Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles this month. When Talbot was in Australia for the 2017 Melbourne Festival, Jo Litson caught up with the composer to talk about Path of Miracles and his score Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in this article first published October 20, 2017.

In September, the Australian Ballet gave the Australian premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s full-length ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which features an original score by British composer Joby Talbot, who is fast building a reputation as one of the great composers for dance today.

Reviewing the Melbourne opening, Limelight described Talbot’s score as “rich, colourful music, designed to match the eccentricity of the characters on stage”. In December, the AB will perform the production in Sydney.

Meanwhile, tonight and tomorrow, Melbourne audiences will have the chance to hear a very different piece of music by 46-year old Talbot – an a cappella choral work called Path of Miracles, commissioned by award-winning British vocal ensemble Tenebrae in 2005.

Joby Talbot. Photograph © Johan Persson

Tenebrae has returned to Talbot’s masterpiece – which The Times described as “an evocative odyssey” –  to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Pairing it with a new commission by Owain Park called Footsteps, the renowned vocal group has been performing Path of Miracles on a UK tour and now brings it to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Path of Miracles was the first major work ever commissioned by Tenebrae and is based on the great Catholic Pilgrimage to Santiago. “They came to me with the idea of doing a piece about the pilgrimage to Santiago, and originally the idea was that they were going to commission four composers to write four smaller pieces. And I said, ‘why don’t you commission me to do all of them?’ Because I always feel that those pieces with multi composers don’t usually have much of a life compared to those individual pieces that have a life,” Talbot tells Limelight.

“I said ‘this sounds like an amazing project, I’d love to be able to take on the whole story from start to finish. Considering I’ve never written any choral music, I’d love to take a run at it.’ And now the piece is all over the place. It’s been done by other choirs but Melbourne audiences are going to get to hear Tenebrae – the people that it was actually written for, and I think they’re the best choir in the world. Nigel Short, their conductor, knows more about choral music than I think anybody else alive. I heard them do it recently at St Bartholomew the Great in London, which is where it was premiered 12 years ago and they’re sounding absolutely better than ever, it was one of the most thrilling performances of any of my music that I’ve ever been to.”

TenebraeTenebrae. Photo © Chris O’Donovan

The 2005 premiere had to be delayed because the London bombings happened that day – which, Talbot agrees, added another resonance when they finally performed the work a couple of weeks later. “The day before the scheduled premiere, I made an impromptu speech to the choir saying that I’d never felt this way about an upcoming premiere where I was so, so confident, I just couldn’t wait for people to hear it,” he recalls.

“Usually I’m just hoping for the best, and am very nervous but it was the first time I’d ever felt that this was undoubtedly going to be wonderful, and then we got up in the morning and found that this terrible terrorist atrocity had happened and the whole public transport network was shut down, so there was no way that people could get to the concert even if it had been able to go ahead, so it was rescheduled for a few weeks later,” says Talbot.

“In the meantime, that weekend following the postponed premiere, we had a recording session booked in for Signum Records and that was amazing because of the complex group of emotions. This piece that I’d really believed in and really wanted to get across was sort of tinged with this sadness and fear and anger and all these emotions. It was a highly charged feeling. And when we did the premiere two weeks later, it was equally extraordinary, an extraordinary experience.”

“And then we did a performance last July in London on the anniversary of what should have been the premiere so once again [it was very emotional]. Somehow the piece functions as a kind of healing experience. It’s about people, and people’s beliefs. It’s a deeply human piece of work, especially with the human voices. It really feels like something that brings people together and acts in a very cathartic kind of a way, those circumstances.”

TenebraeTenebrae. Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

When researching for the work, Talbot visited some of the places on the pilgrimage route. “It was my intention to do the pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person but I love how it’s such an extraordinary cultural phenomenon,” he says. “This is something that people have been doing for 900 years, and when you get to the cathedral of Santiago itself, there’s a little statue of St James at the bottom of the middle column, and people would kiss the statue on the head when they arrived at the end of their pilgrimage. And to do that, they had to lean against the pillar. Where  900 years’ worth of people have been leaning against the pillar, there’s an inch-deep hand print in the solid granite. You put your hand there and feel the connection to all those people, it’s extraordinary. So, I visited some of the places and researched it, but I can’t say hand on heart that I did the pilgrimage because there was far too much car involved.”

At the start of his career, Talbot also spent a lot of time on the road as a member of Neil Hannon’s rock band The Divine Comedy. Born in Wimbledon in London in 1971, he was completing a Master of Music (Composition) at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Simon Bainbridge, he toured with The Divine Comedy as pianist, arranger and conductor, staying with them from 1993 to 2002.

“I learnt a lot from doing it. Spending eight years playing in a band with the same people, playing the same repertory night after night, you learn a lot about ensemble playing and every musical experience you have is helpful. I figure having been lucky enough to have the experience of so many genres of music from dance and opera and movies and rock music and doing arrangements for other pop acts and electronic music, you take the skills you learn in one genre and you apply them to another in a kind of hybridisation process. There’s elements of the rhythms that I used to play when I was in rock bands that crop up in my music for sure. I don’t really think about it but I certainly learned a lot,” he says.

Talbot’s many credits since then range from the music for the BBC Two comedy series The League of Gentlemen to film scores including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005 and the animated movie Sing in 2016, to an opera called Everest for Dallas Opera in 2014.

The Australian Ballet in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photograph © Jeff Busby

In 2006, he collaborated with British choreographer Wayne McGregor on Chroma for The Royal Ballet, creating a blistering score featuring arrangements of songs by Detroit rock duo The White Stripes as well as some of his own existing music. Australian ballet audiences will be familiar with Chroma, which the AB has in its repertoire. In 2011, Talbot worked with Wheeldon on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in 2014 he and Wheeldon collaborated again on The Winter’s Tale, adapted from Shakespeare’s play, which The Royal Ballet performed in Brisbane in July when Limelight described his score as “stunning”.

