text all considered from the initial genesis of the piece, to create a work that is truly collaborative and doesn’t break into separated creative elements. We are in Hector (a rehearsal room) which I couldn’t find for a while and ended up in the costume and wigs department! I’m still getting to terms with the rabbit warrens at Glyndebourne. Hector is a large space with plenty of mirrors, so we were tempted to just have a go at staging the work but settled for preparing key structural points to outline to General Director David Pickard and Artistic Director Steven Naylor over lunch. Meetings areanother key part of Glyndebourne, things are planned well in advance to ensure the pieces are just right for staging.
The performance of Fairy Queen was amazing. I am not allowed to give anything specific away, but it definitely had me laughing hard and as I hoped, produced absolutely sublime music throughout, especially my favourite bits in acts II and III.
Next week is the first chance for me to hear my new composition for Glyndebourne, Lovers Walk. I am looking forward to spending a week in Eastbourne rehearsing with the youth company, directors, musical directors, librettist, designers and more, we are all really keen to get moving on this and can feel the anticipation building. I caught up with Stephen Plaice the librettist of Lovers Walk at the Fairy Queen Dress Rehearsal and we talked through our expectations and hopes for the rehearsals next week. I can’t express enough how exciting it is for me to hear my first full chamber opera worked through intensely over the course of a week, and we are excited to work with the young artists and wider production team, so watch this space and I’ll let you know how it goes!!
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Luke Styles, Glyndebourne's Young Composer in Residence, July 2012