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composer, poet, critic, essayist

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Haydn’s ‘The Creation’: BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Haydn's 'The Creation': BBC National Orchestra of Wales

First published by Wales Arts Review, May 2015

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, May 8 2015

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Conductor: Stephen Layton
Soprano: Elizabeth Watts
Tenor: Allan Clayton
Bass-baritone: Matthew Brook

In recent years, many commentators have bemoaned the ‘museum culture’ of classical music programming (myself included, and notwithstanding the important work and contemporary relevance of many actual museums). But, putting aside the perpetual re-canonisation of familiar repertoire that this entails, I for one am at the same time grateful that Haydn’s own, spectacular natural history museum, so to speak – The Creation – remains a concert staple. Here in Cardiff, that great oratorio formed the joyous conclusion of an imaginative, short series of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales celebrating a creation theme; a series which featured lesser-known 20th century works performed by the orchestra, as well as the world premiere of Mark Bowden’s secular oratorio A Violence of Gifts.

There is no ‘right and wrong’ way to perform The Creation – if, indeed, there is any piece. In terms of scale, Haydn himself oversaw performances of chamber and vast proportion alike, depending on the venue and performers to hand. These days of course, we have opportunities to hear the work performed by period bands or modern orchestras of wildly contrasting stylistic bent. Moreover, it was the first ever bilingual large-scale score, with twin librettos in English or German to choose from; both were adapted for Haydn by the Viennese court librarian, concert patron and Enlightenment figure, Gottfried van Swieten, from an original of unknown authorship, now lost.

At St David’s Hall, we heard The Creation rather than Die Schöpfung. The well-balanced forces of a reduced BBC NOW orchestra and full chorus fanning the stage behind were joined by an exemplary trio of soloists (plus alto Olivia Gomez for the final ‘Amen’) under the expert, energetic baton of Stephen Layton. I was hardly the only person present in need of solace after what, for many, had been a dreadful electoral twenty-four hours. In the event, the performance proved radiant with Haydn’s life-affirming spirit and vigour. Echoes of a glorious English choral tradition abounded, reaching back to Haydn’s inspiration in Handel’s The Messiah and other dramatic oratorios of the English baroque ‘sublime’. But there were also surprising and delightful pre-hints of – dare I suggest – English romantic song in certain arias; notably, for example, that of bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s pastoral Raphael of the Third Day.

Devotion, vitality and humour were present in equal measure. Tracking the biblical account of Genesis, with added text from the Psalms and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Haydn’s pictorial innovations and orchestral contrasts were performed with infectious enthusiasm by Layton and his team. The famous, radical overture, ‘The Representation of Chaos’, smouldered and then blazed with light – if anything, only to be eclipsed on this occasion by a rapt sunrise at the Fourth Day. Orchestral ensemble was a little ragged at first, particularly on downbeats and in more elastic tempi, but, with encouragement from their tireless Leader, Lesley Hatfield, the players soon settled to produce a performance of character and distinction.

Things really burst into life at the entry of Allan Clayton as the archangel Uriel upon the First Day. His lyric tenor rang beautifully throughout, matched in richness of tone and delivery by soprano Elizabeth Watts, who revealed a lovely top C and some exquisite ornamentation in her Fifth Day aria as Gabriel; a highlight of the evening, with delicate accompaniment from the woodwind. Brook was a wonderfully clear and incisive Adam, as he was Raphael – perhaps stronger in the upper register than the lower, but never lacking in musical panache. Indeed, Brook’s opera buffa rendition of the various animals from ‘heavy beasts’ to ‘bleating sheep’ and the ‘sinuous worm’ – aided by fruity brass and lithe strings with but two, excellent double basses – was sheer comic pleasure.

One of the challenges for the soloists in The Creation is to be able to blend with each other and dovetail with the chorus as strongly as they shine in their individual parts. Here, the various textures and ensembles were gracefully navigated, with long-range, naturally breathing phrases matching vocal with instrumental lines. Layton moved fluidly from fortissimo tutti to the intimacy of secco recitative, creating a sense of grandeur whilst allowing individual flourish (including that of the spirited continuo team: fortepianist Andrew Wilson-Dickson and Guest Principal Cellist, Alice Neary).

The chorus sang magnificently, always ready to embrace the many swerves of key and tempo, with fugal passages full of rhythmic flair. Delivery was clear and precise without over-emphasis, exuding a joy in communal music-making that was as touching as it was elemental – and with audible words to boot from where I was seated.

Haydn had brought the original libretto back to Vienna with him after two extended visits to London between 1791 and 1795. The audience at The Creation premiere in 1798 (at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna) were agog to see whether this new work would display the same dazzling orchestral writing and harmonic excitement of the ‘London’ symphonies that their beloved composer had written during this period. They were not disappointed. The success of the premiere was quickly followed by the same in Paris, Berlin and London itself, sealing Haydn’s reputation as a genius across the continent.

The work remains a wonderful achievement; as striking in its simplicity as in its radical effects (which would come to be frowned upon in the 19th century as too ‘worldly’ and ‘material’), and in daring to depict as enormous and hallowed a subject as God’s creation. Coming hard on the heels of a new, Enlightenment age of religious questioning and scepticism, surely only the most humble, optimistic of men could have hoped to succeed so universally at the task – and it is interesting how Haydn depicts Adam and Eve as a tender, blissful couple (so contrary to his own marriage!), with only Uriel’s late warning of ‘false conceits’ hinting at the Fall to come.

Haydn’s optimism, colour and inventive wit continue to gladden the heart today. A person of self-described cheerful disposition, he once commented ‘I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation. I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work.’ This gloriously uplifting performance, with Layton’s fresh, dynamic interpretation, seemed especially heaven-sent.

Image from William Blake’s ‘God as an Architect’, an Illustration from The Ancient of Days, 1794.

David Pountney Discusses ‘A Terrible Innocence’ at Welsh National Opera

David Pountney Discusses WNO's 'A Terrible Innocence'
illustration by Dean Lewis.

First published in Wales Arts Review, May 2015.

This summer, Welsh National Opera invites us to dive into unknowable realms of the psyche with the season theme ‘A Terrible Innocence’. Two new productions will explore the danger and destructiveness which can lurk beneath an apparently benign surface: WNO Artistic Director and CEO David Pountney will stage Debussy’s ravishing impressionist masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande, alongside the UK premiere of Richard Ayres’ wildly inventive Peter Pan, directed by Keith Warner.
Of course, innocence is one of opera’s most prevalent motifs. From comedy to tragedy, tales of moral misadventure abound, and operatic history is littered with the corpses of heroines – it’s almost always women – who pay the ultimate price for some wrongdoing, real or imagined. 

But in opera, as in life, things are seldom simple. And around the turn of the 19th century – when Debussy chose Maeterlinck’s symbolist play for the libretto of his first (and only completed) opera, and JM Barrie turned his fantastical novel into a children’s play – a new, existential anxiety was in the air. Social roles and values were being challenged, just as deep drives within the unconscious were being unmasked. Old certainties were dissolving into mystery and metaphor, fuelling new art which, for us today, remains liberating and disquieting in equal measure. 

WNO’s Pelléas takes as its starting point the company’s award-winning 2013 staging of Berg’s Lulu; a twin landmark of operatic psychological insight. As Pountney explores below, in conversation with Steph Power amidst rehearsals, Pelléas too features a heroine of mysterious origin and apparent vulnerability who brings disaster to her adopted world. 

Similarly timeless and otherworldly, Peter Pan is the archetypal boy who refuses to grow up. He signals faerie enchantment and adventure for the Darling children, but the Neverland to which he entices them is part-shadowed by cruelty, entrapment and physical threat. Musically, Barrie’s alluring tale offers the perfect vehicle for the 49-year-old Ayres; a composer of offbeat stylistic melanges with his own, Peter Pan-like creative vigour. Indeed, according to his ‘imagined biography’, aged 14, Ayres ‘ran away from home to become second cabin-boy aboard “the Redshank”, a merchantman.’*

Peter Pan (2013, libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw), will be conducted by Erik Nielsen, whilst WNO’s acclaimed Music Director, Lothar Koenigs, will take the baton for Pelléas. With strong casts all round, there will also be another chance to see Dominic Cooke’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (conducted by Simon Phillippo).

The season opens next Saturday May 16 with Peter Pan. The Magic Flute follows on May 22, with Pelléas et Mélisande on May 29; all three at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre, then touring.

Steph Power: Could we start by talking about your evocative, provocative season title, ‘A Terrible Innocence’?

David Pountney: Yes of course – it’s meant to provoke discussion! It seemed to me that these two pieces are about people  who appear to be innocent but who have the capability of causing great harm; that innocence is sometimes a disguise for something much more predatory or dangerous.

Susan Sontag went even further when she wrote about Pelléas, describing a ‘pathological innocence’. She contends that all the protagonists – not just Mélisande – inhabit an unhealthy realm of ‘incurable vulnerability’ as she put it, with connotations of disease and decline. Does that go too far?

