Five Questions: creating new work

Robert McFall and composer Errollyn Wallen ask each other five questions about creating new work

Mr McFall’s Chamber commissioned a new song cycle from Errollyn Wallen, to be premiered in a touring programme of music of sea-faring adventures and life as an islander.

Her new work, for soprano and string quintet, takes five poems about island life by Caribbean and Scottish poets. It sits amongst repertoire of Kurt Weill, Henry Purcell, Martyn Bennett, Robert Burns, and Caribbean composers. Gig dates

Five Questions from Errollyn Wallen, commissioned composer, to Robert McFall, Artistic Director:

1. How did you go about choosing these poems? Have you met any of the poets or heard/seen them read?

I bought a paperback collection of poems called “You Better Believe It” when I was a student, and Dennis Scott's “Epitaph” was in there. Otherwise I went in search of the right poems. It was Gabriel Jackson who suggested Ian Hamilton Findlay – I was unaware of him before, but he fitted the programme well, what with his writings about islands and the fact that he spent the first few years of his life in the Bahamas. Lorna Goodison was recommended to me by Marina Salandy-Brown, director of the Bocas literary festival in Trinidad.

2. What sparked the idea for this song cycle and for the programme?

There are a number of points of departure for this idea. Firstly, my wife, Ann, was brought up in Cuba up to the age of six – in fact, she was there to witness the early stages of the revolution. That led us to revisit in 1999. I also introduced myself to a Cuban conductor called Zenaida Romeu, who has a small chamber orchestra called Camerata Romeu, and who briefed me on the important composers within the Cuban classical tradition.

However, another important influence was Geoff Palmer, a retired lecturer in brewing at Heriot Watt University, where Ann teaches, who, as a black Jamaican, led a campaign at the time of the Scottish Homecoming celebrations in 2008 to include Caribbean countries such as Jamaica in the invitees. At that time I invited him to come and speak at one of our Mr McFall's Chamber concerts. He has tirelessly – and successfully – been putting the case for recognition of the historical ties between Scotland and the Caribbean, and for ending the myth that it was the English and not the Scots who were responsible for the atrocities of the slave trade and slave economies.

It was an idea which therefore came easily to me when looking for a project to put forward for inclusion in the Commonwealth Games cultural programme.

3. What do you like about commissioning new works for Mr McFall’s Chamber?

I quite like the riskiness of it – but also the excitement of bringing something totally new into existence. In this case, also, there is a specific message to do with Scottish/Caribbean connections which I want to get across – and this is a great way to do it.

4. What do you regard as the unique aspect of the Scottish music scene?

The Scottish musical scene is multifaceted – we have wonderful jazz musicians working up here, as well as an incredibly vibrant and popular folk scene, full of innovation. I'm in the fortunate position of working, from time to time, with musicians from both these sectors, as well as with some wonderful singer/songwriters. One of the things which is good about Edinburgh, in particular, as compared with London, for example, is the fact that it is quite a small city, so it's logistically not difficult for musicians to get together. I always feel that this is a problem in London.

5. Has what I have composed been what you imagined?

I'm always surprised by the extreme juxtapositions of tonal writing with bursts of atonality – and this piece is surprising me that way for sure – especially Fishing from the Back of Rousay!

Five questions from Robert McFall, Artistic Director, for Errollyn Wallen, commissioned composer:

1) You have created more of a unity for these five poems than I had imagined – in part by bringing back the rolling figure from “On The Shore of the Mind” in the last setting, “Evening Will Come”. Waves and evening sky seem to roll past and swell. What’s your own experience of island life, or of the sea? What vistas are you seeing in your mind’s eye while composing this music?

The sea has been a constant and profound inspiration to me and to my music. In London I overlook the Thames and watch the boats go up and down; I hear the waves at night.

