THE SPELL

For I Fagiolini

Lyrics by Timothy Knapman

 

Canto 16 of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem about the First Crusade Gerusalemme Liberata is the story of Armida, an enchantress, who lures a Christian knight Rinaldo to her magic island. His comrades come and persuade him to escape. She pleads with him to stay, unsuccessfully. Enraged she destroys her own palace.

 

A maze that guards a garden

As he is coming, he meets himself returning

Like a river

 

A girl wrapped in a lion skin

Too rough a bark for such a tender tree

 

War on the walls

Barbarians

Towering seas strewn with strange slaughter

Water burning

Love watches him and laughs

 

This book unties the knot

The golden thread

That leads them through the labyrinth

 

The witch queen’s garden

Her hidden art, bewildering breeze,

Ripens figs, apples, golden grapes

 

A talking bird

The song from its purple beak

Life is a rose

Love is a rose

Flowering and gone

 

Sweat glistens on her breasts like pearls

A smile, wanton as sunlight

 

A crystal mirror

He sees love in her eyes

She sees only herself

 

Like a pastured warhorse

Thrilling at the sight of armour

He rose

His sword, fierce instrument,

Wrapped with flowers

His shame reflected in a shining shield

 

The queen runs after him

Dignity in disarray

Her beauty lit with tears

Only let me go with you

Your slave

 

There is no hate in him, no scorn

Hard as the rock

Where a tigress suckled him

 

The sea wind in a golden sail

And she is alone on abandoned sands

 

A fresh Fury

Fed by dreams of sweet revenge

I shall rip up your heart

A chariot drawn by snakes

 

Summoning darkness

In clouds of night

Hell mutters, barks and howls

A cancelled palace turned to air

Your dying breath will call my name

 

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Score available on request

RED VOLCANO

Lyrics J.M.W.Turner and OG

for large chorus and band

Conducted by Tony Castro

 

The Red Volcano was written for the opening of Turner Contemporary in Margate. The exhibition included a painting by Turner called The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St. Vincent, on the 30th April 1812.

Turner was so impressed by the eruption that he also wrote a poem about it.

I added extra lyrics, giving it some context.

 

cane grow sugar

cane growing

cane grow sugar

cane grow tall

 

sugar cane

sweet sugar cane

eat up the sunshine

drink the rain

run when the earth moves run

run when the lightning comes

 

Then in stupendous horror grew

The red volcano to the view

And shook in thunders of its own,

While the blaz’d hill in lightnings shone,

Scattering their arrows round.

 

run!

 

black smoke

white ash cloud

ash falls like snow

 

As down its sides in liquid flame

The devastating cataract came,

With melting rocks, and cracking woods,

And mingled roar of boiling floods,

And roll’d along the ground.

 

run!

 

black smoke

ash cloud

darkness at dawn

black smoke

ash cloud fall

 

sugar cane

sweet sugar cane

eat up the sunshine

drink the rain

run when the earth moves run

run when the lightning comes

 

sugar cane

sugar cane volcano

 

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Score available on request

 

CANDLE

An a cappella setting of a wonderful poem, Hamra Night, by the poet Sa’di Yusuf, in a translation by Abdullah al-Udhari. It was written in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of 1982.

 

A candle in a long street

A candle in the sleep of houses

A candle for frightened shops

A candle for bakeries

A candle for a journalist trembling in an empty office

A candle for a fighter

A candle for a woman doctor watching over patients

A candle for the wounded

A candle for plain talk

A candle for the stairs

A candle for a hotel packed with refugees

A candle for a singer

A candle for broadcasters in their hideouts

A candle for a bottle of water

A candle for the air

A candle for two lovers in a naked flat

A candle for the falling sky

A candle for the beginning

A candle for the ending

A candle for the last communiqué

A candle for conscience

A candle in my hands.

 

In this setting, it’s like a prayer.

 

Download the score here

 

TRADITIONAL VALUES

I wrote this piece with the poet John Agard. John comes from Guyana, but has lived in Britain for thirty years, mostly in Lewes, in Sussex, where for many years he and his wife Grace Nichols were the only black people. Until they had children. He writes penetrating, quirky, accessible poetry, often analyzing the British way of life from the viewpoint of an outsider-turned-insider. He’s become one of the nation’s favourite poets.