Well, they are all in a state of morbidity aren’t they? And also in a state of arrested development. That is, Mélisande appears to be in a state of arrested development, and so does Pelléas, actually; they’re neither of them responsible. That’s partly to do with this kind of hermetically sealed, clearly very unhealthy environment in which they’re living. But that is interesting – and wasn’t it Debussy who was horrified about the whole idea of certainty?


The piece is trying very hard to be uncertain all the time. And of course there’s a very nice paradox there because my colleagues are always fussing about whether Debussy really wrote F# in that bar; why he wrote ‘à la touche’ here and not there; all of those things! The music is at the same time something which is so tremendously certain, everyone pores over the score. Yet actually his entire ethos is to create a very studied level of ambiguity whereby you never know who is responsible for anything.

The piece hovers in an invisible, subterranean world – a world of suggestion rather than statement. You never know what Mélisande may be feeling.

I wonder actually if she isn’t psychopathic in a way. Because although she’s very nice to everybody, she doesn’t engage with anybody emotionally. At the end she says, ‘is Golaud here? Why doesn’t he come and see me?’ Everybody else is fretting about how she’s going to react to this man who nearly murdered her, but she doesn’t register that at all.

No, and she refuses to tell Golaud on her death bed whether she loved Pelléas.

I don’t think she knows the answer to that. This is why I was so interested to draw this very explicit parallel between her and Lulu: because they’re both people who never accept responsibility in a moral sense.

I understand that you take as a starting point your production of Lulu. Are there any theatrical or visual parallels to watch out for? I’m thinking, for instance, that Maeterlinck is said to have once favoured marionette-style acting, and that a key visual trope of your Lulu was the Hans Bellmer-type jointed doll which captured her essence.

No, there’s nothing puppet-like about this. But it does all take place within the same environment, and it even starts the same: this body bag is brought on, and Mélisande emerges from it like a sort of nymph. So in a way, she’s born like something out of a chrysalis. And it’s very clear to me that, although everybody says ‘follow me’, she always knows exactly where she is going.

The crumbling castle reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher [an opera on which Debussy died without completing, and which David recently produced at WNO]. The castle of the ‘Allemonde’ – that’s an interesting word actually isn’t it?!

Meaning ‘all the world’. Yes, totally! Well of course there’s a huge link with Poe. Debussy was very impressed with Poe, and all the French authors of that period were – especially Baudelaire, who translated him. So yes, the piece is stuffed full of Poe.

That murkiness of the house, with water everywhere after a drought. You get the feeling of being sucked down.

A miasma! You get that in Usher don’t you? There’s the light that comes from this algae in the pond.

Mélisande is a creature who’s arrested in her development as you say. And yet on her death bed, she’s just given birth to an infant daughter.

Are you sure that the child at the end is Golaud’s?

No, not at all! Do you make anything of that paternal uncertainty, or do you leave it hanging?

Well I do treat Mélisande as an active sexual being. Again like Lulu, it wouldn’t occur to her to desist if Pelléas wanted it, so it’s perfectly possible that Pelléas is the father. I’m not really in a position to make it clearer than that! But some people play her as this little waif and I think she’s much, much more knowing. Also the way she lies is very significant, it’s very confident and knowing. She’s not going to murder anyone but she is the cause of murder in others. And she wafts about as if she’s got nothing to do with it.

When we first see her, it’s suggested that she’s been traumatised.

There’s the crown in the water. She’s come from another disaster.

With the implication that she’s probably caused that one too?

Oh I think definitely! My dream is to complete this trio of pieces with Ariane et Barbe-bleu [the 1906 opera by Paul Dukas] in which Mélisande appears as one of Bluebeard’s wives.

That would be exciting! I’ve also read ideas about her – vis-à-vis Pelléas – being Bluebeard’s eighth wife.

In Ariane she’s one of the seven. Ariane is the seventh and last – she’s the one who tries to save them all. There is a Bluebeard-y element in this production, actually. Which you’ll see …

Aha! There was a real fascination with these characters and the unknown wasn’t there? Bartók too produced a Bluebeard’s Castle [1911]. It all seems to tie in with notions of Symbolist literature where to define is, in a sense, to destroy.

Yes, this comes back to the notion of clarity or certainty. They wanted to leave these things as ambiguous symbols. Take the scene in Pelléas with Yniold [Golaud’s son from his former marriage], where he’s lost the golden ball. The golden ball is hidden under the rock but you can waste hours trying to work out what this means! It means bugger all – it’s just a nice symbol.

People love trying to work out who the mysterious shepherd is who appears in that scene.

Yes – you’ll see I have taken a view on that scene …

Ah, more intriguing still! I have to ask – does the Wanderer make an appearance? [In Wagner’s Ring, the Wanderer is the god Wotan in disguise. He appeared to striking effect in David’s production of Lulu.]

Well, there is that figure who brings on the body bag …

Right! …
It’s often said that Pelléas is tricky to stage due to the amount of silence involved; where the characters don’t sing, but remain on stage and have to hold the tension. And the singing itself is very ‘interior’ by comparison to some people’s expectations of opera. How do you find that? Does it put particular strains on the singers?

You know, I find absolutely not. I find it puts strain on the audience! Because there are people who are infuriated by Pelléas – which I can’t understand at all. But there are people who are waiting for a forthright, Verdian musical declamation of the situation, and they never get it. And there are people who feel you spend the whole evening chasing threads which just evaporate under the door as you get to them. Which I think is fabulous. And we’ve got a wonderful cast, so if you’ve got good actors there’s no problem to stage it. I think some audiences have a problem to accept music being such a chimera really.

People keep looking for the form.

Yes – and the big tunes! But of course there are tunes galore in this piece. I think it’s one of the most ravishing scores.

Me too – it’s fabulous! And both Debussy and Maeterlinck have been described as the ‘quiet radicals’ who changed everything. Many different composers have responded to the play – from Sibelius to Fauré to Schoenberg – so it clearly captured the imagination. But it seems to me that Debussy realises the play’s essence – and with exquisite music. It was very radical at the time to take a prose play and effectively just lop the first scene off as he did.

And set it all parlando, basically.

The vocal lines themselves are actually very naturalistic, using tiny intervals.

Yes – and they’re very difficult to memorise as I’ve been discovering!

What’s the relationship between literary and visual inspiration for Debussy in Pelléas do you feel? The word ‘impressionist’ is often applied to his music –

– which he hated. I’m not quite sure why he did but he did, apparently. Perhaps he didn’t like being lumped in with all those painters! Well, Maeterlinck had lots of Edward Burne-Joneses on his wall didn’t he – and all those Walter Crane fairytale illustrations?** So he knew all of that English world of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism. I think Maeterlinck was very influenced by that, and I think Debussy probably followed; that’s obviously what he was thinking about. And of course, Tristan und Isolde sits so firmly behind Pelléas. It’s as if Pelléas is really the obverse of Tristan; it’s everything that Tristan isn’t. But by so being, in his own utterly individual way, Debussy comes incredibly close to it.

How do you see that working with the piece itself, that TristanPelléas duality if you like?

I guess it’s because what interests Debussy, as Wagner in fact, is the inside of the apparatus of the story. They’re both in a way very slender stories aren’t they? There are very few incidents and very few facts, and a vast amount of supposition and exploration of emotional, psychological states.

And interesting too that should you mention the Crane, that whole Edwardian world.

Yes, that takes us into Peter Pan!

Image courtesy of Welsh National Opera.

Interestingly, in terms of Art Nouveau, there’s George Frampton’s sculpture of Peter Pan [1912] in Kensington Gardens which mightn’t look out of place in Paris. Yes, the terrible innocence of Peter Pan – but perhaps he’s not so naughty as Mr Darling, who’s rather hopeless!?

Well Mr Darling is completely infantile really isn’t he? What’s so fascinating about that story is that it’s so satirical in many ways, and so psychologically acute about Victorian bourgeois parenthood and this frightful male world, where the obverse of Mr Darling is Captain Hook – all this public school nonsense about dying like gentlemen! The story is brilliantly multi-faceted. It’s a romp, it’s an adventure, and it’s an actually quite tragic psychological description of the lot of women. Poor Mrs Darling, grieving all the time because her fling or not-fling with Peter Pan has gone forever and she’s stuck with Mr Darling. Poor little Wendy being turned into a frightful little housewife.

First they shoot her down, then they build her a house – and tell her to get going with the chores!

Yes, straight to the sewing!

It’s quite a world isn’t it?

It is. It’s full of very dark corners. But it manages to go on being a romp and an adventure at the same time. I think it’s brilliant, and I think Richard’s music is absolutely perfect for it.

Yes, the ebullience and downright wild control, actually, of Richard’s music seems perfect. I can imagine kids, too, absolutely loving it. But it is very dark. I was just thinking of Lulu where you have Dr Schön mirrored by Jack the Ripper. In a way here we have Mr Darling mirrored by Captain Hook, flipping between the two.

