Rhinegold Photo credit: Cathy Pyle
Celebrating women: Tom Green

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: October’s new music

8:00, 1st October 2017

Taking its name from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1991 poetry collection, which examines the actions and stories of historical and mythical men from the perspective of their spouses, Tom Green’s new opera places women centre stage. ‘Duffy looks at how we use stories in the past to understand ourselves in the present,’ the composer says. ‘She’s not just made that clear, but she’s also shaken up our understanding of how we do that, and who gets to be part of our stories and who doesn’t.’

Green selected 11 of the 31 poems in the collection, taking care to ensure their themes were complementary. ‘Throughout the cycle of 11 I’m trying to construct contours within them, but I’m not trying to force a narrative on them; for example, the first poem is about adolescence and losing your virginity, and the final poem is about motherhood. I chose poems which are of quite different lengths: some of them are long epics, and others are quick, comedy gag poems, solely meant to get their own back on the patriarchy. The poetry itself is very musical; she’s a poet who’s not scared of rhythmic vibrancy within her words. Her rhythms are in no way predictable or boring, but she really embraces it when she wants to give a phrase an almost musical bounce. I really appreciated that when I was setting it.’

The composer turned to technology to bring the characters together on stage: ‘The loop pedals allow the soprano to play multiple characters at once. She can sing one character and store it in the loop pedal, then duet with it in the guise of another character, then make a trio. She uses the loop pedal to multiply how many characters she can represent; that also allows me as a composer to have more than one character on stage at once, and to start creating a dialogue between them.’

As well as bringing the narrative voices of women together, the piece is written exclusively using material by historical women composers. ‘The World’s Wife is about how we’ve written women out of our mythical and historical narratives; a similar thing has happened in terms of how we understand our musical canon. Ask anyone and they’ll name you many dead male composers; how many dead female composers can the average music-lover name? It’s not because they weren’t there; it’s because they weren’t prioritised in the way we understand music history. Once I realised that, I explored all these brilliant past female composers, some who are on the fringes of our consciousness and some no one has heard of. But they deserve to be heard.

‘It can be as small as a three-note motif which I then develop into something, all the way up to a complex quote of many bars which will pepper the whole sound-world for many minutes. It’s still very much my music, but I wanted to have them represented there, and to celebrate their work. But then equally, that in itself is part of the contradiction – someone could accuse me of stealing women’s work for glory, another guy going off the backs of all of these women who came before me. Maybe that’s true, but if I can actually get people to ask that question, that’s positive in itself.’

Green clearly signposts the material by historical women: ‘There will still be moments when a 21st-century score will melt into what sounds like a 17th-century baroque figuration and back again. Those moments will tell the audience that someone is being referenced and cherished. Even if they don’t know exactly who that is, they’ll still know it’s a female composer, because that will be clear in the programme. I’ll also be giving a few pre-performance talks where, in the lightest way possible, I’ll try to extract some of these processes and walk them back to where I started with the material and how they ended up in the piece.’

The composer says he wanted the work to confront the issues of gender, representation and identity. ‘I wanted the work to make it very clear that there are profound questions that we still haven’t really addressed, and that we’re quite good at ignoring, even though they confront us in our daily lives. But this isn’t a polemic crusade – it’s more of an exploration of these ideas, and along the way it’s a brilliant excuse to explore some unusual music with simultaneous loops and all sorts of other interesting musical objects.’

Tom Green The World’s Wife (Amanda Forbes, soprano, Mavron String Quartet, Millennium Centre, Cardiff; also 19 October, Theatr Brycheiniong, Brecon; 21 October, Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea; 28 October, Ucheldre, Holyhead; 1 November, Aberystwyth Arts Centre; 2 November, Galeri, Caernafon; and 3 November, Torch Theatre, Milford Haven)

When approached with a new commission from the Crouch End Festival Chorus, Laura Bowler had a specific subject in mind. ‘I was reading a book called Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, and I had this idea about travelling to two of the most remote islands that I could get to somehow, then capturing that in musical form,’ the composer says. ‘I’ve always been incredibly interested in landscape, and I thought going to two of the remotest islands and going on a tall ship would be a very evocative experience. I knew doing something like this would push me in a different way.’

