… in conversation with David Ashworth
Music of a Thousand Breaths by David Lancaster is a wonderful multimedia work comprising poetry, vocal and instrumental music, electronic interludes and dance. It is inspired by the remarkable medieval frescoes on the walls of Church of St Peter and St Paul, Pickering which provides the setting for the performance.
Was the initial intention to write a multimedia work or was this an idea that gradually evolved?
When I stumbled across the medieval paintings in Pickering (it was quite accidental, we’d stopped for coffee on the way home from Whitby), I immediately knew that I wanted to compose something in response to what I was seeing, but it took a long while to assume its final form. There were so many dimensions that I wanted to bring together, and the piece could have been realised in very many different ways, but once I had found the right ensemble and settled on the overall architecture of the piece, things came together quite quickly. In a sense it was always going to be multi-dimensional because it was all about putting music into the space alongside the paintings, and some of the later decisions – such as placing musicians around the building, positioning the electronic sounds behind the audience, and using dance – were all deliberately designed to help the audience to retain their awareness of the whole space; the pictures weren’t on a screen at the front, like a cinema, but all around them. It was great to see the audience hearing something in the music and looking around to connect the sounds with the wonderful images from the past. The music traces a journey around the nave of the church.
I’m interested in finding out more about the nature of the collaborations, between yourself and the other contributors to the work. Were they given a freedom to interpret their own responses to the frescoes – or was there some attempt, on your part, to coordinate or perhaps guide their responses in some way?
We worked together in different ways, but as a general rule if I am collaborating I try to allow a freedom for others to explore the ideas and bring their own interpretations into play, and although I initiated the project I try not to exercise a right of veto for anything that the other artists bring; the multi-dimensional aspect of the piece also includes the different re-tellings of the narratives presented by the images, and if there are contradictions or ambiguities in those re-tellings that just adds to the interest, for me. If I had wanted a one-dimensional, single-minded ‘factual’ account, I would have done it all myself! That’s the principal benefit of collaboration in my opinion, and choosing to work with people that I absolutely trust is clearly paramount. I asked Abi Curtis to write poetry, to put words into the mouths of the painted characters, and I knew from Abi’s earlier writing (she is an amazing poet and novelist) that she would find intriguing angles to reach right to the heart of their experiences. She spent an afternoon in the church and wrote the poems whilst there with the paintings all around her, and I didn’t ask to change a single word that she wrote. Similarly with Lydia Hennessy (dancer and choreographer) I shared some pictures of the paintings and a plan of the church and left her very much to her own devices; she did a lot of research into the characters she was portraying then worked with my computer-generated recordings to make her beautiful movement work. With the electronic music it was slightly different because David Power had composed these short interludes previously, for another project we had done together, and so I knew that they would be just right. I changed the order and actually composed some of my own music in order to transition smoothly from David’s pieces into mine, and vice versa.
Obviously this is a site specific work, where the setting and the frescoes play an important part in the performance, in addition to providing a stimulus for the piece. But can locating a performance in a specific location sometimes be a limitation? I’m thinking, if you were to stage this work again, would it necessarily have to take place in this church – or can you see it working in a different venue?
That’s always an issue with site-specific work, and in this case the whole experience was intended to be so fully integrated, that – to an extent – it can only be performed complete there. I had to accept when I was devoting time to composing the music that it may only be heard live on just one single occasion, but I wanted so much to do it that once would be enough! Having said that, the vocal quintet has selected three of the unaccompanied pieces and performed them separately on a couple of occasions since, and they stand alone very well. And of course, once was not enough! I would love to do it all again, ideally in the church at Pickering, but it would make sense to present it to different audiences in other places: I have been considering making a film using only the paintings, arranged in sequence to fit the music, to permit the possibility of performances in other venues.
This is a work I have really enjoyed watching. I was not present at the live performance but I’ve seen the excellent video that was produced. Obviously, a lot of work has gone into the preparing and rehearsing of this piece and it seems a shame that it should have just one performance. Do you have any plans for further performances?
Not at the moment, sadly. With nine musicians, a dancer, lighting designer and sound technician it is always going to be quite a costly production, so it would need to attract the attention of a festival (or some other enterprising promoter) to bring it back, but I’m sure all of the people who were involved would jump at another opportunity to do it! Knowing that future performances would be difficult, I was very keen to ensure that the first performance was preserved on video, which as you say, provides an excellent record, although it’s important to remember that this is a live performance in front of an audience, rather than a studio recording, and the lighting in the church was dark and moody which gave the videographer some technical headaches; also it doesn’t really reflect the impact of the dance in the performance, which was difficult to capture live.
Some questions regarding the legacy and future of this piece. One of the hallmarks of so-called contemporary classical music is that we can enjoy some refreshingly new combinations of instruments and voices that break away from the standard ensemble configurations. And the particular combination of instruments and voices you bring together for this piece work so well. But does this make it harder to bring about further performances? For example, with something like a string quartet, it is much easier. There are already many quartets all over the country who could be approached to add a string quartet composition to their repertoire. But for Music of a Thousand Breaths, you would need to convene this unique grouping each time …
Yes, it was the precise nature of the ‘orchestration’ that I struggled with at first: how many voices, and what instruments would give me the range and colours I wanted? How many singers were required to represent the characters in the paintings and deliver Abi Curtis’ text? And, knowing that it would be quite a lengthy piece (it’s around 50 minutes in total), how to make sure that the performers could sustain the quality until the end? Listening to renaissance vocal music, particularly Gesualdo, persuaded me that five voices could do everything I needed, in terms of both soloists and ensemble, but the choice of instruments proved more problematic: at one point it was going to be flute, viola and harp, which would have lent a wonderful aura of mystery to the sound palette, but in the end I settled for an unusual brass quartet (flugel horn and three trombones), partly because brass instruments are highly directional and I could use them all around the space, but also because they brought a sombre quality to the music which reflected Abi’s words and which more accurately portrayed the darkness of the medieval paintings – some of the images are bloody illustrations of violent torture and death…
It’s great that you were able to produce such a high quality video of the performance. When you watch this on a large screen with good audio speakers, it does capture something of the majesty of the live performance. But for those watching the YouTube clip on a phone or tablet, obviously much is lost. Do you see this as a limitation, or was the purpose of the video more as a documentary archive?
I love the experience of live performance, and (although it’s a very simplistic idea) the primary motivation for all my composing is still ultimately just to provide something new for people to sing and play, and for others to hear. No recording, audio or video, can take the place of that unique, interactive performance experience, and it probably explains why my interest in electronic music is rather limited (and why, when it happens, it usually works in conjunction with live performers). In this specific instance, because the piece will not be easy to repeat (understatement!), I wanted a record of the event which was more than just a documentary but which captured something of the essence of the performance, and which clearly drew the links between sounds, texts and images.
Finally, it’s a lovely title for a piece! Where does the title come from?
Titles are difficult! As a work in progress it was just ‘The Pickering Project’ which was far too dull, so Abi and I scoured her poetry for words which could provide a meaningful title for the whole piece, and we found some lines in the poem Descent, where ‘most of us will go into the mouth of that red beast’ (the painting depicts Hell as a dragon’s mouth) but others ‘will be dragged up to that part of the church wall (the church of Peter, the church of Paul) where the paint has worn so much, where a thousand breaths have licked the colour out, where there is a great blankness that can no longer be read’. So the idea of the ‘thousand breaths’ reflects on the age (and condition) of the paintings and the passing of time: of the men who created them along with the countless generations who have gazed up at them as we do today.
Use the links below to download an Introduction and Programme for the performance.