 

Our piece looks at three very traditional, rather John Majorish aspects of Britishness – tea, the weather and cricket - and reconsiders them. The tone is affectionate, ironic and celebratory, and the music is suffused with influences of pop music, gospel, reggae, calypso, bhangra and qawwali.

 

Tea is glorified in a heroic anthemic piece, which even evokes Winston Churchill, but the solemnity is constantly subverted by the exuberance of the Blur-and gospel-influenced music. The greyness of the weather somehow, in John’s quirky take, becomes a virtue; shades of Elgar - spot the quote - and Vaughan Williams are pushed aside by a militant reggae-ish chorus. Finally cricket is extolled, not so much for being a brilliant game (which both John and I happen to think it is), but for its uncertainty, and therefore its usefulness as a preparation for the afterlife. Cynics would say it prepares one for the afterlife by being so confoundedly slow-moving….. The music here is calypso-influenced, quoting from the 50s calypsonian Lord Beginner and the old Test Match TV theme by Booker T and the MGs, but also has glimpses of bhangra and gospel before exploding into an unashamedly grandiose ending.

 

What is really being celebrated here, I think, is not so much tea, the weather and cricket themselves but stoicism, tolerance, adaptability, irony and, by the myriad influences on the music, diversity – some of our great national characteristics.

 

There is a version for chorus and orchestra, and an a cappella version.

 

Score available on request

 

 

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I have been writing music for amateur musicians – mostly choral music – for the last fifteen years. I particularly enjoy making pieces for a combination of amateur and professional singers – it keeps everyone on their toes.

 

I try to write

 

1 something they wouldn’t normally do – it might be the style of the music, or the subject matter, or the structure, or the context - or all four. For example The Shouting Fence (1999) an outdoor event for three choruses, about a village in the Golan Heights which is divided by fifty metres of no man’s land; two of the choruses sing to each other across a wide space occupied by the audience; the other chorus, a chorus of exiles, sings from far away. The music is heavily influenced by the folk music of the Middle East, very simple and robust but full of strange harmonies and unusual time signatures. Most of the music is antiphonal, but unlike a lot of antiphonal music it’s extremely urgent.

 

2 music that is not too difficult, but not patronisingly easy either – challenging! It’s a subtle balance, and not easy to get right. It wants to be music that shows the performers at their best. When writing for an ensemble I know well, like the marvellous Crouch End Festival Chorus, I feel more confident of my judgement; when writing potentially for any amateur ensemble in Britain, as I did for the Making Music overture earlier this year, I was up against it, since the range of ability amongst the ensembles is so huge. With hindsight, the piece was probably too difficult, but if I’d made it easier I would have risked boring the socks off the most able ensembles, which would have been a pity! I don’t think people should be penalised for being good......

 

3 music that’s fun to perform. Considering the people are giving up their spare time to rehearse and perform, and that they have probably done a full day’s work before a rehearsal, it’s important that the music-making is really enjoyable. That doesn’t have to imply a lack of seriousness – The Shouting Fence, for example is a deeply serious piece – but humour is unquestionably a useful tool. Traditional Values, the Making Music overture, had quirky, witty lyrics by John Agard, which implied a quicksilver musical style; but at the same time we tried to make some serious points about the experience of being British now.

 

Click here for a wonderful take on this subject, where the great Hans Eisler gives his views on what worker’s choruses should and shouldn’t sing. Brilliant, hilarious, and spot-on.

 

STILL

Commissioned by the wonderful Norwegian choir Stavanger Vocalensemble.

A straightforward (though not straightforward to sing) setting of Langston Hughes’ poem Sea Calm:

 

How still,

How strangely still

The water is today.

It is not good

For water

To be so still that way.

