Discovery and Collaboration
Following on from the last student work blog post on collaborations, one of the great benefits of the advances in technology is being able to collaborate and create remotely, forming a new work without needing to be in the same room as your fellow participants.
Whilst preparing a piece for the recent Composition Workshop, Jerry Mayle decided to pursue a slightly different path than what was originally called for. Not that I recommend necessarily straying from the brief on a call for scores, that way usually lies trouble! However, on this occasion Jerry asked tutor Andy Glover-Whitley in advance about the possibility of making changes and he got more than he bargained for in the process!
Jerry Mayle composer:
The theme for the study visit was song. We were given a wide variety of texts to set for a mezzo-soprano to sing solo or with a piano accompaniment (or, if you wanted to stretch the rules, an Anglo-Saxon Lyre, ahem!, which wasn’t officially listed but I knew Andy had one). My choice was the opening verses of The Voluspa, an Old Norse/Icelandic Edda telling of the creation and fate of the world. It is not a long poem but it is well worth reading. It has some beautiful stark imagery (to match the stark Icelandic landscape) and was a source of names for Tolkein in his novel “The Hobbit”.
Composing The Seer’s Song was a voyage of discovery for everyone involved. After parsing the English text, I went back out of curiosity to the original Old Norse to compare my phrasing with the original, as it has a different syntax to modern English. Once there, the original text crept into my bones, bringing up images of drunken feasts in Viking long houses with Skalds providing the entertainment over copious amounts of mead. We were allowed some latitude with the texts so I decided to stay with the original which must have caused problems for Sam to sing.
Then, the ‘bright’ idea cropped up of not using the piano as the accompanying instrument but an instrument found in those times (1000 A.D). Knowing that Andy had built his own Anglo-Saxon lyre only last year (pictured above), I asked whether he would perform with it, and to my great relief he said yes.
Fine, but I knew nothing about the instrument! The sound could be approximated in Sibelius [notation software] with a lute or harp, but Sibelius generally does not respect the technical limitations of an instrument – “You score it, son, I’ll play it!”. Fortunately, Andy was able to give me practical guidance via a document about the playing techniques that he was experimenting with on the instrument. It was a fascinating instrument to write for. There are only six strings; their exact tuning is not known due to virtually no extant lyres surviving from that time; so we used G, A, B flat, C, D and E and the first harmonics on these strings. There are only four unambiguous chords available but by using two notes on the lyre and having the voice provide the third or, one note on the lyre with two quavers or semiquavers in the voice, the available range immediately becomes far more extended.
This tuning is fantastic for creating an ethereal, vague atmosphere – something that was augmented by the use of sprechstimme in the vocal line, the idea of sung speech stemming from Schoenberg’s work. The lyre can either be plucked or strummed, with plucking great for introductory phrases, echoing and transitions. It can also be used to provide a quiet background. Andy developed a style of picking with both hands sets of fingers to produce a really full sound that he called ‘Double Plucking Pattern Technique’. Strumming, up and down either way with all the strings or with some of them stopped (known as Blocking) provides great punctuation to the music. For some reason, which neither Andy nor I can work out, on some occasions a down strum is more effective than an up strum and vice versa. If anybody is interested in learning more about the lyre, Andy has a treatise which he will be happy to send. He can be contacted via the OCA email system at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assembling the building blocks of this piece into a final product required a lot of collaboration. Sam, Andy, Chris and I not only live in different towns, we are in different countries. Thanks to the internet and some rather nifty software we were able to send each other files with feedback on what was and was not possible, share expertise virtually immediately and then mix and master just like in a physical recording studio – something which 30 years ago could only have been dreamt about. We have some great tools at our disposal these days and a deep pool of knowledge in the student group to use them. There is a moral there.
Andy Glover-Whitley Anglo-Saxon lyre:
This was quite an unusual collaboration, as Jerry has stated, between four people in not only different towns but countries too! It has been a voyage of discovery for all of us in differing ways. For myself, it was through the development of performance techniques and by experimenting with these which allowed for a greater appreciation of what had been capable on a simple instrument over a thousand years ago. We know from written records of certain techniques but many, probably forgotten ones, were re-discovered by trying new approaches which allowed Jerry scope to write in a more free mode of expression that suited the texts he was using. As is very often said, unless you ask you don’t get, and this was a case in point. If Jerry hadn’t of asked, the opportunity to create this unique piece wouldn’t have been there.
Another thing that really strikes me is that an instrument that disappeared nearly a thousand years ago now speaks its language again with the use of new technology. This would have been seen as magic by our ancestors and yet we find it almost normal. An old text and soundworld is now suddenly able to be accessed by anyone who wants to listen. Thanks to Jerry for writing such a beautiful work to play.
Samantha Joy mezzo-soprano:
Performing in Old Norse was a new experience for me. It is a language that I am totally unfamiliar with and so the first challenge of this piece for me was the language itself. Without the composer there and without a language specialist to hand, we broke down the language phrase by phrase by listening to a recording of the poem. I was then able to copy the sounds and create the words. This was a challenge in itself but I found it to be a quite effective method of learning when full understanding of a language is unable to be achieved.
My next step into more unfamiliar water was with the type of sprechstimme required, I was completely out of my comfort zone, so this was a chance to explore the different sounds that my voice could make. My anxiety about this section quickly faded and I had great fun with this bit and I am so pleased that the recording turned out as well as it did! As a singer it is fun doing things you are familiar with, which for me is German lied, but it is exciting do new things. This piece has given me a chance to step out of my comfort zone and help to create a piece which is beautifully unique. Maybe one day we’ll have the opportunity to perform it live with an audience, with the composer and performers in all in the same room!
Chris Lawry sound engineer:
Working remotely presented a few technical challenges initially as Jerry is based in the Netherlands and Andy in Birmingham. Luckily, Sam lives reasonably locally to me so initially we got together to mock up a recording of the piece using a harp sound, piecing the recording together phrase by phrase using the spoken pronunciation guide that Jerry supplied. This was then shared with the composer to check if the general layout of the piece was correct and whether anything needed changing. When this was more-or-less correct, I travelled down with some mobile equipment to record Andy’s lyre part using the guide track to help keep things in line. After a certain amount of editing back in the studio, Sam came back in to re-record any alterations based on feedback and the track was finished.
It was an interesting experience collaborating in such a fashion and, despite the lack of available time and a few technical challenges, I’m very pleased to have been able to help realise the work. Many thanks to my fellow collaborators and congratulations to Jerry for composing such an interesting work!
Chris Lawry, OCA Tutor.
For more info:
Jerry Mayle: SoundCloud
Samantha Joy: Facebook
Andy Glover: Website
Chris Lawry: Website, Facebook