Jocelyn Pook is one of the UK’s busiest composers writing music for the concert hall, theatre, dance, film and opera. Her numerous credits include the film scores for Eyes Wide Shut and The Wife, which is currently in cinemas. She wrote the striking score with its choruses, solo voices and atonal melodies for Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III, which came to Sydney Theatre Company in 2016. She has also written music for two dance pieces by Akram Khan, Dust and DESH.

Pook also wrote the sublime, otherworldly score for Brink Productions’ Memorial, which had its world premiere at the 2018 Adelaide Festival. Directed by Chris Drummond, with choreography by Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz, the richly layered theatrical experience puts Alice Oswald’s poem on stage, which is a moving elegy for all 215 dead soldiers named in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Morse is joined by a 215-strong community choir and a group of 10 musicians and singers led by Musical Director (and counter tenor) Jonathan Peter Kenny. Combining instruments like oboe, shawm, clarinet and bells, along with Bulgarian and Macedonian vocals, the production is a transcendent experience.  Memorial is about to open at Brisbane Festival and then travels to London to the Barbican Centre. Jocelyn Pook spoke to Limelight about her work on it.

Jocelyn Pook. Photograph supplied

Memorial was incredibly moving. At the end I was surrounded by people in tears.

It’s a really beautiful show, a beautiful piece. I think the combined elements really work. It was quite an unusual process. I went out to Adelaide a month before it opened, rehearsing, and still I didn’t really know how it was going to work as a piece of theatre. It hasn’t got a normal narrative or dramatic arc. It’s basically a list of deaths. So it was such a relief that it all seemed to have worked.

How long had you been working on it? Had Chris Drummond talked to you some time before it was staged? 

Yeah. It was actually a couple of years from when he first contacted me. It was way in advance because it’s a major piece and it was all a bit unknown – what it was, how we were going to work on it, how I was going to work on it as well, how the music was going to work, whether we were going to set much of the text or not. It was all a blank page except that we had the starting point of [Alice Oswald’s] Memorial, so he contacted me a couple of years previous. I think we met the summer of 2016 and we had a workshop week, just with an actress and my singer Melanie [Pappenheim]. Alice Oswald also came for some of that time, and Yaron, the choreographer, was there so that was quite a productive week.

That was right at the beginning before I’d even talked about anything in terms of my response to the text. And then it went from there. Then we had another couple of workshops with musicians. I had quite a substantial time to start generating sketches and ideas and then we all met. It was quite a long process actually. We had another week with the musicians and actress and that was trying out loads of material and deciding how Chris was going to work on text and music. And then the next rehearsal, we had in the autumn of 2017 and Helen Morse was on board then. She came over, I can’t remember if it was for a week or two weeks, and that was a really productive time especially for Chris because we didn’t realise how much Helen was needing to work with the music, in terms of placing her text, and so then I had to really work hard at finalising a lot of the music quite quickly after that so Helen could work with it.

Helen Morse, cast and musicians in Brink Productions’ Memorial in Adelaide. Photograph © Shane Reid

She’s from a very musical family, and she’s very musical. It is like a music theatre piece so she really worked closely with the music from the outset. It was lovely to have that proper germination time, it made such a difference. It’s so rare. Normally you’re scrambling after a couple of rehearsals to do a performance but we really did have a substantial time and it was of huge benefit to the project. It was essential because it was quite an unwieldy project, to have 200 performers basically, to deal with and organise. It’s going to be more challenging, I think, to remount it in Brisbane and London with a much shorter period of time and with all new volunteers.

How early on did you decide how much music there would be? 

I think Chris, at one point, called it an oratorio and I think he always thought it was going to be quite a musical piece. I wasn’t sure how much music there would be, and it’s good I didn’t know because I think I would have been a bit overwhelmed! It’s sometimes better not to know. It’s terrifying at the beginning because you don’t know what you’re doing, there are so many unknowns in terms of even ‘how am I going to choose the instrumentation, the right singers, voices?’ So you just have to close down and start with really small ideas and tryouts and build it up from there.

What about the Bulgarian and Macedonian vocals? Did you draw on any existing pieces or was it all entirely original?

I did draw on some existing material. Most of it was original, and also obviously quite a lot of it is settings of some of the text. But there were a few pieces that emerged from old sketches. The Bulgarian singer [Belinda Sykes] is somebody I’ve worked with over the years and she’s also a multi-instrumentalist and I’ve used her in a lot of theatre projects and I thought she was the perfect person for this because of the instruments she plays – these medieval instruments and eastern European instruments. She plays a lot of Middle Eastern ones as well as oboe and recorders. And she happens to be trained in Bulgarian vocals, she’s quite an unusual… if anything happened to her and she wasn’t able to do the project, I’d be stuffed! You have to take these risks. And the Macedonian singer, Tanja Tzarovska, was also somebody I’d worked with, though not a huge amount. I really love her voice, I think it’s extraordinary and I thought of her. The voice felt right for the place, the setting of the Iliad and Trojan War. Greek and Macedonian voices felt completely appropriate.

Helen Morse with the cast and musicians in Memorial. Photograph © Shane Reid

There’s the beautiful element where you have the soprano Kelly McCusker singing repetitions of the text, and the incredibly moving choral piece at the end, Thousands of Leaves, which had so many people in the audience in tears. Can you tell us about that?

It’s such an incredible bit of text. I have to say it was such an honour to work with that text. I was having to meditate on the text every day and it’s something I wouldn’t have done without having worked on it in the same way. It’s so nourishing, it was really, really lovely. And that verse is just so extraordinary and moving and powerful. Part of me is thinking ‘who am I to dabble with this?’ but on the other hand you just have to shut that voice out and just try things. And fairly early on, I was playing with an idea round that text. I don’t know how well you know the poem but it stops being a list of deaths and goes into this series of really powerful metaphorical verses about nature and life and death. It’s the climax of the whole piece in some ways. Thousands of Leaves comes first and then there are several others. I thought I have to go on and do some more material after that, but it was Chris who had the idea – ‘no, I want more of Thousands of Leaves’ and so he had the idea to extend that piece. Because it’s partly the way the show works, with the repetition, and how [that section] builds and builds over seven minutes I think. That wasn’t the original idea, so that was the nice thing about collaborative work, unexpected things like that can happen.

Memorial plays in the Playhouse, QPAC, for Brisbane Festival, September 7 – 9, and at the Barbican Centre, London, September 27 – 29