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Your new album, Lux Aeterna, is all about the struggle of light and darkness. What drew you to this theme and did you always intend the works to share this commonality of concept?
The works were written over a long period of time (17 years) so there was no deliberate plan for the theme of this CD. The theme of light struggling against darkness emerged as a strong concept when grouping these pieces together, and I was fascinated to see this once we had finished recording all the works. The idea of finding a way forward in the midst of challenges – light against darkness – is a common human experience and one that runs through many of my pieces. These contrasts are expressed in many ways in the music – from the divisions of day and night, moon, sun and stars in the Genesis creation story through to the plight of an artist struggling with an inner darkness through to the plight of modern day Palestinians.
Composer Paul Stanhope. Photo © Jason Catlett
How different is your writing for choirs, compared with say your writing for orchestra?
The medium requires a distinct approach from any composer who writes for choir. Most voices can’t just pull any pitch out of the thin air – singers require a context to create the pitches that they sing. Moreover, choral music involves the setting of text (at least, that’s my preference!). And what I like about text is the ability to not just paint the words, but to conjure the emotional landscape through the compositions and to potentially find an interpretation of the text through the music. Having said all this, I hope that a compositional voice can still be recognised.
What special challenges does vocal composition seem to throw up and how do you tackle them?
Finding enough tenors? That might seem like a churlish point, but actually fostering a culture of choral singing in this country is something that is a struggle. Although we have one of the best youth choir cultures in the world thanks largely to Gondwana Choirs, this doesn’t translate so well to the creation of opportunities for high level adult choristers who might like to make a living out of their art. It seems like a real shame that there is this petering out of opportunities for talented singers at the professional level. This is not to criticise the level of existing choral ensembles in this country (we have come so far in the last 30 years!) but rather to acknowledge the lack of financial support for organisations trying to foster a tradition of a cappella singing. The challenges for a composer include finding the balancing act of writing interesting music with the groups and opportunities available. Hitting that goldilocks zone is part of the process of working with an ensemble year in, year out.
There seems to be an ancient thread running through your choice of texts. Is that true, and what draws you to these traditional lyrics?
The lack of copyright restriction is pretty useful for a start! Often the use of old liturgical and biblical Latin texts are there for the universal themes that can be found within them, whether it is a statement of the universal triumph of love and kindness in the Ubi Caritas text or a plea for peace as in the Agnus Dei.
You conducted Sydney Chamber Choir for many years. What strengths do you play to when composing for them?
In addition to standing up in front of the choir week after week, I sang with them for many years. There’s nothing like experiencing the music from within to work out some of the issues. You also get to know the voices you are writing for and can exploit the colours of the ensemble, including really getting to know the strengths of soloists within a group.
How has the choir’s understanding of your music matured over that time?
I think the choir takes a very detailed and intelligent approach to any new piece. Over time they have gotten to know my harmonic language and I have learnt to refine my choral music language and perhaps also to learn how to take some risks.
Have you ever written anything they couldn’t sing?
Not that I remember but there’s always time!
Lux Aeterna is a phrase often associated with the Latin Requiem Mass, yet you speak of optimism? How do you square the two?
Composers have always looked for moments of redemption within the Requiem Mass (as well as the drama associated with the medium) so this is not a new thing. The Requiem is a Mass for the Dead, but really is an act of consolation and ritual for the living. The Lux Aeterna is essentially an uplifting and comforting text: “May eternal light shine upon them”. My setting of this text balances angst-ridden sections with a more optimistic, comforting middle section. Angst and optimism – sounds a lot like composition really!
Lux Aeterna is out now on ABC Classics.