Ahead of the Melbourne premiere of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Talbot (whose wife is from Melbourne) spent time with the Australian Ballet and says he was “really impressed with the company and with the orchestra. I was particularly impressed with the rapport that the Company seems to have with its audiences. Having seen this piece performed all over the world, it felt really special the way the audience were just so simpatico with what was happening on the stage. There seemed to be a real communication, it was beautiful.”

When choreographer Christopher Wheeldon first approached Talbot about collaborating on a ballet based on Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice in Wonderland, he declined. “Initially I said ‘no, I’m very flattered to be asked, but I don’t think so. But he talked me round, he’s very persuasive, and I’m very, very glad he did. Now looking at the success it’s had, it drives me crazy that I would ever have turned it down,” says Talbot.

“The strength [of the book] is that it doesn’t make sense. But of course, When you put something nonsensical onstage and expect people to sit through it for three acts, it becomes boring. So, we had to find a way to not lose the mad-cap, energetic craziness but to have a through-line and have some kind of narrative arc, and to be able to follow Alice’s emotional journey through the piece because she’s such an observer. She’s not really part of the action hardly at all in the book, she watches it all unfold. But that’s also not going to play very well in a ballet, so we had to find a way. We got Nicholas Wright, the playwright, to adapt and remain very, very true to the book, but we added this one through line,” he explains.

“What we did – and what always do on these big story ballet projects – is to sit down and work on the scenography first, and block out in quite exacting detail what are the themes, what does this scene hope to achieve, what are the story beats we have to hit. Christopher and I talked a lot. He would have an idea of how we could tell something through movement, I would have an idea about how we could tell it through music, Bob Crowley [the designer] might have an idea about how it could be told through theatre craft, and we really blocked out the whole piece over a few days in his apartment.”

“And by that point I had some character ideas. I had a tune for the Mad Hatter and I had a tune for the Caterpillar and the White Rabbit, and I tried to build up a vocabulary of leitmotifs almost to help us understand what the dynamics are between charactersm and which characters have to be drawn out at any given moment and really try and tell that story through music. I wrote half of the prologue and I shared it with Chris and Nic Wright, and fortunately they were thrilled and thought I was on the right track and so I went and wrote the rest.”

The Royal Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photograph © Darren Thomas

Reviewing The Winter’s Tale in Brisbane recently for Limelight, Rhys Ryan described Talbot’s score as “stunning” and said: “if you were to shut your eyes, you could almost read the entire story from the music alone”.

“That’s what I try to do,” says Talbot. “I don’t want to box the choreographer into a corner, but I want to try and do as much of the heavy lifting of the narrative storytelling as I can so the choreographer can really get on and make beautiful dance and not have to resort to mime. I mean, marriage of dance is such a tricky thing to get right, and I really think that Chris is the best in the world at doing it. His narrative language is so effortless, and if you put that up against the music, it’s already working hard to get the story across. With The Winter’s Tale, we were very adamant that we weren’t making a series of vignettes inspired by [Shakespeare’s play] and that we were going to tell the story. It’s not an easy story to tell. Many times, I tried to do a quick precis and you very soon realise what a complicated story it is. So, to try and tell that to music, it was really hard and I was very proud of what we achieved.”

Talbot is now working with Wheeldon on some new projects, which he can’t talk about. “We’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline, so it’s very exciting,” he says.

Asked if he is conscious of writing music that dancers can move to when composing for dance, he says that he is – “to an extent. I think my music just is danceable because it appeals to choreographers. So, I figure if I just write my music it will be fine. I’m more just conscious about making it theatrical and dramatic and realising that the ballet stage is huge, and you’re really dealing with a bigger canvas than any composer can really hope to work on.”

“My experience writing for movies taught me that if you think something is going to be too big, it’s about 50 percent of the way there. Ballet deals so well in stark contrasts between saturated technicolour and monochrome and between the intimacy of watching one dancer all alone on that big stage, and then to have the corps de ballet and 50 dancers onstage. And you can really have this huge palette that you can draw from, and try and make things that are just dramatically clear and sort of high definition as possible. I think that’s the big difference I find when writing for dance as opposed to just writing a concert piece.”

Writing for opera is different again, as he found when he composed Everest. “It’s just as much about getting the structure right in an opera. Any of these big dramatic theatrical forms really live or die on their structural integrity because if you make a piece that wanders aimlessly and you can’t see the clear skeleton building blocks of the piece, it’s so easy to get lost and so easy to get boring. I figure being boring is the very worst thing you can be accused of with any kind of artistic endeavour,” he says.

“But obviously, the thing with opera is that primarily it’s a vocal medium so you have to leave plenty of room for the singers to take the absolute kind of meat and drink of the musical weight. I wrote the whole thing with the vocal lines with very simple accompaniment first and then I fleshed it out. I think a lot of the time I hear contemporary opera and so much of it sounds like a lovely orchestral piece where the orchestral lines happen to be on a human voice. I didn’t want to do that because I really wanted to use these singers. It’s rather a relief as a composer when you realise that the main event is something that you’re writing and it’s on your page. Because, of course, one of the hard things about writing for a ballet or for dance in general is that the main event is not available to you, that’s going to come later where the choreography is choreographed so I try to leave room for an unknown. But in opera, I know what it is.”

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles at St Patrick’s Cathedral Parramatta on August 17 and St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt Sydney on August 18