Breadcrumbs video and a new project

I’m delighted to say that the video of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is now online. It’s missing a couple of bits at the beginning, but gives a pretty good idea of how the performance turned out. Many thanks to Tête à Tête for arranging for it to be recorded.

Performers: Charlotte Richardson, soprano, and Clemmie Curd, cor anglais. Directed by Omar Shahryar. Recorded at Kings Place, Saturday 9 August 2014.

This month I’m working on a new orchestral piece for the Angel Orchestra, an amateur group in North London, which will be performed in December, attending lots of final recitals (including a couple which include my pieces), and with the start of September, I’ve embarked upon my fourth Creative Pact.

Creative Pact is an online group project where people choose a creative project and commit to working on it a little every day for a month, and documenting their progress online. For my Pact this year, I’ve decided to finish composing Manifesto, an experimental piece exploring my current compositional interests using Max/MSP. As this project requires daily blogging, I am doing this offsite so as not to overwhelm readers here! You can follow the updates for the project here.

Breadcrumbs success at Tête à Tête

I am delighted to be able to report an excellent reception of Breadcrumbs, my dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano (with cor anglais introduction) at this year’s Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at Kings Place on 10 and 11 August.

Performed by Charlotte Richardson, soprano, and Clemmie Curd, cor anglais, the piece was directed by Omar Shahryar and was performed in the lower foyer space of Kings Place. In spite of some acoustic challenges, it received a very positive response from audiences, who declared it to be “amusing, engaging and original” in feedback, and a review by composer Robert Hugill on his website Planet Hugill described it as a “rather striking dramatic take on the familiar tale”.

Tête à Tête are currently editing a video of the performance, which will be added to this site when ready. In the meantime, we have some excellent photographs of the production by Festival photographer Claire Shovelton. Click on the thumbnails to view the full image.

You can view the full set of production photos at Tête à Tête’s Flickr account.

Ending/Beginning

I’m feeling a little shellshocked at the moment. I had my final recital for my Master of Music degree on Friday and am now trying to regather my thoughts.

I was really thrilled with how the recital, titled Colour and Shadows, turned out. My performers all did amazing things with learning and performing my music – some of it really quite difficult – in a short period of time. My huge thanks to all of them: Valentina Pravodelov (piano), the Hanley Quartet, The Peacock Ensemble, Julia Weatherley (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais). The response was great too – so many people said such kind and encouraging things afterwards! – it was a really lovely experience. And both Julia and Valentina’s performances of Breadcrumbs and In Detail, respectively, in their own recitals, were fantastic too.

So now I’m regrouping, finalising my transfer into the Master of Fine Arts degree, and thinking about how to approach my projects for the coming year. And these are mounting up! A chamber opera for Julia Weatherley, a song cycle for Simon Marsh, a requiem for solo voice and (possibly) viola for David Jones, some short pieces for violin and cello for the Chapel Hill Duo, and a 5-minute piano duet for Rebecca Cohen – plus a small assortment of other pieces I’d like to write too!

The second year of the MFA is focused on project work – similar to the work I was doing on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms a few months back, but an entire academic year’s worth. ‘Personal Project on steroids’ is how I’m describing it to people! My project is looking at the intersection of art and text in composition. The topic is a little vague right now, but I want to look at different approaches to text-setting, text-creation and the use of speech rhythms in instrumental music.

The pieces I have lined up to write will use a broad range of approaches to text. For the opera, I’m planning on writing my own text (as I did for Breadcrumbs); for the song-cycle I have permission from visual artist Richard Long to use some of his textworks about Dartmoor (hugely excited about this!) so it’s using textual visual art as lyrics. I’m still working on concepts for the requiem, but David’s real strength lies in characterisation and I want to see how I can use this gift while using a standardised, non-narrative text.

Of course, the project will doubtless traipse into other areas (I’m already doing some reading on dramatic form and thinking about how this might relate to instrumental music as well as operatic) and may veer more in one direction than another, but this is all part of the fun…

Breadcrumbs: Handling dramatic time

Jane Manning performs Breadcrumbs at Tete a Tete
Jane Manning performs a late draft of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête opera festival

The last week or so has seen some big changes to Breadcrumbs, the dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano that I’ve been composing for soprano Julia Weatherley. In particular, I’ve been working on creating context and space for the drama that is implied in the piece. While the text explains fairly clearly (I think!) what is going on and how we got there, it is quite wordy and the issue of time passing and the aspect of what the character feels or experiences which goes unsaid were things that still needed to be addressed.

Fortunately, the Tête à Tête opera festival has been on over the past few weeks, and I’ve managed to get to several performances of new short operas which have been hugely helpful in working through ideas about dramatic space. In particular, Judith Bingham’s unaccompanied soprano rendition of the story of fossil-hunter Mary Anning (part of the Fossils and Monsters performance by Alison Wells) was extremely helpful. The gaps left between phrases, her use of a tiny patch of pebble-beach for the performer to crunch over, the tapping of smooth beach-stones the character is holding in her hands, and the inclusion of half-remembered phrases of hymns all contributed to make a very well-paced, vibrant performance, and helped me to begin to understand some of the finer detail of how Breadcrumbs should work in a performance.