 

Score available on request

 

HOW TO COOK A JELLYFISH

for Concentus

 

A few years ago we went with our friends Jamie and Jessi on a deeply compromised holiday to a lovely part of South-West Ireland, the Beara Peninsula. The Guinness was good, the countryside luscious, the fiddle-playing frisky – Ireland is, after all, Ireland; but there were drawbacks. Swimming was out of the question as the sea was teeming with jellyfish; we pottered about in a knackered old rowing boat, anxious about the admittedly remote possibility of capsizing. Going for walks was a nightmare, as we were attacked by tics; pulling them out afterwards was companionable but intensely painful, the potential consequences of missing just one of the little beasts alarming. Sitting outside in the evenings was out of the question, since, despite having the use of an ingenious anti-mosquito machine, we were bitten black and blue by the damn things. The natural world was not going to take our holiday-making lying down. We wouldn’t have been particularly surprised if it had rained frogs.

 

The jellyfish were, of course, spectacularly beautiful. In a world where most objects are opaque, there is something fascinating about a partially transparent object – a soap bubble, a birdcage, an aquarium, a crane, the London Eye. The structure is on display, and one can appreciate the complexity of it. At the same time, the world behind looks almost to be an intrinsic part of the object, so there is a certain mystery. Staring at one of these gorgeous, disturbing creatures beneath our boat, it was impossible not to wonder: does it have a brain? does it have control of its motion? what’s it for??

 

My next encounter with jellyfish was at the National Theatre. I was invited by my friends Ant and Clare to a largely forgettable version of Carl Zuckmayer’s play The Captain Of Köpenik, and, more memorably, met their delightful friend Gill Mapstone, one of only two British jellyfish academics. She is making a study of siphonophores, or string jellyfish, an order which includes the highly dangerous species Portugese Man O’War. A siphonophore appears to be a single organism, but is actually a colony composed of many individuals which are themselves incapable of independent life. By a bizarre coincidence the other BJA is also studying siphonophores, and he and Gill are locked in a permanent Cold War. He has a tedious habit of accusing her of stealing his research. Relations are frosty. So much for academic cooperation.

 

In the course of making an event in Sandnes, Norway – a feast with choral music, based on the writings of the wonderful Norwegian cook Hulda Garborg - I was inspired to write a daft song called How To Cook A Jellyfish. The song turned out to be not so daft, as it seems jellyfish are cooked in many parts of Asia already. Which may be the way forward for all of us, in the light of an alarming, not to say apocalyptic book by Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean.

 

Gershwin paints a picture of jellyfish as a super-race. Carried round the world when water is taken onto oil tankers as ballast, some species are capable of chasing (yes, chasing) and devouring vast quantities of fish. The Black Sea, for example, is now almost emptied of anchovies and sturgeon; it’s a kingdom of jelly. In contrast to our single fraught method of reproduction, jellyfish have at their disposal hermaphroditism, cloning, external fertilization, self-fertilisation, courtship and copulation, fission, fusion, cannibalism…… Cut a jellyfish in four, and each quarter can grow into a functioning creature. A jellyfish deprived temporarily of food can degrow, that is, become smaller, all its organs remaining in proportion, and then regrow when food becomes available. Predators such as sea turtles are being destroyed by marine detritus, whereas for the jellyfish themselves this environment is a nursery. The warming of the oceans, the acidification, the depletion of oxygen? You’ve guessed it - jellyfish thrive in these conditions. According to Gershwin, the likelihood is that the oceans, already depleted of fish by over-fishing and adverse conditions, will eventually be taken over by jellyfish.

 

With this vision of the future in mind, let’s cook. There are at least fifteen species of edible jellyfish. In taste and texture they are apparently not unlike bubble-wrap, but there are mitigating medicinal properties. I quote from my song:

 

First catch your jellyfish

Salt it for ten days

Soak it in water

Chop off its tentacles

Cut it in slices

Don’t get stung

 

Coffee and vinegar

Ginger and licorice

Mix up the marinade

Put in the jellyfish

Leave it for six hours

Don’t get stung

 

Wrap it in lizard skin

Fry it in snake oil

Garnish with butterflies

Serve up your jellyfish

Eat it with chopsticks

Don’t get stung

Live long live well eat jellyfish

 

I will be following up this post with several jellyfish-themed cookbooks, a pop-up jellyfish restaurant, a reality TV series in which celebrities are required to catch and cook jellyfish (a cross between I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Come Dine With Me, can’t fail), and a number of lucrative high-end jellyfish products. One has to position oneself intelligently when these kind of global disasters are taking place.

 

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Demo and score available on request