Right! Yes, in my programme note I’ve compared the battle between Lulu and Dr Schön with the battle between Golaud and Mélisande. Golaud is constantly trying to pin her down and she’s constantly eluding him.

While Pelléas is essentially Alwa [Schön’s son and Lulu’s lover], who doesn’t know how to cope, who’s drawn in by Mélisande’s magnetism?

Yes. I haven’t yet found the moment for her to seduce Genevieve! She’s seduced everyone else in the piece by the time we get to the end. I’m just slightly missing that one moment.

There’s an interesting moment they have looking out over the sea – isn’t that when Pelléas’s boat appears in the distance?

No, it’s her boat leaving. It’s going to have a shipwreck they all say.

Of course, I remember. So she’s trapped with them – or they with her!

Yes, it’s a kind of Agatha Christie: ‘the car drove off down the drive and the snow started to fall’!

Genevieve’s an interesting character in that she appears to have no interest! What’s her function?

I don’t know, I haven’t found what’s interesting about her! I guess she’s really an exposition device: to read the letter at the beginning and to tell you who everybody is. She’s completely silent at the end; she doesn’t say a single word, but just comes on and off with the baby.

So, of the two female characters we see in the opera, one is an exposition device and the other is the most dangerous magnet – who is completely passive.

Completely passive, yes that’s right. It’s brilliant the way Mélisande plays the scene with Golaud so that after he’s been injured – which is an interesting point, because apparently she has magic powers; the moment she throws his ring away he falls off his horse! – when they’re working through the outcome of that, it’s brilliant the way in which she lets the conversation go on, to the point where Golaud orders her to go with Pelléas into the grotto. So ultimately she’s sent there by her husband.

Golaud seems ‘innocently guilty’ in the sense that, although he murders Pelléas, he’s utterly wretched.

He’s a blunderer really, and he’s all the time being tortured by somebody with a rapier whilst he’s there swinging a club. He’s being dissected, provoked.

She has a go at old King Arkel as well doesn’t she – teases him?

Oh yes.

She’s cruel and ruthless. And yet there’s the twist that, at the beginning as we’ve said, she appears to have been traumatised.

I think that’s right, yes. You start off being invited to be sympathetic to her. Poor little girl found by the roadside!

So how do you see the character of Pan by comparison – I know Keith Warner is directing that so it’s not your production, but in terms of the season theme?

Again I think he’s someone who seduces by arrested development really. He’s allowed to go on playing the child long after he should have given it up, and thereby can pretend to be innocent as Mélisande does. The one thing is, I don’t think there’s any suggestion of Peter Pan being sexually active whereas Mélisande very definitely is.

It’s interesting how what’s often dismissed as ‘children’s literature’ can explore the same issues as adult literature but in a very different way. And there’s a lot of moral caution in Peter Pan.

Yes definitely.

Is there an equivalent in Pelléas? Other than ‘don’t pick up strange girls’?!

‘Off the side of ponds’! Yes: don’t believe you are master of somebody just because they appear to be vulnerable.

That’s very thought-provoking. And you’re talking about power and control amidst apparent destiny and fate. Mélisande dies, but there’s nothing more for her to do because she’s sucked the life force out of everybody else.

Yes, she’s destroyed the castle, effectively.

Just as in Usher. I do hope you get to do Ariane et Barbe-bleu – that would be absolutely wonderful.

Yes it would. And of course it would be wonderful to be able to do that with Lulu and Pelléas et Mélisande together.

Here’s to that. Thank you for talking with me.

* You can also hear music by Richard Ayres at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, which starts this Tuesday, May 12, running to Saturday May 23.

** Edward Burne-Jones was an English painter, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Walter Crane was a prolific English artist and designer best remembered for his illustrations of children’s books.

Gair ar Gnawd at WNO: Pwyll ap Siôn in Conversation

Gair ar Gnawd at WNO: Pwyll ap Siôn: Interview

First published by Wales Arts Review, April 2015.

In 2012, Welsh National Opera commissioned a new, bilingual opera from composer Pwyll ap Siôn and poet Menna Elfyn. The result was Gair ar Gnawd (‘Word on Flesh’): a piece which puts the community centre stage in telling the story of two very different people who find they must overcome their prejudices and work together to defeat a threat from a greedy property developer. At the opera’s heart lies the struggle between tradition and innovation, and the challenges faced by individuals and communities in grappling with social change.  

A new production, directed by Angharad Lee, will premiere in Llanelli at Y Ffwrnes, this Saturday, April 18, to be broadcast on S4C on Saturday April 25 (with a documentary about the opera broadcast on Wednesday April 22), and preceded by a schools’ matinee Friday April 17 .* It features a 40-strong Llanelli-based community choir performing alongside WNO soloists, supported by a semi-chorus of eight young Welsh singers aged 18 – 26, found through auditions held by WNO’s Youth Opera in Cardiff and Caernarfon.

For this staging, Pwyll has composed additional music. Ahead of rehearsals, Steph Power visited him at Bangor University, where he is a Professor of Music, to find out more. They spoke about the story and spirit of Gair ar Gnawd; how it came about, and how his opera opens a window on a range of issues pertinent to life in modern-day Wales and beyond.

Gair ar Gnawd was commissioned, and premiered by Welsh National Opera in 2012, as an opera/oratorio. But I understand you’ve revised the piece for its Llanelli performances. Will there will be a fuller staging?

Yes, when it was done the first time round, we had limited resources, so, although there was a sort of set with props and so on, it was essentially a static type of staging. But now, with further investment, we have a proper, specially-designed set, and people can say with confidence that it’s an opera rather than an oratorio. But then, in the early stages we were also just a bit tentative about using the word ‘opera’ as it’s often associated with something grand and on a big scale with lots of different elements and forces involved.

Yes. Thankfully people are now also seeing, I think, that opera comes in all shapes and sizes, and can utilise all sorts of diverse resources and settings.

And an opera’s length can vary from literally a few minutes to several hours, so it’s a very flexible term. Gair ar Gnawd is about an hour long.

How did the opera come about initially? You’ve set a text by the renowned Welsh poet Menna Elfyn.

Menna and I were approached by Rhian Hutchings, then project leader for WNO Max, in around 2010-11 to create a bilingual opera/oratorio. So we got together, and the starting point was the translation of the Bible into Welsh; Menna had done some interesting research into the background of William Morgan, who made that first translation in 1588. He led a colourful life for someone who’s now remembered for translating the Bible, and slept with a gun beneath his pillow! Menna was keen to incorporate his life into some kind of story, but in the end we decided to do something more contemporary, bring the story up to date.

There are two main characters in the opera. One is a kind of present-day William Morgan; a man who’s translating the Bible into minority languages. So there’s actually a little bit of Maltese in the opera as well as Welsh.

There’s Hindi too isn’t there? And the opera’s title translates literally into English as ‘Word on Flesh’ – so words are clearly key.

Yes, Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and so the opera has both smaller and larger languages. And words are important to both main characters in different ways. The second main character is a female tattoo artist. When words are tattooed onto skin, they can take on an almost religious iconography and symbolism. Of course, going back to ancient times, tattooing’s always been an integral part of certain cultures – the Māori in New Zealand and so on.

How do you explore these ideas in the piece? What’s the story?

The two main characters, Anwar and Awen, work in an arts centre. They’ve never met as they have separate rooms, where he works on his translations and she works as a tattooist. But the building is threatened by businessmen who plan to turn it into a casino, and they happen to meet in a state of angry panic about their eviction. Initially they’re very suspicious of each other because they come from very different backgrounds and they disagree on a number of points. But they realise the only way they’re going to overcome the forces of globalisation that are trying to take over the building is to unite and to pressurise local councillors into seeing it from their side. So there’s the idea of materialistic elements impinging on the lives of these people and the whole question of standing by your principles and the things you value – whether you’re a tattooist or a translator of the Bible.
Community Chorus member Idris Morris Jones
Community Chorus member Idris Morris Jones
So the subject is relevant to contemporary local concerns everywhere. You’ve got issues of identity and change, community cohesion, threats from outside forces: lots there that people will have experienced in everyday life.

Yes, and the whole idea of cultural domination and interaction. How cultures and languages can co-exist with different viewpoints. Anwen and Awen are very different at the beginning of the opera, and they remain very different throughout – at the end, there’s no easy resolution between them. But they go through a process of re-evaluating themselves in relation to the other person, and hopefully end up with a more open mind, and the ability to recognise diversity and be tolerant of other beliefs and views and values.

How does that work dramatically? Can you say something about how the text and the music work together?

Rhian had said she wanted the opera to be bilingual. I think there’s probably a little bit more Welsh than English in it but when it’s performed in Llanelli there’ll be surtitles. So it’ll be possible to follow in both languages – because we have surtitles for operas in English too of course!

Yes, even at English National Opera, where they sing every opera in English – whether it’s the original language or in translation! But language itself seems to be at the heart of your opera, and of course the bilingual aspect, too, reflects many people’s everyday life in Wales.

Inevitably, especially these days. I think a lot of Welsh speakers mix Welsh and English – there’s a sort of fusion of languages going on. You get it in pop music too. There are bands like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci [1991-2006] who went to Welsh language schools but came from English language backgrounds, so it was perfectly natural for them to swap from one language to the other – and they played on some of those ideas in their songs. They had an album called Bwyd Time which means ‘Food Time’, so there’s a codal mixing going on.

There’s an element of that in the opera. The two main characters generally sing in Welsh but a lot of the chorus parts are sung in English. The opera starts with a setting of the St John’s Bible ‘In the beginning was the word’ sung in both languages one after the other. So in that sense the translation is already there in the setting. There are points where Welsh and English appear next to each other, and separate numbers sung in either language.

Do you approach the languages differently at all in the way you set them?

Not consciously, because over the years I’ve set things in both Welsh and English. But the two languages do work quite differently really, and sometimes it is difficult to set the same text in both to the same music.

How did you arrive at the format? There’s a big community choir involved I see, and also a semi-chorus.

Actually the semi-chorus is a new element for the new production. In the first production the level of experience and musical ability for the community chorus was very wide; some had never sung before, and some were really semi-professional, so it was a real mix. So I had to bear that in mind when I was composing. This time, the new semi-chorus comprises student singers from conservatoires – the Guildhall, Royal Northern and so on. They’re not just talented but motivated and keen to be involved. So I’ve composed some additional music for this second production and what I’ve written now is maybe a bit more challenging because the goal posts have shifted a little. But the style is still very direct.

You’ve written books on minimalism, on Michael Nyman and so on. Also, as a composer, you’ve talked about being influenced by minimalists such as Philip Glass and John Adams (as they’re often still described). Actually for this opera you’ve spoken of wanting to ‘combine the spirit of Monteverdi with minimalism’, which sounds intriguing. Could you expand on that?

Well, I think opera tries to capture the essence of things in different ways: the human condition, those sorts of questions. I guess that would have been at the root of what the early opera composers were trying to do, thinking back to Monteverdi and his opera Orfeo. They were also looking back to Greek mythology themselves in creating this new form. So I suppose I’d like to think my opera engages with some of those issues, but clearly using stylistic features which are more associated with present-day operatic practice.

It’s difficult for any opera composer these days to write an opera without thinking about Glass and Adams: Glass because he’s written so many, and Adams because his operas have proved so powerful and so popular. Not that I’m suggesting that this is on the same scale! Actually what’s interesting about Glass is that his operatic language has gone down one of two main strands really: of chamber operas and grand operas. I suppose I was thinking a little bit along the lines of his chamber operas.

Glass calls them ‘pocket operas’, which I think is a lovely term.

Yes, easy to carry around: to transport and to tour. So many grand operas are staged then forgotten about, never performed again, or very rarely. Which hopefully is different for pocket operas and for community operas.

Picking up your point about looking back to the Greeks, I found myself wondering whether your choruses have a function akin to a Greek chorus at any point, as a kind of witness or commentator within the narrative? What role or roles do they play?

In talking about her production, our director, Angharad Lee, describes the semi-chorus in particular in terms of peeling layers from an onion; the characters have different characters within themselves, which get revealed as layers peel away. And I think the chorus does function a little bit like that. It’s chameleon-like and changes according to the situation. Sometimes they represent the businessmen, sometimes they’re the councillors, sometimes they sympathise with Anwar and Awen, sometimes they question what their motives are. So yes they play a number of roles at different times.

Does that bring us back to language in the sense of shifting dialogues within the piece?

Yes and there’s a complexity there. In any bilingual society it’s very easy to start thinking in black and white, in terms of opposites. But I think we live in an age where distinctions are far more blurred and it’s finding a happy medium that’s difficult. Even writing this opera it was difficult finding a medium that’s between using the two languages and trying to allow them to lie comfortably with one another. I think that was the idea that Rhian had in mind originally. That sense of conflict but also of resolution that’s there on a linguistic as well as a dramatic level in the opera.

I’m aware that, all her life, Menna has been an activist on various fronts, most famously perhaps with the Welsh language. So I wonder how much of that, if anything, you share, and whether that comes through the opera at all?

The opera isn’t intended to present a political viewpoint as such – well it certainly wasn’t our intention to do that, although people might read that into it. Yes, Menna’s been involved with Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) and actually my Mum was on that first ever protest, in 1963, on the Trefechan Bridge in Aberyswyth – strangely enough she was a student at the time, at Bangor University [where Pwyll is a Professor of Music]!

The Welsh language and the history of the protest movement in Wales is very associated with Welsh liberalism really, and with universities, and Menna’s a part of that history. It’s quite different in Scotland I think; the Scottish National Party is more based on principals defining the labour and socialist movements, whereas in Wales, before Plaid Cymru was founded as a political party, a lot of those people were liberals. So, it didn’t come so much from the Valleys; well, the Welsh heartland is really – or used to be – in the countryside, the rural areas, farming communities and so on.
I’ve never been actively involved in any protest movement but it is associated in some ways with – well I wouldn’t want to say intellectuals, that sounds wrong! But just think about someone like Meredydd Evans who passed away recently; a wonderful ambassador for Welsh music, especially in terms of ethnomusicology in Wales [see this piece by Sarah Hill, written before Merêd passed away in February this year, aged 95]. He was a very staunch language campaigner who had also studied philosophy at Princeton University in America. So I think he typifies to an extent that kind of strand within Welsh culture that’s been there really since the turn of the 20th century.

Which seems, from what you’re saying, to be about looking outwards as well as inwards?

I’d like to think so, yes, because that’s what the whole liberal movement is about. I think there are often two forms of nationalism: an inward-looking one and an outward-looking one. And maybe that’s another site of conflict or tension, which is there in Wales as it is in other parts of society and other parts of the world.

Especially other places where people are finding their identity under threat from global forces which run roughshod over things that have been held dear for generations.

Yes. Or those societies that have established themselves over centuries then find themselves changing due to ethnography. How people deal with that is complex. You think of somewhere like Cardiff which is so multicultural really, but in a very positive way on the whole. But there are other cities where those tensions are apparent – people are finding it difficult to coexist. Maybe there’s no clear answer or true resolution to some of those issues.

But these are important issues to find ourselves discussing in relation to your opera!

Yes! If the opera ends up doing that then I’m more than happy because the opera is about so much more than the music. If it enables people to talk about their lives and the world around them and see it in a different light through the experience of opera, maybe that goes back to Monteverdi and to what he and other composers had in mind many centuries ago!

Yes. Opera has always existed on lots of levels, from fantasy and entertainment, to deep, conscious engagement with the world.

There was a time when classical or art music – whatever you want to call it – was losing touch with audiences. But I think it’s reassuring these days to see that a number of operatic productions are being very well attended. And hopefully minimalism as a style – whatever that means and whatever off-shoots resulted from it – has in some way brought a kind of change, since minimalism has one foot in art music and one foot in the vernacular.

I’m not a big fan of musicals – I find a lot of musicals draw upon styles that are generic and clichéd – and in Welsh language culture, there’s a certain kind of musical theatre that’s considered to be this wonderful medium. I find that quite difficult to buy into, so I’d like to think this opera is not a musical for a start! But it isn’t an opera in the sense that a lot of contemporary opera is, of having a highly dissonant language, or of being uncompromising on a number of levels which may be impenetrable to a lot of people. Hopefully it will communicate and will have a positive impact on people – they’ll be able to relate to it.

Well I believe the opera went down extremely well when it was performed in Caenarfon in 2012! Many thanks, Pwyll, and best of luck for Llanelli and the broadcast.

* Gair ar Gnawd will be performed at Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli, on Saturday 18 April at 7pm, and on Friday 17 April there will be a closed matinee performance for local schools at 1.15pm.
The full production and a 30-minute documentary about the project will be broadcast on S4C the week following the live performance. Filmed by Rondo Media, the documentary will follow the cast and directors from auditions through the rehearsal process and the final performances.

Photographs of Community Chorus members by Jeni Clegg.

Mark Bowden in Conversation: Haydn, the Big Bang and ‘A Violence of Gifts’

Mark Bowden in Conversation: Haydn, the Big Bang and 'A Violence of Gifts'

First published by Wales Arts Review, April 2015.

Mark Bowden has been Resident Composer at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales since June 2011. Born in Wales, 1979, Mark’s association with BBC NOW has been especially fruitful, with three major new commissions punctuating an exciting series of performance and education projects. His most substantial piece yet is A Violence of Gifts, scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, to a specially commissioned libretto by the Welsh poet and writer Owen Sheers.

Inspired by Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation (1797-8), the piece explores the origins of light, matter and life. Crucially, though, Mark and Owen come from a 21st century perspective in weaving together some of the very latest scientific theories and discoveries, including some they learned about whilst visiting the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, beneath the Franco-Swiss border. 

