The composer waxes lyrical on his new collaboration with Sydney Dance Company.

Tarik O’Regan, frequently described as one of the leading British composers of his generation, has over 100 compositions to his name. He is the recipient of two Grammy nominations and his music has been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and many other organisations of international reknown. He has been in Sydney of late reworking his choral work Scattered Rhymes with fellow composer Nick Wales to create an intriguing new musical experience for the Sydney Dance Company’s upcoming production Louder Than Words.

A quick glance through O’Regan’s CV paints the portrait of an artist well travelled. While he now splits his time between New York and Cambridge, England, he has served on the faculties of Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, as well as Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. “If your interested in other people hearing your work, you have to travel with it,” explains O’Regan. “It reminds me of the very early ages of the troubadours or something, wandering around. But each territory is very, very narrow in its vision. If you take the United States and the UK, who are relatively closer together in terms of their geography and culture, there is very, very little in the contemporary music world that is shared. So since 2007, I’ve divided my time more or less equally between New York and Cambridge in the UK.”

There’s a curious cultural distinction to be made between the States and the United Kingdom, which is not lost on O’Regan. “It’s very interesting how you find yourself billed in each territory” he remarks. “In the UK and in Europe, I’m always ‘New York-based composer’ Tarik O’Regan. And in the States I’m always ‘British composer’ Tarik O’Regan. It says something about the fact that people don’t travel as much as they should. So it’s an exotic thing to mention.”

O’Regan moved to the United States to take up a Fullbright fellowship at Columbia University in 2004. “Like all of those stories about moving to New York, I was supposed to be there for one year and then just never left,” he recalls. “I went from institution to institution until about 2009, by which time I realised I just wanted to write music. The way it works is that you’ve got to build up enough commissions, far enough ahead, so that you can relax a bit and not feeling like your rushing from one thing to the next, and without worrying about whether you want to do the project or not.”

With a name like Tarik O’Regan the discussion was always going to broach the composers cultural background. “Well, Tarik is obviously Arabic and that represents my mothers and fathers background,” says O’Regan. “My mothers family is Algerian so a lot of my mothers family are still in North Africa. And my fathers family is indeed Irish, but the last real Irish person in the family would have been my great grandfather.”

While the music of North Africa is evident in much of O’Regan’s writing, is there any connection to be made with his Irish heritage? “Unlike the sort of Arab background, where I actually have family and i’ve spent a great deal of time in those countries and that culture, the Irish side is that much further away. Until recently I hadn’t any recourse to work in Ireland, and when I was approached by the Chamber Choir Ireland to do The Spring [a setting from the middle-Irish Acallam na Senórach], I picked a text because a colleague of mine at Trinity College was working on a middle-Irish narrative.”

“What interested me was this connection in the story between the Middle-East and North Africa, and Ireland. St Patrick turns up in Ireland with gold from ‘the land of Arabia’, and it’s that gold which is used to illuminate the first manuscripts in Ireland. It’s just a device, in which is embedded a completely secular story, which is what I love about the piece. Also its a very equal relationship: no one particularly wants to be converted. St Patrick says ‘I’d like to bring you this whole new faith’ and they sort of go ‘How much does that cost? What can we give you for that?’”

But these cultural influences are only one element of O’Regan’s work. Drawing on a parade of influences as diverse as Renaissance vocal writing, rock, jazz and minimalism, it’s quite a feat to get your head around all his possible points of reference. “There are two kinds of influences,” O’Regan explains. “The ones that are audible would be split between quite early music, particularly the music of Lassus for example. So theres a sort of 16th-century Renaissance influence.”

“Then there are the sort that you hear in pretty much everyones music. The rhythmic influence of Stravinsky, and people like Bartók, and the moving in and out of tonality that someone like Britten used. There’s also the big, redefining names of 20th-century music that I would say are the American minimalists – Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams – that are so powerful not only as contemporary composers, but for their influence in dance music, pop music and electronic music. You’re experiencing their music actively by going out to see their works, but you’re also hearing it refracted through much more popular musical forms.”

“And so those are the sort of influences that I hear in my own music. And in addition to that, I would say there are composers who you might be surprised that I am influenced by. With any piece of music I write, I try to create a sense of drama and place, and imbue that work with a dramatic layer. And it’s people like Birtwistle that I think are spectacular in that regard. And Berg. They are composers whose influence, I wouldn’t say that you hear directly, but just inspire a way of handling pace.”

