Composer, curator and performer: Amy Bryce
New Music series: Amy Bryce’s I will tell them4:36, 2nd February 2021
Choir & Organ’s 2021 New Music partnership with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain opens with a stark accusation for the neglect of the planet, scored for upper voices and piano. Matthew Power reports
Above: Amy Bryce talks to Ben Parry about her new work for upper voices and piano, I will tell them, commissioned by Choir & Organ for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.
Attending the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music as a teenager, flautist Amy Bryce one day arranged a folksong for choir and was encouraged to pursue composition lessons. Arriving back at the RCM as an undergraduate composer, she was set on that career: ‘For the first two years I dedicated myself to academic composing and getting to know repertoire. Then in my third and fourth years the complete opposite happened: I started to use my instrument collaboratively to devise site-specific work.’ Involvement with InTRANSIT (a local festival), and winning the RCM’s contemporary music competition as a flautist, refocused her creativity.
How did her approach develop after graduating? Everything she was writing was now conceived for herself as performer. ‘I was collaborating a lot, ordering people about and improvising, which exploded into this exploration of performance art. That made me think, “What is it that I write? How will people get any sense of my identity as a composer when I’m doing all these different things?” I have decided not to worry about that too much.’ Her style can be tangential, so she is keen to discern exactly what a commission requires and then write precisely to that brief.
Before leaving the RCM, Bryce was selected for a public workshop as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Composer’s Scheme. This was the first of several springboard opportunities. In 2019 she received an international grant to work as composer-in-residence for the Stiftung Kunst und Musik für Dresden, spending four months writing and curating projects in Dresden, Berlin and Leipzig, as well as participating in the TONLAGEN Festival in Hellerau. This year, as well as joining the NYCGB Young Composers Scheme, she has taken part in the Festival de Música de Setúbal in Portugal, creating an interdisciplinary work with their youth ensemble. Her three years since graduating have been exciting and her showreel fizzes with multi-media performance and live electronics. Is there a recurring soundworld that she strives for?
‘Much is purpose-built; one piece will suit a different artist to the next. What they have in common is that I am quite theatrical and visual in the way that I compose music. Rather than thinking “What is this going to sound like?”, I’m thinking “What is it going to be like to experience this – visually or otherwise?” It’s not classical music for its own sake; it’s expanding the role of the audience member beyond sitting in the chair and watching the thing. Especially within the medium of opera, within normal social constructs it’s not usual to have someone belting opera at you as a way to communicate with you!’
What about her musical influences? ‘I can’t really describe my soundworld influences as much as I can my theatrical ones.’ German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel springs to mind, ‘not because I write anything that sounds like Kagel, but because I strongly relate to how he deals with shapes and ideas and story-telling.’ From the absurdist theatre world, contemporary Norwegian composer Trond Reinholdtsen wrote an opera called Ø, serialised on YouTube, a comment on the operatic form. This too has influenced Bryce: ‘You can’t go and see it, it only exists in a hut in the woods in Norway for nobody to experience apart from the performers.’ She also credits theatre production company Frantic Assembly’s way of juxtaposing audio tracks: ‘I take inspiration from them because I think in a similar way when I’m constructing.’
In an age where mainstream film is as likely to employ a ‘music supervisor’ pulling together tracks and sequences as it is to have a featured composer, so the term ‘curator’ no longer conjures an academic sequestered at a museum or gallery. Indeed, that term is one that Bryce has adopted. She recalls a product of her Dresden residency: ‘Pseudo Spiritum was an hour long, and very specifically not called a piece – it is not designed to be watched for [its entire duration].’ Bryce performed it on flute with a dancer ‘blowing through a long tube that made air sounds, and my flute was hooked up to an amplifier, so it was all based on the idea of breath.’ Bryce tags this knowingly with I will tell them as another ‘political climate’ statement: ‘It was based around the idea that these creatures were born in an environment where the air was polluted beyond their ability to live there naturally. It is about discovering how you breathe, move, make noise; your own physicality and your physicality with the other person, and how you move around the space together. So for that work I call myself a curator not a composer, because there are elements that I most definitely wrote, and ideas that I had, but I think “composer” is the wrong word. I would be giving the audience a confusing instruction if I were to say, “Come and listen to my piece of music.” But “Come and experience this thing that I designed – come in, see it and take it in for as long as you need to, like a painting, then go away”, that would give them a much better idea of [what to expect].’ It is far more than an aleatoric composition. ‘There’s no score, just a storyline, and timed stages; “Spend 10 minutes thinking about this…”’
In total contrast, I will tell them is a restrained, lyrical composition; the eventual division of voices makes an impact prior to the ‘protest’ section that follows. The melody lulls the audience into a false sense of security. Did Bryce set about making a folksong as a cautionary tale? ‘My entire idea was based upon how I get across this message that the adults are screwing up! I’m not the first person to write a piece about climate change. What are [the young voices] going to want to say, how can I use them, basically, as a tool of manipulation? It’s nice that you said “a false sense of security” because that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. That part of it develops the line and the recurring melody… How can classical music be used in a collaborative theatre-making scenario? A folksong is what fits there at the beginning, and therefore that’s what I put there.’
Bryce wants the singers to be excited about performing it: ‘I’m hoping it’s a message that they’ll be able to relate to personally as a piece written for them and their generation, that they have a duty to spread this message far and wide. I want them to feel that the piece is about them, and for them to feel a sense of responsibility. The piece could not be less about me!’
How does Bryce see the role of composer-curator-performer unfolding for her personally? ‘I have a primary focus on education and working with young people, trying to deconstruct some of the elitism that’s going on. Engaging with young people with stuff that’s for them, including them, listening to them and being a facilitator to expand education in that way. Also, writing works that are going to reach into different corners and broaden the audience.’ Her programme note for I will tell them sums up all this: ‘I wrote this piece for the voices of those who will have to remain on this planet for longer than I will. Please listen to them!’
The score for I will tell them is available to download and perform until 30 June 2021. Visit our New Music page.