It seems to me, the year begins anew after the shortest day. However, with all the reflections on FB today, I’ll throw in my thoughts on a busy and peculiar year of musical composition. This time, 12 months ago, I was working on Swellfellow the Tyrant, an obscure political satire by Shelley which could hardly have turned out more topical and relevant in the light of the subsequent Tory machinations. Written for a local opera group which then failed to grasp the nettle, they thought it wasn’t popular enough to rustle up support. A foolish sentiment, in my opinion, as opera won’t thrive going forward unless the repertory is renewed with small-scale, entertaining but relatively economical works. An opportunity lost to work in the local community. And so, straight on to write The Burning Question for young Norman Welch which didn’t start off with the idea that the dead pope should be female, but that’s how it landed up. It went down pretty well at the Tete a Tete Opera Festival in the summer - lots of young people there - and, as I write, there are plans to revive it soon. Probably the best team effort I’ve enjoyed working on: it’s so satisfying (and flattering) to see a talented cast throw themselves into something you’ve written. Four months later, and another piece is finished: Masque of Vengeance, this time a Jacobean tragedy, a bloodbath in which most of the comparatively large cast are slaughtered by the end. I really must try and understand why, after Elizabeth’s death, this genre of revenge tragedy flourished. Wait! I meant Elizabeth I…! And in between we released the film of Last Party on Earth, which we shot live on a set and on location during lockdown. There aren’t many opera films other than relays of house performances, so thanks to Korina Kokali et al. for the inspiration. All things considered, some steps in the right direction this year: as one acorn said to another, we may be small but we’ll give it a go!
The recent death of Andrew Sinclair, international opera director, has suddenly brought to mind the period when he and I most closely worked together. The occasion was his direction of my chamber opera Caedmon, produced by The Garden Venture at the Royal Opera House in 1989.
A project in the autumn and winter lockdowns recently has been to finish another Lorca setting. My operatic version of Así que pasen cinco años I've called In Five Years' Time, which seems a more natural translation than 'When Five Years Have Passed'. Death is a theme of the play and very much in the headlines right now.
Written before the pandemic outbreak, this could hardly have been more timely. A rhyming libretto by Leo Doulton at first had me stumped: how could such a doom-laden scenario be treated as a 'comedy of manners', as he put it?
The Oval Portrait
I came across Poe’s The Oval Portrait in 2013 when I needed to complete a programme of chamber opera: the story is concise and simply told, written in prose that sounds very musical.
It was thrilling to be able to attend the first performance of my Aspects of Work in the Pre-Raphaelite Gallery of Manchester Art Gallery where Ford Madox Brown's famous panorama of Victorian life is beautifully displayed.
Concert included Yin & Yang Cantata
The inaugural project of The Music Troupe
Although as a youngster I certainly wanted to write, I felt a pre-requisite of becoming a composer was a thorough knowledge of musical history and musical language. The study of harmony and counterpoint from medieval methods through to the serialists absorbed me until my mid-twenties - along with the process of becoming a musician.
Just finished a piece for string ensemble, a Sonata for Strings, which I've sub-titled Stillleben. The German word Stille has, I think, a more loaded meaning than the English equivalent in Stillife. The first half of the piece is calm, quite serene even, while the second half is lively and rather dance-like. I don't think you can have life and be completely still at the same time: surely life implies energy and growth? So the artistic term still-life seems a bit of a misnomer.
Composer and musician