O’Regan’s recent work with Sydney Dance Company is an opportunity to explore these influences in the medium of contemporary dance. “I was here 18 months ago working with the ACO” recalls O’Regan. “I gave Raf [Rafael Bonachela – Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company] the CD of Scattered Rhymes. We were talking about dance music, and I said ‘I’ve often thought there should be fast choral music connected with dance’. The choral music I’ve seen with contemporary dance  is often very ambient. It’s a moment of reflection, it slows down, and there’s often a ton of reverb attached. And there’s this sort of slow, ethereal beauty, and I said to Raf: ‘I just don’t think it needs to be that way, here’s an album’.”

“And then in December, suddenly I get an email from Raf: ‘I’m in New York, do you want to get coffee?’ We had coffee, and he said ‘Your piece Scattered Rhymes, I think it could make a very good dance piece’. So I thought, ‘Great! That’s it then, i’ll just sign on the dotted line!’ And of course he, being the artistic director with the overall vision of what this stage work is gong to be, said ‘BUT, it’s too short. Can you make it longer?’ And I said: ‘Raf dear boy! Much as I’d like to, it’s quite hard. Firstly, because I don’t have the technological skills to go in and do what I’m thinking that you might want, but secondly, what is it that you want?’”

“We started talking, back and forth. We had four meetings in New York where we came up with the concept of the piece, which was to go back to the texts and look at how they might be interpolated between the existing material. I was quite honest, and I said ‘Raf, I don’t have the skills that you need to do that, but I’m absolutely open to you taking the work and working with someone else, and redoing it’. And as we went back and forth, it suddenly became clearer that the quickest way to do it was for me and another composer to work on these new sections together in the same room. Even though the technology nowadays means that you can just email things back and forth, all the work we’ve done has been in person, in the studio. Raf had been working with Nick [Wales], and knowing Nick and knowing me said, ‘I think you’d have a similar vision in terms of how you see existing material and new material interconnecting’.”

The original Scattered Rhymes was recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and The Orlando Consort, and conducted by Paul Hillier. “The work is an exploration of two languages, Italian and Latin. And they’re both of the 14th century, so it’s an anonymous Latin poem and a some Petrarch. And they both deal with the confusion of that sort of divine and sensual love, which was a very big theme back then. So it’s this idea of Petrarch being infatuated with someone to the point that he renders her celestial. The important thing in that work is that the two languages run concurrently, all the time. So there’s a natural ‘romantic’ relation but they’re quite different sounds, and that’s heightened because the consort of four singers only sing in the Italian, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir only sing in the Latin.”

In expanding Scattered Rhymes for Sydney Dance Company, O’Regan has had to collaborate with another composer for the first time. “Nick is an absolute delight to work with,” enthuses O’Regan. “We were trying to fake having fights for Raf in order to at least try to live up to the image of there being a bit of composerly strife happening. But we haven’t managed it yet.”

“All the work we’re doing in the studio is based on manipulations of the human voice, Within a couple of hours of starting we were thinking ‘Yeah let’s go and record something’. Then Nick and I said ‘Actually, we don’t need to do that.’ And as soon as we put the restriction in, ‘let’s just make this piece from either the sung, spoken, or processed human voice, let’s just make the whole thing about that’, it suddenly took off compositionally. And that fits in with the overall name for the program which is Louder Than Words.

“The existing work is untouched and will be three chunks of the three original movements of Scattered Rhymes which is about 17-18 minutes of music. We are writing another 12-13 minutes of music, also in three smaller chunks, that will go alongside it. And that is an absolute equal partnership, in terms of vision but also in terms of composing. So I think it’s important that Nick gets full composing credit, as well as being an absolute master of technology which I am not.”

“It’s become this very weird international project,” reflects O’Regan. “The odd thing is that we are in the studio bringing all these different nationalities together. We are bringing the Estonian Choir, without them being present in the room, together with the Sydney Dance Company. The Orlando Consort are from England, the album was recorded in Scotland, Raf and I met in New York, I recorded all the narration in Cambridge… So in a wonderful way this project has involved all these people from all over the world with something which is very much about the human voice.”

Louder Than Words runs at the Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, from 4-18 October