Stef Conner (Composer in Residence) - Part 1

Classically-trained composers study hard to build up the skills they need to write clever counterpoint, dense harmonies and well-crafted orchestrations; lots of us learn early on in our formative years to aspire to richness and sophistication. But I think it takes much longer, and it is much more difficult, to learn how to write simple, memorable songs with depth and integrity. Now in the middle of my first commission for Streetwise Opera, I'm realising that writing the piece I want to write – something honest and uncomplicated that draws on my love of English folksong and storytelling – is more difficult than I had first imagined.

 During my first few months as Streetwise Opera's Composer in Residence, I travelled around the country, visiting the different groups of performers, joining in with their rehearsals and listening to them sing. I heard Carmen in Cardiff, the Marriage of Figaro in Manchester, Peter Grimes in London, Rusalka in Nottingham and Faust in Newcastle. Most of the groups were also working on pieces from the latest Streetwise original production, The Answer to Everything, as well as Christmas songs in December and lots of fun pieces they had made up themselves. The Middlesbrough group's performance of Ewan MacColl's version of the Irish folksong Paddy on the Railway made quite an impression on me, reminding me of the time I'd spent listening to shanty groups, and sitting in on singing sessions in Newcastle and the Yorkshire, while I was in the Northumbrian folk band The Unthanks. When I joined that group I was fresh out of university and knew almost nothing about folk music; Rachel and Becky, the group's singing sisters, kept talking about how their music had to reflect the stories behind the songs and it took me a very long time to truly understand what they meant. It seems obvious at first, but there is so much depth in that simple idea. Ewan MacColl talked a lot about the importance of singing songs that reflect your own heritage and I suppose I can understand why he thought that way, but for me finding a good song to sing is about more than just looking in the right locations. Folk songs truly come alive when they are sung by someone who really connects with the lyrics and can communicate them in a way that goes much deeper than “acting” and “musicianship”, or indeed “authenticity” and “heritage”: I don't think there are any words that can truly express what makes the connection work, but perhaps the best approximation is simply “humanity”.

I feel like everyone can find a song, or songs, that will sing through them, and when people do find the right songs, it is wonderful to hear them sing. It's not necessarily about cosmic profundity, maturity and deep expression; it can also be about joy, silliness and fun. And, it's not just a case of singing songs from your culture and in your own language or dialect, because empathetic connections run much deeper than that. Really, it’s impossible to pin down why some songs really suit some people, but it's obvious and affecting when they do. You can hear it in Rachel and Becky's Northumbrian songs, in Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah, in Sinead O'Connor's She Moved Through the Fair ... and probably in some song you can't remember remember the name of, sung by a bloke whose name you can't remember, in some pub in Liverpool! I don't think it's a rare thing either – we probably all have our favourite famous cover versions and it might seem like they're somehow special or touched by genius, but if we spent more time listening to the people we bump into every day singing songs that mean something to them, we'd probably hear such interpretive “genius” all the time!

I heard lots of songs and parts of songs sung by people who seemed to summon up that crucial connection when I was travelling around listening to Streetwise performers. First of all, I loved listening to London performer Kevin Woodward sing Emily Hall's brilliant piece Full of Tears, in the Streetwise production Fables and then I kept hearing the same thing happen all around the country: certain people just got certain songs. The more people I heard singing in workshops, the more I realised that writing for Streetwise would be all about having the sensitivity to find and build on those wonderful, intangible song-singer connections. And, it's not just a case of finding and writing songs that suit individual people, as I think the same thing can apply (in a way) to groups, just as much as to individuals. Paddy on the Railway seemed to fit the whole Middlesbrough Streetwise group, just like All Around my Hat suited Steeleye Span, so I began to hope that I would be able to write something that connected with all of the Streetwise groups in the same simple but meaningful way.

 I have a quite an ambitious aim! Unfortunately, deciding that you want to achieve something – especially something lofty like writing a song that perfectly suits the people who will sing it, in some nebulous way that you can't even describe – doesn't mean that you're capable of achieving it. And even if you are capable of achieving it, you can't just pull it out of the hat whenever you have a deadline. And that's just the beginning of the problems with this idea of mine! How do you write something that suits a group of people as large and diverse as the Streetwise Opera performers? They're from lots of different places and lots of different cultures; they represent different ethnicities, faiths, ideologies and tastes; and they all like singing completely different music, in completely different voices! I felt like the Middlesbrough Streetwise group had a bit of a shared identity, but then Middlesbrough has a strong dialect and a distinctive heritage... But what about today's London? And even more, today's England and Wales?

The two things that unite all of the Streetwise performers are that they have experienced homelessness and that they like to sing. I'm not sure that having experienced homelessness constitutes an “identity” that everyone will necessarily want to sing about, and having met so many different people with that in common, I've realised that the experience affects everyone in drastically different ways. What's more, I'm not sure I can write a song that draws inspiration from something I have never experienced myself and then present it to people who have experienced it to sing. It would be so dreadful to get it wrong. So, I have found myself left with “singing” – the one subject I can think of to write a song about that all of the Streetwise performers will hopefully relate to and be inspired by. How do you write a song about singing?! I heard one once, sung by a choral society, and it was dreadfully cheesy and tasteless. I love singing and I think (and probably anyone else who has ever sung well-directed in a choir will agree) that there is something wonderful, uplifting, timeless, profound and healing about it. Actually, when I think about it, what better subject could there be to write about? I'm still terrified! Although I adore folksongs, I've never sat down and tried to write something like one... and although I've written songs with my own lyrics plenty of times, I've always relied on poetic ambiguity, complex metaphors, difficult, angular melodies and dark dissonant harmonies to invoke the deep feelings I want to express. And now for the first time I am trying to write a simple song about singing, which can be sung well and enjoyed by a group of people as diverse in personality as it is in musical experience. No matter how hard I work and how carefully I listen and plan, I think I'm also going to need quite a bit of luck to make it a successful piece. There are some things you can't force – you just have to let them happen.

 

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