I often ask myself, ‘how did I get here?” and I always answer “the sea.” I am fascinated by water and by the different types of seascape. I was born in Belize, which has a lush, tropical climate and where the sea and sky are very different to those of the British Isles. Yet I also love the bleak majesty of the highlands and islands of Scotland. I was thinking of all the contrasting seas as I composed black apostrophe. When I am in Belize I think a lot about my parents’ wish to cross the Atlantic for a new life. When I was composing black apostrophe it was the sense of crossing the water for a world ‘out there’ that I also wanted to capture.

2) Here you are again dragged in to a programme which focuses, in part, on black experience, black history. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about opportunities for black musicians in classical music; about the historic repercussions of the slave trade – about many such topics. Do you get fed up with it all, or are you stimulated by connecting to these discussions?

There have indeed been times when I have been commissioned solely because I am black. But I am pleased about the current debate about classical music and the place of black musicians within it. In several of my works (works such as Mighty River, When the Wet Wind Sings, Another America opera cycle, The Silent Twins) I explore the complexity of coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and colonialism. We all need to do this and, in doing so, we can only be enlightened and enriched. There is tremendous ignorance about the colonies; British history lessons have a lot to answer for and the individual uniqueness of each Caribbean island has gone mostly unrecognised. It has been wonderful for me to have the opportunity to think about them and to compare them with the Scottish islands.

3) It’s perhaps quite unusual to write for string quartet or quintet and voice without the inclusion of a piano. What particular challenges does this line-up bring to both singer and to composer?

An early work of mine — Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals? — which you and Susan Hamilton performed so brilliantly last year in the PRSF Music Biennial — introduced me to the sonorities of voice with string quartet. It’s a great combination which I also use in concert and recording when I am singing myself (most notably my song Daedalus recorded with the Brodsky Quartet).

As a pianist and singer-songwriter I find it liberating to sing without the piano sometimes. Strings and voice can bend and blend with each other in a way the piano can’t match. When I was composing black apostrophe I was able to go straight to the textures I imagined. With these forces I find a great variety and richness of colours at my disposal.

4) You seem to think in a very harmonic way – how much do you think your musical language is influenced by jazz? Do you think in chord symbols at all? What other influences came into play in your development, do you think?

I love the flavours of jazz and the sophisticated voicings of chords but I never think in chord symbols — it is always about the raw sound for me. In this way I am free to ‘happen’ across an interval for its unique quality rather than for its consideration within an harmonic convention. I could talk all day about the wonder of a single note and then about the wonder of combining that note with another. Composition for me is about finding the right note and combinations of notes and rhythms to create the required effect. I chisel away until the composition is as clear as it can be. I try not to be hampered by questions of style. However, technique and expressivity are very important to me. When setting words I think a lot about the character and atmosphere of the words and the voice of the singer I am composing for.

I find endless possibilities in Western classical tonal harmony and I also find great joy in dissonance too. In black apostrophe I use many types of harmonic language — from the blues of Epitaph to the more elliptical harmonies of Fishing from the Back of Rousay. I enjoy using contrasting styles for drama and characterisation; I felt these great poems demanded it.

I get irritated with the classification of new music into tonal and non-tonal. This tells us nothing about the actual music! Lully is a very different composer to John Adams…

5) I am very keen that there should be more of a musical exchange between our part of the world and the Caribbean – in the same way as seems to exist for literature at the moment. My idea behind this commission was, in part, to bring out parallels and connections. How can we get to tour your piece in Jamaica, say, or persuade promoters here to host classical ensembles from Cuba like Camerata Romeu, for example? [I know you are not Caribbean yourself, but coming from a Commonwealth country vaguely in that part of the world you may have some thoughts on the subject]

I am really keen that black apostrophe goes to the Caribbean and, indeed, that people of the colonies living in the UK can know about this work, not least for the wonderful poets. I think this commission is very important for creating a musical exchange and I will be doing everything I can to promote the programme you have created around it. Although Belize is in Central America, it is bordered to the east by the Caribbean sea. I would love us to take black apostrophe to Belize!

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Errollyn Wallen, c.Primavera Azzurro
Robert McFall, c.Douglas Robertson

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