The biggest issue, I felt was how to convey a feeling of passing time. While the piece only takes about 5 minutes to sing, it needs to be clear to the audience that it all happens while Gretel is wandering about in the woods over a much longer time-period, more like several hours. While writing the text, I had considered explicitly stating this – the section “Twilight, twilight, evening, past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time” is intended to show that the day has ended while she’s been singing. Even at the point of assembling the words, though, I felt that while the “twilight” bit worked, to make the passing of time more explicit would probably be a bit too heavy-handed.

The Téte à Téte performances helped with seeing how the staging can really make the most of pauses and little random snatches of melody. I found that the Bingham piece had some quite large gaps in it, but that they didn’t seem as large as they were, on reflection, because of the visual aspect of the performance – Wells wandered around, crunched over the little beach, looking for ammonites among the pebbles, hummed half-forgotten snatches of hymns, all of which gave a strong sense of a larger context, both physical and temporal.

Originally I had notated pauses in performance with fermatas and breath marks, to indicate long or short pauses.It began to feel like these did not give enough information for the performer though, and I revised the piece while considering why the singer was pausing – what is the dramatic purpose of the break? and what is she doing while it is happening? Once I had worked these out, I removed most of the previous pause marks, replacing them with either notated rests, or blank bars with stage directions such as “Pause to listen, as if expecting a response. Slump with a sigh when it becomes clear he’s not answering” and “Check pockets, or show hands to show you have nothing”.

Thinking like this really brought the music to life for me and – oddly enough – expanding the breaks actually seemed to knit the piece together more strongly. In particular, there are one or two places where a sudden change of mood is called for by the text – adding in stage directions made sense of the context for these sudden changes, and I think they also help with conveying how long a pause should be, based on dramatic, not just musical, time.

I was fortunate enough to have this near-final draft of Breadcrumbs sung by legendary soprano Jane Manning at a sight-reading workshop held by Téte à Téte on the 18th of August. This was an incredibly helpful experience – Manning delivered a very well characterised performance which has really helped me determine the final tweaks to the piece. Overall, I was very pleased with how the work turned out in this performance (also very pleased to hear from my teacher that Manning loved it!) and there are very few changes I’ll be making. The main things are a couple of additional repetitions of phrases/sections which seemed to be over too quickly, and therefore didn’t make enough impact for the dramatic sense they needed to convey, and I’m thinking of tweaking some of the notes to include a glissando here and there – up till now all the notes have been solid pitches, but I think a little flexibility would be very effective.

Onwards and upwards – just a week to go till my Major Portfolio is due in!

The final version of Breadcrumbs will be performed by Julia Weatherley as part of my public MMus final recital at Blackheath Halls in London on 13 September 2013. Click to find out more about this performance >>

Breadcrumbs: Writing your own text

WorkingMy main focus recently has been a 5-minute dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano, called Breadcrumbs. I’m writing it for Julia Weatherley, a marvellous singer who is also studying at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. She asked me to write a 5-minute unaccompanied piece for her final recital in September and we decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to test out some ideas surrounding the chamber opera I’m going to be writing for her next year.

Hence ‘breadcrumbs’. The opera is to be based on fairy tales and my idea had been to take the arc of a well-known fairy tale, which at the moment will probably be ‘Hansel and Gretel’, but – inspired by Jennifer Walshe‘s multilayered theatrical work – to use it as a framework to hang all sorts of other related material from. I did a lot of thinking about how this layering might happen and the text was kind of an obvious starting point. I considered writing my own text. Then I considered commissioning a libretto, then collaborating with a librettist, and finally came full-circle to face the idea that if I was even considering writing a whole libretto, I should first have a go at writing some text for something shorter. Which is this piece.

Even more than most of my other pieces, ‘Breadcrumbs’ has had quite a huge research/mental incubation phase. I read (and am still reading) a number of books of fairy tales – Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski’s stunning The Kingdom Under the Sea which provided the visual stimulus for the opera’s concept; The Annotated Brothers Grimm; and Angela Carter’s fascinating The Bloody Chamber, which a friend lent me and which is retellings of fairy tales from different perspectives and with a very modern sensibility; L. Frank Baum’s volume of American Fairy Tales. I thought about other material I might want to weave into the production, particularly tangentially related stories – things which aren’t really fairy tales or folk tales but which in my mind are related – Dante’s Inferno [sideline: have you seen that Clive James has just released a translation of the whole Divine Comedy? OMGSWOON!], Arthurian legends, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books, The Wizard of Oz.