It seems fitting that the world premiere of A Violence of Gifts will take place just as the LHC has been switched on for a second time, in search of further discoveries about our universe and life on earth. On Saturday April 18 at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – and broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 – the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, will be joined by soloists Elizabeth Atherton and Roderick Williams in a programme which also includes Holsts’ The Planets.

Ahead of rehearsals, Mark spoke with me about A Violence of Gifts, and what led him to its extraordinary subject matter. Together they explore many ideas, from the interplay of music, poetry and science, to Haydn and the Enlightenment, and the vital role that creative freedom plays in all fields of human endeavour.

Steph Power: Your new piece, A Violence of Gifts, is all about origins and genesis, so I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the piece itself. How did it come about?

Mark Bowden: It’s been a long time in the making. The first meeting was in December 2011, a few months after I started my residency at BBC NOW. I was just finishing my Cello Concerto when they asked me what I’d like to do for my next two pieces. I ended up writing Heartland next – the Percussion Concerto – which was a collaboration with National Dance Company Wales. But I said I also really wanted to write a piece with the chorus in the future.

I told them my idea for the piece and they were so supportive, they just said yes. The actual idea was much older; I’d been thinking about it since before I started with the orchestra. It’s being said a lot now that this piece is a modern-day Creation and it’s not really! But I have always been interested in Haydn’s oratorio. Actually I’m interested in the first movement; Haydn’s harmony, the unresolved cadences, the strange tonality. And I’m interested in the story about how he came to write it; his astronomical study with William Herschel.

Haydn’s said to have been amazed at what he saw through Herschel’s telescope on a visit to him.

Yes, Richard Holmes writes about it in The Age of Wonder. Herschel’s telescope had the largest lens yet created and was based at Slough; a more rural place then, with a good view of the stars.
So the idea of The Creation as a starting point for a piece had been there in the back of my mind. And at BBC NOW we talked about making not a season, but a group of concerts, which is how my piece comes to be programmed alongside Holst’s The Planets, and The Creation will be performed in May.

Could you say something about the meeting of music, poetry and science in your piece?

Two of my really strong interests outside music are poetry and physics – particularly stuff to do with space. When I’m writing any piece I’m often inspired by poetry and text or by some sort of natural phenomena, and I normally look at some scientific aspect of that. So bringing those two things together for this piece made a lot of sense for me. I also wanted the subject matter to be the most up-to-date ideas and knowledge about the origins of the universe. So it’s about the Big Bang, and it’s about matter and antimatter and all of these things. I looked around at first to find an existing text, but soon realised that wouldn’t be possible. So I raised funds to commission a new text, which was a separate project.

I gather you first encountered your librettist, Owen Sheers, at the Hay Festival?

Yes, I didn’t know Owen, but I really liked his talk at the festival. I bought his early poetry collection, Skirrid Hill, and loved his imagery and economy of means, which I felt I needed for this kind of text. I just wrote to him, told him my idea, and we met up. He really liked it.
Mark Bowden and Owen Sheers
Mark Bowden and Owen Sheers at CERN
So, effectively, you went from Herschel’s telescope to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the 21st century equivalent I guess – which you and Owen visited together as part of your research?

Exactly, that really is the idea! Actually Owen knew Ariane Koek – in fact she was at the Hay Festival so it was quite serendipitous. At the time she was running the Arts at CERN programme. They arrange residencies and research visits for artists.

And I was in my element there, I have to say! Owen was too; like me, he’s fascinated by all this stuff.

Owen’s talked about how he discovered that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity became known in Britain during World War I.

Yes, that’s right, in 1916.

So there’s the irony of this incredible, expansive idea arriving amidst terrible destruction. And of course that’s when Holst wrote The Planets too; right in the midst of that dreadful maelstrom.

Absolutely, it’s amazing. And CERN itself is an interesting marriage of the repercussions of war and science, I guess. We were told how it was seen as a mechanism for bringing about peace in Europe and bringing people together. Someone actually used the word ‘apology’; an apology to the world for having created the bomb, and a chance to have nuclear research for peaceful means and the good of humanity rather than for destruction.

That’s key isn’t it – how we choose to apply new discoveries and knowledge. Which brings me in a way to wider notions of creativity, and to the cosmogenic narrative of A Violence of Gifts. I believe you’re very interested in the idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’?

Yes. I hadn’t heard of that concept until I started researching this piece, but I was reading Lawrence M. Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, about the origins of the universe. Apparently the main narrative now is that a vacuum is not ‘empty’ at all; rather, a vacuum is full of matter and antimatter being continually created and destroyed. And the question ‘why is there something’, or ‘where did it all come from’: Krauss discusses how it would be absurd for there NOT to be a universe, because of that discovery. Because, in any vacuum, we see matter and antimatter continuously just popping into existence.

Oh, ok. The idea that nature abhors a vacuum?

Yes, exactly. This infinitesimally small ‘spot’ that the universe would have occupied would have been bursting with ‘stuff’ that just had to go somewhere. And this happens all the time. If we were to make a vacuum now, we would be able to observe it happening if we had the right instruments. Little tiny universes, perhaps, bursting into existence.

That’s fascinating. And I wonder how – or whether – that might work musically, in your piece? For instance, in the Haydn, it’s not so much that he juxtaposes chaos and order, say, but that he simply starts with nothing – with a void if you like – and effectively fills it with sound. Does that bear any relation to how you approach A Violence of Gifts?

Maybe, to a degree. I guess the act of writing anything – whether it’s poetry or music or coming up with an idea – in some sense is making something from nothing. And in the temporal arts, there’s silence and then the music starts. So on that level perhaps it’s a metaphor for all music and all art. But the thing I really drew from the Haydn was his harmonic material, which might not be apparent in my piece when you hear it, but is there on a molecular level if you like; these strange juxtapositions of major and minor tonalities that Haydn uses, these unresolved cadences – which are almost proto-Wagnerian sometimes, particularly in the opening movement.

Then later in The Creation there’s an aria, ‘In native worth’: he starts in C major, then modulates to G, then goes to Ab major. This isn’t startling to us now, but it was very startling to audiences in the 1790s. To those three pitches, C, G and Ab I added Db. Then I thought of E as being in the middle of those, so I made a sort of mirror image around E: with C and Db, G and Ab. If you like, they’ve become the atoms of my piece harmonically, and in terms of line and pitch. So I really did take something fundamental from the Haydn – although not a quotation.

So you’re using that material as a kind of structural kernal rather than something that’s intended to be audible?

Yes, that’s it. And for myself, I just hear these notes, these pitch relationships, all the time when I’m thinking about the piece – though I haven’t heard the orchestra play it yet! The whole piece just abounds with those patterns and shapes. Perhaps if you’re listening and you have that sort of sensitivity to intervals you might hear that going on.

Right, I’ll listen out! Yes, and the way Haydn used harmony, and orchestration too – I’m thinking more on technology here – even the blazing C major chord that Haydn has at ‘Let there be light’! At the time, that was seen as what we’d now call a technological effect. It would have almost literally blown people away – and it’s a kind of mixing of art and science.

Yes, there’s some quite unusual orchestration in The Creation. He uses the contrabassoon, which was a fairly new instrument at the time. And he does use, as you say, these technological effects – timbral surprises to represent the whale or the worm – all sorts of different things. And actually that’s been an influence for me as well. I use the contrabassoon, which is not so startling now, but I’ve also got the contrabass clarinet which is an octave below the bass clarinet – this is the first time I’ve written for it. There are some key passages where those two instruments have a solo group with the double-basses and the tuba. They have melodies which wind around each other. I know these will sound muddy; you won’t be able to hear the detail necessarily, but the effect was an inspiration from Haydn.

Before we look in more detail at your piece, I’m curious to know how you feel about people’s tendency to separate art and science into distinct categories? To me, this feels a false and uncreative way to look at the world!

Yes! To me the separation of art and science is completely false, and I don’t think artists are more creative than scientists. But I do think there are people, whatever their field, who are open to questioning and to new ideas, and then there are types – of behaviour rather than people, probably – where you’re a bit closed down, and just carry on with what you know. Probably the majority of us are a bit more like the latter. But it’s only when you have people, and sometimes institutions – I think CERN is one of the very few – who are willing to respectfully throw out everything that’s gone before, that practice can be pushed forward. Whether that’s scientific discovery or composition.

Haydn was a composer of the Enlightenment, and that thinking is very apparent in The Creation, despite the religiosity of the text – and that it was written a bit later perhaps, just after the French Revolution. So I was wondering whether aspects of Enlightenment thinking influenced your piece? Especially the idea of reason being a means to liberty; a light shining in the darkness, if you like – which was not necessarily anti-religion (and certainly not in the theological Haydn) but, still, part of a wider struggle to counter the authoritarian dogma of the church.

