Monday, 16 May 2011

Writing for Music: towards The Proportions of the Temple 3

The performance was quite magnificent. I was deeply moved, as were the other poets, as was the whole audience. Not being a musician or even a natural concert goer I can't speak of the music in detail. In any case, I have only heard it once as a whole, so while details linger in my memory, I still experience the performance as primarily a musical totality. Even to describe it as a dramatic construction is beyond me, though I am convinced it was a towering success. The dramatic construction would have to have consisted of duration, texture, volume, pace, expectation and departures from expectation. It was, to put it simply, cathedral-like in detail, amplitude and effect.

In her comment to my first post on the subject Diane asks what it was like to work with Jonathan Baker and Sian Croose, but I can't answer that, if only because there was no obvious sense in which we worked together. By that I mean we hardly spent any time in each other's physical company. The poets provided the text and the composers and musicians got on with it. I dropped in on one rehearsal, spoke to the choir, briefly saying something about the text and reading it as verse. Andrew was there on the same occasion. I think Agnes might have had a similar experience but since she now lives in Sheffield it was at a different time. Attending the rehearsal was a great experience. The choir learned and repeated phrases. The sound passed round different parts of it, swelling and dropping. I couldn't quite hear what they were singing, but I didn't expect to hear it. It is rare to hear distinctly the words that choirs sing. The choir knows what they sing and they build on that. How did the music sound to me then? Marvellous in exactly the way I imagined it would be marvellous.

It is a special choir of course. Not just in the sense that it is an open choir that anyone may join, without an audition, without a test. If you want to sing, then sing. It is also special in that The Voice Project's dynamics seem to me peculiar to itself. The energy it works on is Sian's and Jon's. It is a soulful ecstatic energy. It isn't like, say, a Bulgarian or Danish choir: the voice still comes from the places English choirs produce voices from, but it is fuller, less 'proper', more turbo-charged. The danger of the spiritual in this sense is that it could become a mixture of The Guardian and muesli at its own revivalist feel-good meeting, but this is not the case here. The choir is a work of great art. Since I am an outsider I am happy to resort to the term 'genius'. It is a work of genius.

The choir sings the music. The music I heard was composed by Jon. Having heard some of Jon's previous work I instinctively understood some of its grammar. The voices are musical instruments. They produce percussion as well as swell and drone and lilt and blast. The sheer balancing of these elements is, like the leading of the choir, a high art. Jon with his broad musical background, including rock, can feel the power of the stadium gig but the chorister in him is precise. He is a mathematician on both a grand and minute scale.

But this is observation not work-with. The true organic collaboration is between Sian and Jon. The poets provide the text and retire.

Yes, but the text doesn't retire. And for a poet that is the point. The text is as written: poet becomes text as, with luck, does reader.

And the composer too is a reader. No reader is entirely passive but a composer is necessarily active. The words are his or her cloth: it is the outfit that matters to him. So Jon senses a possibility in certain lines. He seizes the lines and listens intently for the musical dimensions they offer. He has become the text he works on. The poem-text has various qualities as text, but text is as skin to the composer. What matters to him is what lies under the skin - because, assuredly, the poem is not just skin but body and soul. And it is that body and soul that must sing, through a new skin, a new skin grafted on to the old skin, with a new breath that is built on the text's breath.

One more post on this later.

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