Stef Conner (Composer in Residence) - Part 2

Usually, classical composers borrow other people's words. For my first Streetwise Opera composition, I tried to write my own. After writing vocal music for many years, I have a good idea of what kinds of texts I find beautiful and effective, and I also have a good idea of what kinds of words suit my musical style. In fact, I have such a good a idea that I've become debilitatingly fussy; I usually search for months, rejecting everything, before I find a text I think I can work with. I want texts to be simple and direct, yet still abstract and ambiguous; I like complex ideas expressed in minimal words, with as few syllables per line as possible; I like intense affect but I dislike indulgence; I love depth and sophistication but I hate explicit “cleverness”. Lots of contradictions; lots of criteria. Far from unlocking the creative process, these obsessive critical considerations seem to truss it up in a muzzle and straightjacket. And, as if my personal ocean of limitations didn't provide a big enough obstacle on its own, this particular brief has many more to throw into the mix – writing something that will unify a large, diverse group of people, all with different levels of musicality and musical experience; writing something anthemic and uplifting, but not cheesy; writing something simple enough that it can be memorized without too much dull drilling... yet, complex enough to provide a challenge. It's almost like composing by a process of elimination.

            I wrote in my last blog that I had decided to write a song about singing, the only subject that I felt could be said to unify the whole Streetwise community, as well as being something I could relate to myself. I didn't want to write about my own, or anyone else's, subjective experience of singing, but something universal about songs that could apply to any culture, in any place or time. I love Imagist and ancient Chinese poems because they can be read in several different ways – their plain, economical words imply much more than they explicitly state, conveying intensity of emotion and depth of meaning, without being linguistically overwrought or inaccessible. So, I tried to write words with some of the same qualities: simplicity, depth, timelessness and universality. This is what I came up with:

Songs paint worlds / Songs make words alive / Songs hold our stories / Songs will revive

            There is something of the character of a children's song in these words. They form a sort of chorus, sung as a round, in a narrative piece influenced by game songs, folk tales and formulaic poetry. In ancient epic poems like Beowulf, Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, you can find evidence of the even more ancient oral tradition that the poems grew out of. Memorable lines are frequently repeated, with minor variations, and stock phrases – early equivalents of 'once upon a time' – appear again and again. These formulas existed because ancient poetry was originally composed on the spot by bards who had internalized the formulas in the same way that jazz musicians internalize musical licks. Formulas also abound in nursery rhymes and game songs, which are learnt aurally and passed down from generation to generation: 'Monday's child is fair of face / Tuesday's child is full of grace...'

            My piece tells the story of a person who can sing the most beautiful song in the world, but is tempted by rich men to exchange it for various fantastical treasures, before realising that none of them can replace the simple joy of singing. Each verse is has a formulaic structure: 'I swapped my song for [fantastical treasure] Hord-wynn heovon hyrath / But [disappointing aspect of treasure] Sangas sarnesse siwath'. The refrain that is sung in between each line is an Old English couplet meaning 'Treasure mimics heaven / songs heal our pain'. I wrote a refrain in Old English to enhance the timeless, primal quality of the words that I hoped was already present in the song's formulaic character. The atmosphere is one of storytelling around a fire, in a dark other world, which is neither past, present nor future, but some inextricable mixture of all three.

            Each verse describes an imaginative and incredible item of treasure, – jewels that make your body shine like diamonds; a bird that speaks all the languages on earth; a doorway to another universe; a shell through which you can speak to your ancestors – each of which was conceived by one of the Streetwise Opera performers. Before I wrote the piece, the groups around the country used a game song to devise ideas, which the workshop leaders wrote down and sent to me. So, the story was co-written by the Streetwise Performers and Leaders as well as myself. There were many reasons for making a piece in this collaborative way. First, the piece is not just a set of words and melodies to learn, it is also an idea to talk about, a game to play, a pattern to follow and an inspiration to create. Secondly, for the purposes of creating a collection of fantastical items, many imaginations are more effective than one. Thirdly, the ancient poems that inspired this piece are not usually attributed to single authors – often, they were composed over long periods of time and were the products of many different voices, absorbing the collective imaginations of the times and places from which they originated. Finally, having drawn on so many different ideas, this piece (I hope) belongs to us all.

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