Those ideas really resonated with me, and with Owen, when we were writing the piece, yes, and Owen alludes to this quite strongly within the text. I hope we don’t offend anyone as it’s not supposed to be an anti-religious piece. It is about science, and today’s scientific narrative of where the universe came from. Obviously that will be different in ten or fifteen year’s time and the piece itself will be confined to history. But there’s a beautiful line, let me see …

… is it,  ‘the faithful cannot search or make a story new’? That was the line which prompted my question, anyway – it’s a powerful line!

That’s the one! We recorded everything at CERN, and Owen drew a lot of ideas from conversations we had with people there. Someone said, talking about science, that those faithful to scientific dogma, or who are partisan, or who insist on particular theories being right, can’t search for new stories. At CERN they want people who are completely prepared to say the Big Bang never happened! Or, I guess, in the past it would have been throwing out the idea that the sun went round the earth. It took a huge cultural and intellectual shift for that to filter into society – people were imprisoned or far worse just for daring to question the orthodoxy. So that is very much at the heart of our piece, and again, that comes from Haydn, that idea of Enlightenment.

Generally I’m an optimist but sometimes I look around – I work in higher education a bit [Mark is Director of Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London] – and I’m disheartened by the way that society, through the government and universities in particular, is channelling funds into scientific research that is deemed to be of immediate economic benefit. I have scientist colleagues who really struggle with this because having the time and space to think freely is becoming more and more eroded.

So in some ways our piece is also a plea, really, to stop this happening. That the only way we can find out more is to keep asking new questions and being open. Since the Enlightenment we’ve made these amazing discoveries, but I’d hate to see us moving backwards. I’m sure we won’t, but we have to keep on. The Enlightenment was battling against religious orthodoxy and now I feel we’re battling against the orthodoxy of capitalism, actually. And that’s just as pernicious and perhaps even more dangerous.

I agree. That whole neo-liberal emphasis on profit rather than people, and how we all get sucked into consumerism, often despite our best efforts.

Unfortunately universities are quite small institutions now in relation to that thinking – it’s a David and Goliath situation. Whereas somewhere like CERN has the clout not to be like that – it’s a really inspirational place from that point of view, and feels very special.

The last movement of your piece is entitled ‘It is not answers we seek’ … but questions. Which feels all about that quest for knowledge.

That’s right; the last section is where that line, ‘the faithful cannot search’ comes from – and also a lovely line: ‘thought to mine thought, doubt to feed knowledge’. I think that’s brilliant; that we think to mine new thoughts, and have to cultivate doubt in order to seek new knowledge. The last section is a call to arms really. I’ve talked a lot about CERN, but the piece is also about the emergence of life – much more recent history! When Owen was writing this, his wife was pregnant, so this was very much in his mind: every child that’s born has to learn the history of knowledge anew. And it’s these new people who will make the discoveries of the future.

Then we started thinking about how each new person is the result of a star exploding. Everything in our bodies comes from supernova – which is what Haydn observed through Herschel’s telescope. But it’s a really difficult process. We have to teach every new generation what we currently understand as the truth and at the same time try to instil the idea that you mustn’t stick to that dogmatically.

Which is where critical thinking on the one hand and openness on the other are so important.

I think that applies as much to particle physics as to composing, or any discipline. If we can maintain that culture, then I feel very optimistic about the future, though it sometimes feels like there are many obstacles.

Turning specifically to your piece, can I ask you what listeners will encounter as the structure unfolds? From the score, it looks to be in two parts, with each part having three continuous sections.

Yes, the piece will last around 35 to 40 minutes – we haven’t rehearsed it yet! Originally Owen and I had thought about making the first part about the origin of matter and light, with the second part being about the origin of life. That would have mirrored Haydn’s structure in The Creation. But actually what ended up happening was the intertwining of these two themes like a double helix structure all the way through the piece. So the pause in the middle is more practical really, for the chorus.

The ‘Intrada’ starts with that low sonority group of instruments I mentioned. Then there’s a double-chorus tapestry of the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to begin’ in many languages; Owen was inspired by how international CERN is – people come there from all over the world.

The first movement ‘proper’ is called ‘There is a Relic of Ancient Light’. In this, the solo soprano alludes to the ‘cosmic background microwave image’. This is a beautiful picture of the oldest light we can see in the universe. Basically, the further away we see, the further back in time we are looking, as light takes time to travel.

I gather that means some stars we see no longer actually exist!

That’s right. What we see today is how they were. This background light is the afterglow of the Big Bang – the universe was only 380,000 years old. But we can’t see anything past that because, before then, light and matter were the same thing, they weren’t separated! But suddenly, as the universe cooled, just like ice turns to water at a certain point, everything shifted and light became separated from matter. So that’s the oldest light we can see – it’s still there, in the sky! All we need is a good telescope.
Full-sky map of the oldest light in the universe: Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team
Full-sky map of the oldest light in the universe: Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team
That first section leads into a duo called ‘Imagine that Moment’. Owen has composed two matching stanzas for the soloists. The soprano imagines being at the very first instant of the Big Bang, beyond that microwave radiation barrier where we can’t see. One of the big questions is why was there more matter than antimatter at the beginning? Because there ‘should’ have been equal amounts of each. But at CERN we learned that for whatever reason, rather than ‘annihilating’ each other, there was a bit of matter left over, which is everything that we see.

When I was at Hay I also went to a talk, by the biologist Adam Rutherford, on the origins of life – the other major theme of my piece. His beautiful book, Creation, discusses LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor. Every living thing is descended from this – every bacteria, every plant, every human being. So in this section, the baritone imagines being at that point in the earth’s history, far later than the birth of the universe, when something shifted and this thing popped into existence.
So the two stanzas unfold concurrently. Owen and I saw lots of parallels between these two switches – and it was a switch, when something changed in the chemical make-up of the earth. There were huge tides a hundred metres wide, and water rich in minerals; incredible extremes of temperature, all swirling round, pulled by the moon, which was much closer to the earth then. Suddenly it changed – as it did in the early universe when suddenly something happened to instigate the Big Bang. So we drew our own, totally unscientific parallels between these two events. Maybe that makes us a bit anthropomorphic, but actually human beings are amazing – for me, anyway; the idea that, in human beings, the universe has made something that can study itself.

Yes, it’s quite a paradox! And picking up your point about anthropomorphism, it’s interesting that, as the 19th century went on, there were people who criticised Haydn’s Creation because of the pictorial imagery he used; people who maintained that music should be abstract, even transcendental, who thought it was wrong to try to depict material substance in music.

The thing is, music is abstract, but almost every time a friend comes to hear a new piece, they’ll ask, ‘was it about this’? Or they’ll say, ‘I heard this story’ in it. People always create images when they hear music, whether they are specific images or abstract thoughts – even if it’s nothing to do with what the composer was thinking about. And for composers it’s a useful way of getting going! Sure, my piece is just notes and rhythms – I don’t think my notes depict these ideas. But then the piece isn’t just about sound! It’s about everything; text, context, inspiration. They all come together.

Yes, to me, music is clearly abstract, but it’s also very physical – quite apart from dealing with text, which you do here. At least it is in performance; instruments are blown or bowed, or struck and so on, and a live orchestra has its own visual element, even theatre. It’s a visceral and emotional experience.

Absolutely! I do think there is something to be said for the idea of the abstract in music. I’m thinking of  Milton Babbitt perhaps [an American serial composer and theorist, 1916-2011] – or even JS Bach’s later pieces, like The Art of Fugue, where he wasn’t necessarily thinking which instruments would be playing.

No, he was just composing those lines.

They’re amazing pieces. And there’s some Babbitt that I absolutely love. But it’s quite rare to create music in that way and I don’t think we could only create music that way – it’s like a composer’s scientific research! But you’re absolutely right; music, when it’s being performed, is a happening. It’s a bit like dance, which I also work with a lot. Whenever people watch dance – even if it’s the most abstract work, say, a Merce Cunningham work, purely about form, content and movement – people will still draw narratives and think of characters. It’s completely normal. As humans we draw meaning from everything around us.

And we tell stories. Creation myths exist in every culture on earth.

Yes! So I have no problem with representation in music. Haydn even uses it in his Prelude title: ‘The Representation of Chaos’. Then again, with Holst and The Planets, I don’t think any of those movements represent the planets as such. I think it’s far more interesting to look at the Roman god aspect there, but also to think, here’s a person in the early 20th century responding to the science of the time – that’s just more interesting for me, rather than how this represents that. But it’s very different for a poet, because that’s a more representative art form.

Part 2 starts with a movement called ‘Theia’, and this movement is both cosmological and biological. Theia is the name scientists give to an early planet in the solar system that was on the same orbital path as Earth. The theory is that the two collided with a devastating impact, but one which led the way to our own existence.

Is that the ‘giant impact hypothesis’?

