The final projects supported by Sound and Music's 2016 Composer-Curator programme are about to head out on tour. We spoke to artists Ailie Robertson, and Michael Betteridge and Anna Braithwaite, about how personal and historical stories have informed their distinctive works
Curatorship is as much about identity as it is aesthetics – the chance to marry the two together to gather an expanse of stories.
Two new curatorial projects supported by Sound and Music (the UK's leading organisation for new music) – Nobilis Humilis: Echoes and Traces by Scottish harpist and composer Ailie Robertson, and In Their Own Words by composers Anna Braithwaite and Michael Betteridge – draw from matters close to home in order for the artists to explore their own work, as well as collaborate in varying unique ways.
In Their Own Words: using testimony in music
For In Their Own Words, Anna Braithwaite and Michael Betteridge have worked closely with people living with dementia and HIV, whose accounts create the text for the composers' work. But rather than extracting choice quotes to create a clear narrative, Braithwaite and Betteridge have favoured verbatim libretto (i.e. the words are exactly as spoken). The use of verbatim creates a sense of digression and uneasiness – something more human than deliberately poetic.
“The music often jolts, as if one was [hearing] a monologue,” says Betteridge. “I interviewed one young man for five hours. The challenge was to create a narrative of this monologue, but the process has pushed me to another direction – juxtaposing two sides of his life. He’s been talking a lot about his diagnosis, but also spoke about his life as a normal human being and his hopes of his future.”
The verbatim style could be seen as restricting for some composers, but for Betteridge and Braithwaite it has helped guide their piece to emotions and shades they might not have expected. “It isn’t about me interviewing people... Spending a lot of time with people in the project, I felt like I was getting to know the subject and issues that were important to the choir,” Betteridge explains.
Braithwaite, whose background in cabaret serves as grounding for working with text, felt that the sensitivities of their subjects had to be understood but also challenged; that personal stories should come before any sort of self-censoring in order to appease public dialogue.
“You’ve got to find a right way to portray [dementia],” she says. “There’s a wide range of attitudes, for example I had one woman who insisted on remaining upbeat about her situation, but every so often she would slip into speaking negatively about her life.”
It is this kind of ambiguity that Braithwaite and Betteridge believe can be better expressed by verbatim music than most classical forms – not only through recognising the pauses and rushes in speech, but also in being able to navigate issues that contemporary classical music usually shies away from.
There has been a wind change recently, with pieces such as Phil Venables’ 4.48 Psychosis and the London Sinfonietta’s Notes to the New Government tackling politics and mental health head-on. Braithwaite argues that the deft nature of In Their Own Words can allow for quicker, sharper responses in an age where news and events travel quicker than ever before. “This format is super flexible to responding quickly,” she says, “and In Their Own Words is such a broad title that without being too specific you could react and add something to it. [In cabaret] I could change a song in a second; change the butt of a joke or go off... and break down the fourth wall.”
For Betteridge, the project is a vehicle for living in the present, where theatre can be staged more subversively. “People aren’t trusting press or politicians, so people turn to arts – maybe that is our responsibility, to be that voice,” he says. “A lot of composers are creating pop-up, site-specific works; there’s power in that. It’s about reclaiming spaces [for] our own words and ourselves, and validating people’s situations and thoughts.”
Echoes and Traces: Scottish history in the work of Ailie Robertson
For Ailie Robertson, digging into Scottish heritage has influenced her work Echoes and Traces – in helping her to represent her own upbringing, and in her desire to retain a sense of pride in ancient history.
With the help of Creative Scotland and Sound and Music, Robertson has commissioned eight new choral works inspired by a 900-year-old plainsong, Nobilis Humilis, from a wide range of composers and songwriters including Sally Beamish, Aidan O’Rourke and electronic musician Matthew Whiteside.
“I grew up with traditional music, so the more I try to ignore it the more it starts popping up, but it makes my music different from a lot of UK contemporary music,” Robertson says. “There was a lot of snobbery [towards traditional music], and people didn’t take that seriously.”
[Cappella Nova, who will perform the eight commissioned pieces]
As with much maligned music, the perception of folk music being primitive and simple is a case of not reading enough into its subtleties. “On the surface there are simple phrases and structures, but [as] with anything else there are huge complexities,” Robertson says. “If you look into folk song there is what is perceived as out-of-tuneness, but that was often a stylistic option, and microtonality is inherent in traditional music. There is also really interesting ornamentation that can be brought forward into contemporary music.” It would be easy for Robertson to simply re-enact ancient music, but her driving aim is to bridge the gap between the two.
The project is outward looking: supplementary to the eight-date tour in early September is a learning programme from Historic Scotland, in which Robertson will visit schools across Scotland to introduce young children to early folk music. “One of the most important things is to get kids to realise that composers are still living,” she says. “When I was in school [all the composers] I studied were dead white males! So we need to show that female composers exist, and then we also want children to engage in different ways. We’re going to start with the text, then see where they take it – trying things with their voices, manipulating their work with electronics, or going out and doing some field recordings.”
Giving children an early entry into composition is important to Robertson, who says she never thought she could pursue it as a career – especially when, she feels, Scottish contemporary classical lags behind England. “It’s about getting audiences to recognise all the living composers here. We have to support that or else the music stops.”
The Echoes and Traces tour acknowledges the rich history of Scotland and its relationship with choral music, taking in dates at Stirling Castle, Iona Abbey and Glasgow Cathedral, amongst others. “We wanted to keep the performances totally acoustic, so no amplification of the [30-piece] choir, but we also wanted the sense of history, and [to] make the composition really relevant,” Robertson says. She hopes the tour can be Janus-faced, both reviving Scottish culture and creating a platform for Scotland to look outwards. “It’s a small country; we do have great orchestras but there aren't many opportunities within them for working composers. But the more we can put things on that are accessible, such as vocal music in historic places, [the more] we can capture an audience that wouldn’t otherwise come to a new music performance.”
In Their Own Words is at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, 24 Aug; Quarterhouse, Folkestone, 16 Sep, and Hackney Showroom, London, 1 Oct. Follow the project at @their_own_words.
These projects have been developed as part of Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator programme, which is supported by the Arts Council, PRS for Music Foundation and Help Musicians UK.