the cmrc blog

A new lease of life


One of the joys of working in cmrc is the opportunity to collaborate with so many interesting and talented creative artists.  It has been my privilege over the years, since long before the existence of cmrc, to collaborate with some outstanding performers.  While still in my twenties I found myself working with musicians like Alan Hacker and Barry Guy, and in my thirties with Linda Hirst and John Potter.  And these were collaborative experiences, because from them I learned new ways of thinking, and because they didn’t just take my music and ‘do it’ – they probed and interrogated my ideas, and together we found a way to present the music which was new to all of us.  Later, with the ensemble Black Hair, which I directed, collaboration was key to everything we did – even to the point of devising music theatre pieces together from rudimentary starting ideas.  We could do this because of the extraordinary willingness of every member of the group to try things out and to contribute ideas.

This week, I have seen the first outcome of a new collaboration, with the outstanding recorder player Carmen Troncoso Caceres.  This has been a truly rewarding collaboration so far, and I am so excited about her performance that I thought I would share some thoughts about it.  Carmen is a research student at cmrc, and she is from Chile.  She approached me earlier in the year with a proposal that we might collaborate on a new piece for recorders.  We have made a small start on that.  But in the meantime I had an idea that she might look at an older piece of mine ‘A Little Snow’ and think about whether it could be adapted for recorder and voice – that is: a singing recorder player.  The fact that the piece is a setting of a poem by the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (b1914) seemed to make the idea almost inevitable.

I wrote A Little Snow in 1994 for my wife Anna Myatt shortly before we co-founded Black Hair.  Anna needed a short piece for a solo concert at the Purcell Room in London, and I wrote the piece very quickly – in a few days.  The poem ‘Snow’ (Nieve) was one I had marked in a book of Parra’s poetry which I bought in London while still a teenager.  I had set one of the poems, Letter to an Unknown Woman, in 1970.  ‘Snow’ was easy to set, because the way the poem is set out on the page invites a certain way of reading – one that sounds like falling snow:









The singer is instructed to use a tiny voice, and to swallow consonants so that the words become the patter of falling snowflakes.   It’s a short piece, but highly dramatic (especially if performed from memory and in a single spotlight, as Anna used to perform it).  It’s also dramatic because it describes the death of the poet Pushkin in a duel on the outskirts of St Petersburg, and the words above, repeated three times, are his dying words.  An added dramatic touch is that at the end of the poem Parra introduces the word ‘blood’ in place of the word ‘snow’ (…as if all the snow that had fallen in Russia, as if all the blood that has fallen in Russia, were only a little……).

This has become one of my most performed pieces, and Jane Manning has written about it in her book New Vocal Repertory.   I have coached many students who have wanted to perform the piece in their recitals, and had messages from all types of singers (men as well as women) who have performed the piece.  Indeed I have performed it once myself, in Italian!  It has been a great pleasure to me that something I wrote so quickly and for a specific singer and occasion, has caught the interest of so many singers.  And now I the piece has been given a new lease of life in an entirely new version, created by Carmen.  She will write herself, I hope, about how she has approached this adaptation, and the many decisions she has faced, from choice of recorder and appropriate techniques, to the division of the score between voice and instrument.  Her choices and solutions have been unerringly successful.  She has exactly caught the ‘smallness’ and atmosphere of the piece, and the balance between spoken, sung and played material is perfect.  In general I like the spoken lines in the piece to be performed, where possible, in the prevailing language of the audience (thus my Italian rendition in a Black Hair concert in Modena).  But this week it seemed to us that the first performance of this version should be in the original language, Spanish, since Carmen, after all, shares her nationality with the poet.  And in a further unbelievable twist, it turns out that the author of the poems I bought in 1968 is still living in Chile, and that Carmen has had contact with him and with his family.  This is such an exciting development for me, because now Carmen can ask Nicanor Parra, on my behalf a question which has been asked of me many times: why does he think that Pushkin was ‘assassinated by the Tsar on the outskirts of St Petersburg’?  Nowhere else is this idea to be found.  It’s entirely possible that the duel in which he died was engineered.  But only in this poem is that suggestion found.  Much of Parra’s 1960s poetry is politically charged (though I confess I was attracted more by the lyrical quality of his work); I wonder whether the suggestion of assassination has a symbolic aspect to it.  I hope that we will be able to find out.  And of course, I really hope that the poet doesn’t mind what I have done with his poem (yes, I did get permission from the publishers).  In any case there could be no stronger advocate for the piece than Carmen.

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