Thursday 8 November 2012

Life from Light - interview with Toni Castells

Toni Castells
If you have heard of Toni Castells new piece, Life from Light, it is probably because one section details with sexual intercourse and the composer has used a graphic text describing this, taken from Wikipedia. