A hard-riding penny farthing of a piece

Amy Hack, Jessica O’Donoghue and Chemon Theys rehearsing Fumeblind Oracle

Four questions for Huw Belling on composing Fumeblind Oracle

1) How have you musically responded to Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared?

Bicycles were a fêted and irresistible invention, but the first of them were fairly comic to behold and very hard riding. So too, Janáček’s methods of notation are eccentric and challenging to the interpreter by virtue of their novelty, but the musical results are correspondingly irresistible and fêted. Both Janáček’s music and his late genesis as a true original are fascinating to me. Much of his mature approach to musical texture (rhythm in particular), and to piano writing was without precedent and peculiar to him. His operas are variously rigorous and gobsmacking, wistful and longing. His piano lines are incisive and spatial, yet alluring and hypnotic. From Janáček’s pen also comes Czech folk music and speech (and speech-rhythm), which is why it pleases me that we present Diary in its original Czech. I think it could scarcely be otherwise rendered.

Jack Symonds – who leads both Diary and my own Fumeblind Oracle from the keyboard – noted that Diary’s “collaged series of 22 song-fragments [are] almost entirely without traditional development, methods of repetition or logical sequences. The piece is thus in a constant ‘present tense’”. I couldn’t agree more, and I would love to achieve a fraction of the same effect. I fear that in my case approaching any such result is more by happy accident than by design. I take solace that the same might just be true of Diary. It came from a man who wrote, at a pinch, gobbets of music on the back of table cloths to the distress of his long-suffering publishers. As grew his years, so grew his present urgency.

This ‘present tense’ makes for a strange ‘responding’. Imagine playing a word associations game: they say ‘black’, you answer ‘white’ and so on; high/low; hot/cold, kettle/teacup. Suddenly your inquisitor throws in ‘anomalous’. Janáček’s music is to a large extent – for me – quite unanswerable, and so much of my own composition makes little attempt to rhyme his material directly for fear of rendering a pallid caricature of the intensely personal. And I have no problem with caricature! Yet, I cannot shake the experience of hearing Diary from my body either, it is a supernaturally adhesive listen.

Textually at least, to contemporary ears, the male-fantasy trope of Janáček’s ‘gypsy’ Zefka (sung for us by Jessica O’Donoghue) begs interrogation. My music, and indeed Pierce Wilcox’s text (in fact the whole damned team) closely questions that characterisation but never – I hope – Janáček’s fabulous music. Fumeblind makes a brief and direct reference to this apparition of a woman: interleaving the motifs from Zefka’s stage appearances in Diary with rushing doubtful vocal interjections – as the latter character rails against the strictures of the former. Janáček’s ‘Zefka’ material destroys itself, descending to the depths, as Jessica’s newly nameless character searches out a more empowered Id. The new woman, or every-woman, takes fresh control of Zefka’s offstage chorus (in our happy circumstance multi-tracked entirely by Jessica herself). She wrenches it permanently back onto her own tongue whence it again furiously unspools. In doing so, she clears the path for our own hard-riding penny-farthing of a piece in which she might begin to reclaim her person.

2) What interesting musical facts should the audience know about your piece?

People might in the first instance be curious about the ragbag of sonic bonbons under the auspice of Jack’s prestidigitation: the instruments, electronic effects, and their rattling protests of self-justification. Walking through this fun-fair one can find clues as to the operation of the music.

The ‘melodica’ with which we open is marketed as “Great beginners’ instrument” and was purchased on eBay. It has a lime case, with matching fruity tuning. I treat this child-instrument with the utmost seriousness. It has a nascent loneliness and expressivity, as controlled by breath (much exertion is required – thank you, Jack) that forms the spine of the Fumeblind’s aural world. Fragments of Sappho throughout the text put me in mind of other Ancients; of the modes and their supposed affects as debated in Plato’s ‘Republic’, and so the outer parts make frequent allusion to the hybrid modes of Lydian and Phrygian (on D). “Soft or effete”, and “Warrior-like” respectively, we’re told. This is the very dichotomy of our Hero-Woman. Our melodica is transformed early on into what I call ‘Super-melodica’, rendered by electronic keyboard. It is a post-acoustic hybrid of an imagined piano-sized melodica (not so great for beginners) and a basic oscillator in ever shifting balance. Here the unstable marriage is of signalled past and signed future: In short order it transmogrifies the pitch material of Plato’s modes.

Shamefully and unashamedly, the folk-trope of Cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered string instrument) in twenty-first century new-music, is not resisted. It has been used by many great living composers, including Pascal Dusapin and George Benjamin, and indeed appeared (acoustically) in SCO’s 2014 staging of Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. Teenagers and popcorn-eaters may also know it from the overwrought Sherlock Holmes films’ soundtracks, in which it is played by Greg Knowles. I mention this only because he is the percussionist who recorded note by painstaking note, the magic electronic variety we give Jack. Jack’s part later references both it and all the other toys using Janáček’s original more serious choice of acoustic piano – still a lynchpin here.

Several other shatterings of material are aided by the electronics (skilfully constructed by Benjamin Carey), including the Oracle of Delphi, whose unreality is upped by the live electric-tripling Jessica’s voice itself. Various granulations, echoes and reversals are at times performed on the acoustic output of the piano taking us into a post or proto-human space. In these instances Janáček’s motifs and “Plato’s” hybrid modes are ruptured into parallel-universe instantiations where history, gender, and other such tropes, are all a bit wonky and, I hope, all the better for it.