Yes that’s the name they give it – which I think at the moment is actually being questioned [laughs]. But then, Holst’s The Planets doesn’t have Pluto in [it wasn’t discovered until 1930] – which is probably a good thing, as Pluto’s now been demoted from a major planet to a ‘dwarf’ planet!
But my piece is really about where knowledge is in my lifetime, so if it turns out to be false, I still love the story: Theia collided with the early earth, and the two cores merged together, whilst the debris that resulted coalesced and became the moon. It’s hugely important because it creates our tides, which led the way to life and it was then much closer to the earth so it was basically like a big spoon, stirring the earth up. That impact also knocked the earth off its axis, creating the 23° tilt which gives us seasons, annual cyclic life patterns and so on. This section, ‘Theia’, is where the title of the whole piece comes from.

A Violence of Gifts. It’s very evocative.

The title is completely down to Owen. I love the text in this section and it’s very short: ‘Theia/ a violence of gifts/ a moon, seasons, tides/ a passing rage that set us adrift’.

You could equally apply that to matter-antimatter; it’s describing an incredible violence of continuous creation and destruction, but, with the gift, if you like, of imbalance leading to the stabilisation of matter, which leads to life. It seems to me that violence, both cosmological and geological, is at the root of all the creation events: of the universe, the planets, of life. So ‘Theia’ is an important movement. It encapsulates this very specific event but it’s a metaphor for some of the other ideas in the piece too.

The next section is entitled ‘Once, to look out was enough’ – and the baritone now has a solo. Thinking back to Haydn, he ruminates that, in the past, all we thought was needed to understand our origins was to look out into the cosmos, to understand stars and galaxies. But it turns out that, just by looking, we can’t see everything. Actually what we need to do is look inwards into matter – which is what they’re doing at CERN: the Large Hadron Collider smashes particles together at the speed of light so they come apart and, for a fraction of a moment, we can see what’s inside them.

The baritone makes a direct reference to these experiments with the words; ‘joust energy and matter/ and measure the curl/ to witness the release/ of the forces and chains/ at the source of us’. But the experiments are not just about looking inside atoms, they’re about understanding the basic building blocks of everything. And, the more you divide, you find there’s actually nothing there at all. There’s no ‘stuff’ – it’s just energy. Matter is a kind of illusion because of the scale that we live on. Rather, at the root of everything we find four forces of nature: gravity, the strong force, the weak force and the electromagnetic force. The baritone goes on to sing about LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor – so again, drawing the link between the emergence of life and the beginning of the universe.

You’re talking about enormous extremes of scale here, propelled by extraordinary physical forces. Does that inform any aspect of your scoring, say?

When I was starting the piece, I wondered, will it start with a ‘big bang’! Will I have huge things and tiny things to represent the scale? But I just felt that, as powerful as the orchestra and chorus is, it’s still just a few hundred people on stage, and to try and make direct aural representations of these ideas wasn’t for me ever going to be enough. So I haven’t really sought to do that. For me there is the metaphor that these three notes, the C – G – Ab, are my quarks if you like, the beginning. Just as, for Owen, words are his! So what I’ve tried to do is think about the text and how to convey that.

Owen’s words are very pictorial, but are also very distilled and abstract. He compresses them in a very fluid way – which sounds contradictory, but necessary here perhaps?

Owen is one of the few people I would have trusted to do this because he is a poet first and foremost. So he has that ability to distil language, but he also writes plays and other works on a grander scale so he understands the idea of narrative. Not that this is a narrative as such, but we also wanted to get certain things in. I do say to my students you shouldn’t choose your favourite poems and set them because poetry doesn’t need music. But actually, Owen doesn’t call these poems, although they are poetic.

And what you’ve done is very different from setting existing poetry; you’ve commissioned the text specially and composed the piece together in many ways – at least to start with. I guess to stick with the genetic metaphor, there are your twin strands of creative DNA going through the piece?

That’s right. We were sharing ideas really in the early stages, and the piece was longer, originally – we shortened it. In no way did I contribute to the text, but the whole process was collaborative. So I don’t feel I just took his words and set them.

The last movement, ‘It is not answers we seek’ – here, there’s a mixing together of those three ideas we’ve been discussing and it’s scored for all the forces: one involves new text, about that need to cultivate curiosity and doubt, and to avoid dogma. Another idea comes through the chorus, which brings back some of the important themes of the piece. For instance, they sing, ‘a weight on the side of us/ enough to gift the cooling mass/ our chains of liberty’. This is a reference to that idea of the imbalance of matter and antimatter. And thirdly, the soprano and baritone allude to that idea about passing on the baton to new generations, imploring all scientific and philosophical pioneers in the future to keep asking questions and to keep ‘mining for new thoughts’.

This all feels very timely, just as CERN are embarking on their second experiment with the Large Hadron Collider!

Yes, they’re hoping to research some more of what we can’t see, using much higher energy levels this time. They’ll be partly hoping to research dark matter and dark energy – which we don’t really touch on in the piece, and is another, completely different story! It’s tremendously exciting.

Here’s to ‘mining for new thoughts’ – and to new music. I’m looking forward to hearing it – best of luck for the rehearsals.

Thank you!

Mark was awarded a grant from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation to fund the commissioning of the text and the research trip to CERN.

Mark and Owen were selected as CERN Official Visiting Artists in the Arts@CERN programme for a specially curated visit.

Creation Mythology at BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Live | Creation Mythology at BBC NOW

First published in Wales Arts Review, April 2015

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, April 21 2015

Rebel: Les élémens‘Chaos’
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Milhaud: La creátion du monde
Sibelius: Luonnotar
Ginastera: Popol Vuh

Conductor – Stefan Asbury
Soprano – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Piano – Zhang Zuo

Leafing through the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ large but dowdy current season brochure, it would be easy to miss that several concerts fall under a terrific series devised around the theme of creation. Saturday April 18 saw the successful world premiere of Mark Bowden’s A Violence of Gifts. This exciting and ambitious work, setting a taut, beautifully evocative libretto by the poet Owen Sheers, explores the scientific origins of light, matter and life. Alongside Holst’s The Planets, it was performed with charged dynamism by the combined forces of the orchestra, BBC National Chorus of Wales and soloists under conductor Martyn Brabbins. On May 8 – again, at St David’s Hall, conducted this time by Stephen Layton – there will be a performance of the extraordinary sacred work which inspired Bowden’s own creative impulse: Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation.

Sandwiched almost unnoticed in between these two, major events, was an afternoon concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall on April 21, which offered an enticing view of creation myths from Africa, Mesoamerica, Scandinavia and Europe through the music of five composers spanning nearly 250 years. The opener could hardly have been more arresting than the wonderful ‘Chaos’ by Rebel. Not the punk rock you might imagine, but perhaps the baroque equivalent in the form of the first movement of Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet, Les élémens (1737) – his last work, written with youthful vigour at the age of 70. Depicting the cosmic chaos from which the elements of fire, water, air and earth arose, the BBC NOW under Stefan Asbury tore into the opening chord – an astoundingly dissonant cluster for the time – and surged with relish through this audacious, stand-alone piece, which audiences of the day happily embraced.

Fast forward to the 20th century, when a new generation of French composers turned to African cultures and thence to black American jazz in their search for fresh sounds and ideas. The works which resulted were genuine in their homage – and socially progressive in their day. But it is also worth noting the wider irony implicit in the zest for so-called ‘primitivism’, which brought an oft-touted ‘exotic’ modernity to western art through the adoption, and sometimes pillaging, of others’ ancient and living traditions.

Darius Milhaud was one of the most inventive composers to incorporate jazz, polytonality and African-inspired rhythms within a strongly individual, coolly neo-classical style. His La creátion du monde of 1923 – like the Rebel and the Ginastera on this programme, also a ballet – was to prove highly influential, despite being branded by contemporary critics as ‘frivolous and more suitable for a restaurant or a dance hall than for the concert hall’, as Milhaud later put it. A pity, then, that Asbury’s interpretation had more clarity than character, with the fine BBC NOW players only occasionally shaking loose in this vibrant retelling of African creation folklore. Still, those flashes at least pointed towards the Harlem insouciance and swagger with which Milhaud interweaves a lyrical gravity and Stravinskian bite á la The Soldier’s Tale.

Clarity and rhythmic incision were also features of Ravel’s later-composed Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31), performed before the Milhaud on this occasion. But here, with the BBC NOW joined by the brilliant young soloist, Zhang Zuo, the bluesy inflections were pure delight, and buoyed by the ebullient orchestral colour for which Ravel is justly famous. Perhaps the composer’s adoption of jazz later in life was partly spurred by the rise of ‘Les six’, of which Milhaud was one, and which threatened to render the elder composer outdated. Whatever motivated his apparent style change, however, Ravel was sincere in praising his far more prolific compatriot’s ‘vastness of conception’. And audiences continue to be enthralled by this concerto’s dashing virtuoso swirl; by its crisp American blues and crystalline outer movements framing a languid paean to Basque and Iberian folk melody. Zuo’s touch proved as deft as her technique was quickfire – if somewhat lacking in depth at the Adagio assai. But this will doubtless come, and the absence of sentimentality was refreshing – both from her and from the orchestra, which matched her phrase for phrase and sparkling solo for solo (the cor anglais of Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer being a highlight).

