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“So, Joanna, there are no singers in a symphony orchestra” was the gist of Colin Matthews’ quip as I entered my first LSO tutorial in February.  “Common sense” I hear you say but Colin is aware of the confession I am about to make: it has been a while since I last composed a work without a singer.

Vocal composition has been my…to find the word…‘obsession’ for several years.  I hastily add I haven’t neglected nor disliked instrumental writing, after all these pieces have been for voice/s with orchestra or chamber ensemble, so its role has been integral.  It is simply that I rate the voice ‘high’ on my favoured-list, plus I have an uncanny habit of entering orchestral projects and leaving with a piece for orchestra and singer (well if I’m presented with a singing force like Jane Manning, Sarah Leonard or Sonya Knussen, who am I to say “no”)!  Not this time!

After reaching the vocal-milestone of my first chamber opera last summer, I was eager for new challenges, to expand and prove my versatility and to tread the path of compositional-self-improvement.  Encouraged by friends who enthused about their participation in the Panufnik Scheme, this seemed the ideal project to inspire and encourage me out of my comfort zone.

Since the congratulatory call from our dedicated organiser Laura, I have experienced a combination of complete exhilaration coupled with panic!  As I enjoy the privileges of the Scheme, such as contact with players and attending rehearsals and concerts, I am reminded of the thrill and honour of working with one of the world’s best symphony orchestras but also, the responsibility one feels to provide good fodder for those talented players.  Plus there is that little niggle of not having done this in a while and confession no. 2: this is my first work for symphony orchestra.

Since our Reality Weekend in February, I have been pondering over the challenges writing without voice brings.  A text has been the starting point for my work: it has provided inspiration, structure, pacing, rhythm and the overall sentiment and associated musical elements for the piece.  A voice has brought line, a direct communicative power and another of my obsessions, theatricality.  How to reassign these and to maintain ‘compositional me’ without one of the forces that feels intrinsic to that?

I have considered composing a piece that relates to vocal composition, perhaps a hidden text to determine material or a dramatic scene like an instrumental opera but that would defeat the object.  A composer friend joked I could just get all the players to sing…I cannot deny ‘vocal effects’ appear on my plan sheet or that I have asked Patrick, the orchestra’s tuba-player, if he can beatbox down his instrument (he can and very enthusiastically and splendidly too)!

I am pleased to report that I haven’t as yet fallen off the orchestral-wagon and the ratio between exhilaration to panic is weighing increasingly and heavily on the former.  My ‘plans, ideas and sketches’ sheet is bustling with ideas and is looking positively instrumental, and I was greatly encouraged by my last tutorial with Colin when he announced “there is hope”!  I am looking forward to putting those thoughts into action and to some hard composing graft but before that can happen, my mistress is demanding my attention: I have a short opera to complete!

Way back in springtime, a sudden gust of wind sent flurries of cherry blossom swirling, around, before settling gently like a carpet of snow on the grass. As I observed, pensively, my imagination stirred from its slumber and a seed was sown. A very long time and a fair few sleepless nights later, I finally managed to hand in Sakura for the LSO, the last few months having been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Every time I sat down to realise the story in my head, I became overwhelmed by the huge sheet of stripy paper looming in front of me, and so often it seemed like a better idea to leave it lurking on my desk and write a song instead.

I remembered a beautiful occasion the year before: Whilst daydreaming in the Jardin Japonais de l’Île de Versailles, Nantes… I watched as the cherry blossom floated on the breeze, settling gently on the calm surface of a pond. The reflection of the trees reminded me of Escher’s lithograph Three Worlds’… It was a combination of these memories that became the point of departure for this piece. I found these images so beautiful and evocative that I was inspired to write a haiku and the piece grew with this in mind.

Sakura dancing

like snow on the winds of change

reflect in water.

The discomfort that arises as I write this blog is very telling of why I’ve avoided it for so long! I like to be quiet, and think about things, and play, and sing, and write music sometimes – to be a vessel for the music to breathe through. I’m not that good at shouting to the world ‘helloooo this is me…. Blah’ … I prefer to hide behind my cello, or the manuscript paper.

I spent much creative time playing cello with my band Miss Maud’s Folly, singing, exploring the streets of Nantes, and walking for solitary hours in the Cardiff parks and on the Cornish moors… all the while, sounds were making themselves known in my head. I felt like I was bursting at the seams with ideas, yet having to choose some for the 3-minute piece was a daunting prospect! I prepared with trepidation for the task of tying the lucky few down onto that big empty bit of paper.

… So, in the calm after the storm, I reflect on how I loved watching my piece grow, transform and take on a life of its own. At one point I tried to mould it to the old springtime seed but the music always had it’s own ideas. The more I wrote, the more the ideas flowed… looking back, I am amused by the emotional drama that arose during the initial creative process!

I have really enjoyed being a part of the Panufnik scheme, I feel so blessed to have this opportunity. I especially enjoyed the few occasions I ventured all the way to London to see the orchestra in rehearsal. Highlights for me were Gergiev conducting Dutilleux, and discovering the music and aesthetic of Helmut Lachenmann. I went home every time buzzing with inspiration and joie de vivre, ready to engage with that lurking stripy paper!

May 2011
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