I slowly developed a structural concept for the piece – the context is that Gretel is alone in the wood with evening drawing on. She has lost Hansel and is angry at him for the breadcrumb plan going wrong. The piece draws an arc showing her feelings for him – anger at him, worry for him and for herself, joy at finding him again – with a touch of anger thrown in again as it so often does when a child has wandered off and then been found again. Interspersed among her outbursts are expressions of fear and wandering thoughts.

When I finally came to write the text, it actually all came very quickly. I had one night where I just couldn’t get to sleep, so I’d been thinking about the piece and had an idea how to start it: ‘Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! [scathingly] Such an original idea! My brother, the genius’ and after mulling on it for a while I figured I’d better write it down or lose it. Hurrah for the iPad by the bed! So I wrote it down, and a couple more lines were added. Closed the iPad, tried to get back to sleep, failed, opened it again and wrote a few more lines. By the end of about 3 hours of this (at about 3am) I had a pretty clear draft of the entire text, which was:

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Such an original idea!
My brother the genius – Hansel, where are you? Hansel!
Each alone in the dark wood – so dark-dim-shadowed, so murky-sombre, so alone

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! I hope the birds are enjoying their feast – all the way home.
Next time our father takes us out to kill us, I’m taking a ball of string
Hansel. Hans?

Twilight. Evening. Past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time

I’m so afraid of the dark. A darkness a spoon could stand up in, as they say.
I don’t have a spoon right now, but I believe them.
Who’s them? Why did they think to bring a spoon into this blackness?

I have visions of groves of standing spoons, the clatter of cutlery as I walk…

Breadcrumbs! the bread all gone – and the crumbs too. I went to look…
Hansel!
Darkness reveals the worst of us. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
I’m a bad sister, I know it. Poor Hansel!
He doesn’t have a spoon either,
To sample the quality of the night.
I can hear his bright sunshine-laughter.
That same yellow laugh he gave, so full of delight to go hunting with my father – joy at any new shiny thing.

Is that a light? Is it?! Such a wonderful smell! So sweet-spicy! Gingerbread!
Honeyed beacon! Oh sweet illumination!
Our sweet safe haven?

It didn’t really change very much from this until I started to compose the piece, several weeks later. As I’d been hearing the notes in my head while writing the text, I felt I was fairly aware of the musical shape I wanted the work to take. My biggest problem was trying to work out what the actual pitches should be – as a dramatic piece there’s a certain amount of parlando, sighs, indefinite pitch stuff and I found it quite difficult to interpret what was in my head into pitches either on the piano or attempting to sing myself – not being a soprano about a third of the piece lies above my range and it just didn’t sound right trying to sing it an octave lower or as notes on the piano or if I attempted to squeak it at pitch. I suspect this is something that just requires practice.

Eventually, of course, I got the pitches down, worked on the rhythms. Of course one of the benefits of writing your own text is that you can just cut or change things as you go along, depending on what works, what doesn’t and what seems to be missing. No need to check with anyone, no need to feel guilty or justify the change. I haven’t really made any huge changes, but there have certainly been some. This is where it is now:

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Such an original idea!
My brother, the genius!
Hansel! Hansel, where are you? Hansel!

Each alone in the dark wood, each alone.
So dark, dim-shadowed, so murky-sombre, so alone, so alone, so alone.

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! HUH!
I’m sure the birds are enjoying their feast – all, all, all, all, all the way home!
Next time our father takes us out to kill us – next time! – I’m taking a ball of string.

Hansel? Hans? Hans! Oh!

Twilight, twilight, evening.
Past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time.

I’m so afraid of the dark.
A darkness a spoon could stand up in, so they say.
I don’t have a spoon – I don’t! – but I believe them, I believe them.

Mmmmmmmmm (hums)

Visions, I have visions of groves of standing spoons, visions, visions.
A clatter of cutlery as I walk.

Breadcrumbs. The bread’s all gone. And the crumbs too.
He went to look…
Oh Hansel. My Hansel. My brother.
He doesn’t have a spoon either. (sigh)

Darkness, darkness reveals, reveals the worst of us.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
Abandon hope, abandon, a- a- a- a-

Is that a light? Is it? And I can hear my brother’s sunshine-yellow laughter!
Hansel! Where have you been? Where have you been?!

What’s that wonderful smell?
Sweet-spicy,
Rich
Oh!
Gingerbread!
Honeyed beacon! Oh sweet illumination!
Our sweet safe haven?

I’m pretty pleased with where the piece is now and have sent it off to Julia to get her initial impressions, discover if any of it will be impossible to pitch and so on. I do suspect, however, that I may end up extending some of the more arioso sections – in particular ‘past crepuscular’, ‘groves of standing spoons’ and maybe ‘abandon hope’ as at the moment the piece feels perhaps a little fragmented by veering back and forth between recitative and arioso sections. This may involve having to write more text, or possibly I can do it just with repetition or wordless sounds like the humming towards the end.

Have you ever written your own text for a composition? How did you find the experience? Please share in the comments!