The soprano soloist in Sibelius’s Luonnotar (1913), the redoubtable Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, had the more daunting task. It fell to her to convey through a tremendously difficult vocal line – sung in Finnish to boot – a strange and mysterious soundworld indeed. However, despite some uncertainty at high-tessitura entries, she proved in richly capable voice, amply supported by an orchestra whose Sibelius has grown in confident suppleness under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. This short, breathtaking work – part-orchestral song, part-tone poem, and composed between Sibelius’s groundbreaking 4th and 5th Symphonies – hovers at the magical edge of tonality. Oscillating between shades of light and dark, it relates with ethereal Nordic calm a creation story from the epic Kalevala concerning the lonely daughter of nature named in the title.

Dramatic contrasts were writ large in the final work of this imaginative programme: the rarely heard Popol Vuh (1982-3), or ‘People’s Book’ by the Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera. From Finland we were transported to Guatemala for a musical tale unfolding the sacred Mayan journey from pre-creation primal darkness to the eventual ‘Dawn of Humankind’. Cast in eight sections, Ginastera planned a ninth but died before he could finish it, leaving a work of great beauty and explosive power which is nonetheless complete in its own right.

Those who heard the Bowden on the 18th and admired his eloquent low sonorities would doubtless have been struck anew by Ginastera’s vivid use of subterranean brass and woodwind. The Argentine’s orchestral palette is dazzling, and such colour, coupled with an expressive range from sepulchral calm to pounding brutality, makes for a visceral live experience. Here, Asbury and orchestra delivered the highlight of the afternoon with a performance of great spirit and virtuosity.*

Yes, Popol Vuh wears its Stravinsky and Bartók influences on its sleeve – and I was reminded in some chamber sections of Roberto Gerhard’s Libra and other of the Catalan’s works. But originality is vastly overrated as a virtue it seems to me. If a piece works on its own terms as this one so joyously does, then who cares? From glissando timpani to ghostly strings and unbridled fanfares, with evocative rain-like effects balancing pizzicato against plocking percussion, this piece contains treasure that deserves to be shared more often.

* Asbury has recorded this work on Neos with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. Why not investigate too a more avant-garde approach to creation mythology, and an actual setting of words from the Popol Vuh: the mighty Ecuatorial by Edgar Varèse (1933).

Photo credit: design for the Green Wing Bird by Fernand Léger, 1923, left (© Bengt Häger, Swedish Ballet. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990). Drawing by Millicent Hodson turning the design into dance, right (© Millicent Hodson.) From a CCN Ballet de Lorraine recreation of the original Ballets Suédois production of La Création du Monde.

Die Walküre Act III: Welsh National Opera Concert Performance

Opera | Die Walküre Act III WNO / WMC
Photo of Bryn Terfel by Neil Bennett

Published by Wales Arts Review in April 2015

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff April 27 2015

Concert performance by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Conducted by Lothar Koenigs
Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin
Wotan: Bryn Terfel
Sieglinde: Rachel Nicholls
Valkyries: Camilla Roberts / Meeta Ravel / Leah-Marian Jones / Madeline Shaw / Katherine Broderick / Ceri Williams / Emma Carrington / Sarah Pring

While the eyes of the opera world were on the International Opera Awards at the London Savoy on April 27, a packed audience at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre, celebrating the venue’s 10th anniversary, witnessed one of this year’s finalists in splendid action. Conductor Lothar Koenigs has been acclaimed for his performances of Wagner at Welsh National Opera, where he has been music director since the 2009/10 season; Die Meistersinger (as here with Bryn Terfel) and Lohengrin have been notable successes at WNO amongst others he has conducted around the world. This concert performance of Die Walküre Act III, with a fantastic cast of eleven singers and beautifully responsive WNO Orchestra, showed that a full-blown Ring cycle is bursting within him.

It was an electrifying performance from the assembled forces, and one which needed no staging to convey the intense emotional drama and multilayered symbolism redolent in Wagner’s every phrase. To hear a single act plucked from this seminal, revolutionary epic – totalling some fifteen hours across four operas – is unbearably tantalising, and yet yielding of enormous riches. At least, it proved so here with the world-class leads and robustly-matched support enlisted by the WMC in their first joint presentation with resident company WNO.

Bryn Terfel needs no introduction to audiences in Wales, but for some in Cardiff, this will have been their first encounter with his globally-renowned portrayal of Wotan, chief of the gods. In superb voice, Terfel embodied with every musical and physical gesture this towering and complex character, whose unresolveable, often self-made dilemmas lie at the heart of the entire Ring. Die Walküre is the second opera of the cycle.* It is here that the greater wisdom of Wotan’s favourite child, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, induces her to disobey him, thereby setting in train a (further) sequence of events which will lead inexorably to the passing of the gods, and to a new, albeit no less problematic, age of humanity at the finale of the fourth opera, Götterdämerung.

Wotan’s avenging power and fury were palpable even before Terfel strode onto the stage, as the eight Valkyrie – to a woman, richly sonorous and riding the wings of that famous, thrilling orchestral introduction – contemplated their sister’s ‘treason’ with frightened dismay. Rachel Nicholls made a brief but notable mark as the rescued Sieglinde, pregnant with the hero of the future. Her noble saviour, Brünnhilde, was performed with wonderful, increasing dramatic intensity by the Swedish soprano, Iréne Theorin.

Rising to the literal and metaphorical challenge of an on-form Terfel, with his huge presence and subtle vocal command, is a big ask of any soprano cast alongside him in this role, and the tessitura in Die Walküre seems often to dwell in the mezzo end of the range. But Theorin’s Brünnhilde proved, if not entirely Terfel’s expressive equal, no less defiant and vulnerable than her troubled father, and her singing at ‘War es so schmählich’ (‘Was I so shameful’) was eloquently convincing. Thus Wotan’s rage is softened to the point where he is able to ruefully acknowledge the correctness of her insight, and to confess his own self-lacerating desire ‘to put an end to my sorrow in the ruins of my world’. The one-eyed god may indeed be king but, it seems, not all his subjects are quite so wilfully blind.

Alas, Brünnhilde must pay, if not for her insight, then for her actions in defending Siegmund. Whilst her punishment is lessened as her pleas for leniency strike home, the cost is unspeakably poignant for father and daughter alike, who must part forever; a cost which was searingly portrayed by the leads and orchestra together in this breathtaking rendition of their leave-taking.** The kiss with which Wotan sends Brünnhilde into deep slumber, simultaneously sealing both the ‘curse’ of her demotion to mortal and the ‘blessing’ of her future awakening (they both know) by the hero Siegfried, was heartrending in its tenderness and dramatic import – as was Terfel’s achingly-wrought farewell, ‘Leb wohl’.
Illustration of Lothar Koenigs by Dean Lewis

Here especially, and in the ensuing regathered surge of the ‘Magic Fire Music’, Koenigs’ orchestra successfully took on the musical likeness of a Greek chorus in becoming, to all intents and purposes, a character or characters in its own right; one of many radical elements traceable to ancient times which Wagner wove so ardently within his progressive (re)envisioning of theatrical past and future. The delivery from the orchestra was not always collectively sublime, but events and inner states were often exquisitely drawn section by section and moment by moment – and, as so often in Wagner’s way, with deliberately varying degrees of subtlety before even the characters themselves register them within the unfolding of the plot. Pacing, of course, is crucial in this regard, and Koenigs’ sensitive direction revealed a clear, symphonic structure. The strings were shimmering and forceful by turn and the brass were supportive, yet crisply articulate. Of the woodwind, Daniel Rye’s bass clarinet stood out in conveying the tragedy of Brünnhilde’s lonely isolation and, by extension, that of her doomed father.

Wotan must overcome his despair with renewed determination in order to summon the fire god Loge and encircle Brünnhilde’s mountain with protective flame. Ultimately, of course, fire will consume Valhalla – and before that Brünnhilde too in her final act of selfless redemption. Here, the combination of Terfel’s coiled, intense passion and the red-lit, fiery backdrop encircling the orchestra on stage were all the visual clues necessary to the compelling drama being enacted – and projecting forward to the two operas to come within Wagner’s great cycle. Altogether, it was a wholly unforgettable evening.

* Or Day One following the Vorabend or ‘ante-evening’ of Das Rheingold. Wagner referred to the the whole as a Bühnenfestspiel, or stage festival play.

** Verdi, of course, is rightly renowned for his intense, complex father-daughter relationships but Act III of Die Walküre – without even considering the deep-lying mytho/philosophical strata of the piece – contains one of the most emotionally frank such portrayals in all of opera.
This year also sees Bryn Terfel celebrate his 50th birthday, and 25 years in the business. The bass-baritone will be giving a special concert performance at the WMC, of which he is a longstanding supporter, details to be announced.