Evoking an indescribable experience: Laura Bowler Photo: Brad Kratochvil
Evoking an indescribable experience: Laura Bowler
Photo: Brad Kratochvil

Bowler opted to visit St Helena and Ascension Island, both part of British Overseas Territory and located in the South Atlantic. ‘The experience sailing there is almost indescribable,’ Bowler says. ‘You get this feeling of remoteness, because you have no access to technology at all for three weeks in the middle of the ocean. You barely see any other ships, so it’s quite an experience.’

The piece – whose title refers to the four-hour ship’s watch in the late afternoon and at dusk – incorporates video footage shot by Bowler on her journeys. ‘I’m very interested in using video performance anyway, but what was key was trying to capture the closeness to nature, and the awe-inspiring feeling of being in the middle of the ocean; of not being able to contact anyone or see any sort of commercial life. I really wanted to create a visceral and raw experience.’

The piece is wordless, with the choir treated ‘as an extension of the orchestra,’ Bowler says. ‘The choir functions very texturally, and they have a lot of extended techniques; very specific vowel placements and things like that. They also have physical things to do to create sounds, like body percussion.’ These extended techniques depict specific aspects of the experience of being on the tall ship, such as flapping sails and water dripping into a bucket.

Fittingly enough, the piece is structured in waves. ‘I was on the ship with an ocean surface specialist, so we talked a lot about how waves form and travel. That became an idea for how the piece would function, so structurally it’s in these blocks of waves which expand and decrease in length depending on the closeness to the island; we get to Ascension Island at the end of the piece, and the texture changes. The piece is made up of a small amount of harmonic material which is constantly moving, so it’s this idea of a huge mass which is constantly reforming itself, like the ocean.’

Laura Bowler navigating the dog watch (Crouch End Festival Chorus, Inner Voices, London Orchestra da Camera, David Temple, conductor, Barbican Centre, 7.30pm)

Inspired by the ‘uneasiness’ and ‘highly conflicted feelings’ which Aaron Jay Kernis has experienced since the last American election, his new concerto is a series of variations on Amazing Grace, which Barack Obama sang at the memorial service for the victims of a church massacre, then to conclude his farewell speech in Chicago. ‘It’s this British tune which became an essential part of the Southern hymnody. It can be taken a lot of different ways, but it means a lot of things to a lot of people.’

Affected by current events: Aaron Jay Kernis Photo: Brad Oliphant
Affected by current events: Aaron Jay Kernis
Photo: Brad Oliphant

Although the piece originated as a commission for French horn player Timothy Jackson, Kernis’s decision to use percussion changed the nature of the piece. ‘It was originally going to be quite lyrical, but it became harsher,’ he says. ‘As the piece developed, the timpani became very important, to the extent that it was nearly a double concerto between horn and timpani. It’s actually a perfect instrument because the whole solo line stands out really well, and balances really well with the horn. It’s a natural feeling instrumentation without having to use a large orchestra.’

It is only at the end of the work that Amazing Grace is heard in its original form. At this point, the horn player begins to walk into the audience and the orchestra vanishes. ‘If there’s anything that’s symbolic in the piece it’s that; it’s offering that melody directly to the audience and leaving the stage,’ Kernis explains. The piece then fades into nothing.

The piece is not without precedent in Kernis’s oeuvre in engaging with current events: his second symphony is the result of reflection on the Gulf War. ‘I can be very emotionally affected [by current events], then I start to think about ways of incorporating that into my work,’ he says. ‘It’s very much who I am. There are moments where I feel it’s important for my work to reflect my inner emotional world and the outer picture or sense of world events – and this is one.’

