“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!