3) Describe your collaboration with singer Jessica O’Donoghue

You couldn’t ask for a more intelligent collaborator, or one with more integrity. One early instance forms a microcosm of what became of the relationship:

Although I had written for her once before, early on in this project I asked to be reminded/updated about her vocal range, as all composers are wont to do (and better ones than I remember permanently). What followed was no less than a far-reaching discursion on where her voice sits, what colours and dramaturgical inferences were possible in what register and how she might render certain meanings better in certain tessitura. Most singers might answer “low F to high B, with a strong high G” (which at a minimum Jessica would be within her rights to spec, by the way, particularly the G). Herself an artist on whose forthcoming album I have collaborated with my choral hat on, and she also a longtime SCO principal, Jessica understands thoroughly the needs and challenges of creating a new work for voice. She also moves on stage with such apparent ease, and is at home singing in many styles, or no style, or a deranged style (hello from me to the latter).

Beyond that, and all the more importantly, Jessica shares SCO’s philosophical objective of art that challenges, and of challenging (the verb) art, past and present. She has written eloquently in support of her and SCO’s collaboration with the Conservatorium’s Composing Women program (Breaking Glass, 2020), and the philosophy of reinventing the representation of women on the opera stage. This is important to me too, although I am all too aware of my immutable limitations in respect of this objective as a cisgendered male composer. I was keen to create a work that, firstly, took technical heed of the absolutely precise guidance Jessica provided in respect of her instrument (and person), but that secondly and most importantly gave her musical material that she could owner-operate. The second objective ought naturally to follow success in the first. She couldn’t have made it easier. In every instance where an individual moment made little sense or sat poorly in the voice she fixed it with grace and musical intelligence, always interrogating the dramaturgy. We should all be so lucky to work with performers who think so deeply about the philosophy of their art practice and in whom we can so easily place our trust.

4) How has the song cycle form/genre/history influenced your writing?

Last I was asked a question like this in respect of SCO and Opera I responded, “What is Opera, anyway?” This, I know well, is a fundamental question for our company, and a similar response might be useful here. So. What is a song cycle anyway?

At the risk of inside baseball, it is surely my involvement with SCO, and the prism of our explorations so far (not least all of our artistic teams’ constant and genuine interrogations of these questions) that has most heavily influenced my understanding of the possibilities of the form. I am minded to mention all the richness that can come from a) abutting various art forms and art-specialities for a Gesamtkuntswerk result (Opera, fundamentally); and b) from the constant transformation and interrogation of musical genre, such as a song cycle. My first experience of this as a music student, was actually in the ‘instrument’ realm of dance tropes being rendered far beyond their folk origins in the form of Bach’s Suites for violin. Your Bach ‘Sarabande’ is rather beyond the complexity of what your Spanish matador might have danced to. The first ‘song cycle’, as with the first ‘dance suite’, was probably a jolly meade-fuelled hoedown in the tavern at the lute.

In Bach’s case nevertheless, the music has such integrity, that a well choreographed matador could indeed make folk-art of it again. This has been proven again and again in other Bach, such as in stagings of his Cantata Ich habe genug (richly translated as variants of ‘It is enough’ or indeed as ‘I have had enough’). This complaining translation was chosen for the staging Kip Williams created for us in 2011, and which I had the pleasure of conducting in SCO’s nascence.

All the song cycles one might encounter would seem to be wrestling (often quite consciously) with their own identity, with mostly fascinating results. When they are staged, all the richness of all the structural tensions and dramatic idiosyncrasies can be writ large(r), and played with or against. They can also be a world unto themselves. I recall with some pride SCO’s 2016 Sydney Festival foray into the staging of song cycle with Pascal Dusapin’s O Mensch! in which Mitchell Riley’s performance on a ‘tiny set’ (which I personally helped hammer together), was reviewed by the SMH as exemplifying ‘the group’s ethos to perfection’. In Dusapin’s work the song cycle structure follows a psychological/philosophical journey exploring Nietzsche: ‘Is, for such ambition, this earth not too small’? Is it indeed! Director Sarah Giles trapped Mitchell in this work and on the staircase-to-nowhere stage. He was left alone to rage against the world and sometimes the piano, itself as big as the set and just as overwhelming. Dusapin ripped through moods and harmonic colour at such a dazzling pace, that only fools would dare add staging to it. We were they.

Mitchell Riley in O Mensch!, Sydney Festival 2016. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Mitchell again returned to us in 2018 for Jack Symonds’s new song cycle The Shape of the Earth in the SCO-hosted Resonant Bodies Festival. Here, for me, was the broadest possible notion of what a song-cycle could do. I believe Jack may have also answered the unanswerable Janáček privately in his work, in ways more obscure, clever than I might fathom (and lately earned through performing it, I might add). This cycle pulled all manner of tricks, in its reference of repertoire, use of electronics and piano transformations (also Benjamin Carey, and also a dangerous fillip to me). Furthermore, Jack mentioned to me how he planned a whole series of movements as composed of two interleaving materials. At a macro level, to my facile ear, defined by opposing tempi. That read into my thoughts on how a cohesive musical structure might be formulated in a non-stage work (even if I knew secretly that a staging was imminent, and even if I abandoned the discipline whenever the pleasure principle overtook me, and boy did it often).

The mention of non-stage vs stage work, in conception at least, brings me finally full circle to Janáček, who I think asked the same question. What is a song cycle anyway? His own autographed classification for Diary rejected both that label and the Opera label too. Jack’s reference to Janáček’s ‘present tense’ musical fragments ‘without traditional development, methods of repetition or logical sequences’ and all our other cycle-staging adventures gave me, I fear, rather more creative license than is sensible.

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