Aaron Jay Kernis Legacy for solo horn, harp, percussion and strings UK prem (Timothy Jackson, horn, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, James Feddeck, conductor, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 7.30pm)

Mark-Anthony Turnage Prussian Blue (Savitri Grier, violin, Benedikt Schneider, viola, Mikayel Hakhnazaryan, cello, Matthew McDonald, bass, Tom Poster, piano, St John’s Church, Truro, 3pm; also 2 October, Cedar Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Wells, 7pm; 3 October, Stowe School, 7pm; 4 October, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge; 5 October, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Patrick Nunn Cryptograms I-VIII Tomas Peire Serrate Toccata Sam Hayden Becomings (José Menor, piano, St George the Martyr, Borough, London, 1pm)

Mauricio Sotelo New work UK prem (Cuarteto Casals, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Jörg Widmann Babylon Suite English prem (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2.15pm; also 5 October, 7.30pm)
Thomas Larcher Red and Green UK prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Vedernikov, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)

Mark-Anthony Turnage Quintet for piano and strings London prem (Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Kevin Volans L’Africaine (Melvyn Tan, piano, Kings Place, 2pm)
Elena Langer RedMare (Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen, piano, Kings Place, 7pm)

Derek Smith Sonatine (Mark Bebbington, piano, Hellens, Much Marcle, Ledbury, 3pm)

Yuanfan Yang New work (Yuanfan Yang, piano, Royal Academy of Music, 1.05pm)

Gregory Rose The Melodic Thread UK prem; Mizmor Kaf Gimmel; The Song of Solomon; Hymn to Aphrodite (Janet Oates, soprano, Alison Read, harp, Vurl Bland, cimbasso, Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 1pm; also 12 October, St John’s Smith Square, London, 1.05pm)
Richard Miller Nighthawks (Ensemble 10/10, St George’s Hall, Liverpool, 7.30pm)

Howard Skempton Expectancy London prem Laurence Crane, Morgan Hayes, Gabriel Jackson, Andrew Toovey New works (Esther Cavett, Morgan Hayes, Matthew Hough, Thalia Myers, John Tilbury, piano, Jack McNeill, clarinet, Gildas Quartet, Addison Chamber Choir, David Wordsworth, conductor, Kings Place, 7.30pm)
Elis Pehkonen Beautitudes (Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, conductor, Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh, Suffolk, 7.30pm)

Krzysztof Penderecki Capriccio for solo violin UK prem Paulina Załubska New work (Jennifer Pike, Thomas Gould, violin, Guy Johnston, cello, Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo, Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord, Petr Limonov, piano, Wigmore Hall, 11.30am)
Orlando Gould Hospital Passion Play (Garsington Opera, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2.30pm)

Philip Sawyers Concerto for trumpet, timpani and strings (Simon Desbruslais, trumpet, English String Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor, Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, 3.30pm)
Malcolm Arnold Kensington Gardens (Claire Thompson, soprano, Scott Mitchell, piano, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 3.30pm)
Malcolm Arnold Suite from Heroes of Telemark (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Gibbons, conductor, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 7.30pm)
Martin Suckling New work for string quintet (Musicians from Aurora Orchestra, Wellcome Collection, London, 12.55pm)

Howard Skempton Preces and Responses (Choir of Wells Cathedral, Matthew Owens, conductor, Wells Cathedral, 5.15pm)

Édith Canat de Chizy New work (Quatuor Van Kuijk, Birmingham Town Hall, 7.30pm)

Rebecca Bruton, Jason Doell, Lawrence Dunn, Sarah Lianne Lewis New works (Quatuor Bozzini, King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 6pm)
Molly Joyce Rave Sarah Kirkland Snider Penelope (Jessica Walker, vocalist, Psappha Ensemble, Richard Balcombe, conductor, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester, 7.30pm)

Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson Moonbow (Quatuor Bozzini, St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1pm)
Gemma McGregor Strange Fish (Lesley Wilson, bassoon, The Bothy, Glenbuchat Village Hall, Aberdeenshire, 4pm)

Guy Barker Onyx Noir London prem Simon Lesley Time Out Peter Fribbins Brass quintet (Onyx Brass, Kings Place, 6.30pm)

Roman Rutishauser Tenebrae UK prem (former Hilliard Ensemble members, St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford)
Gabriel Jackson Nightingale Fragments (Vigala Singers, Joy Hill, conductor, St James Piccadilly, London)
George Tsontakis New work (Mobius, Wigmore Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Paul Ayres Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich (Tom Bell, organ, St Laurence Upminster, 7.30pm; also 17 November, Richard Brasier, organ, Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 1.10pm)

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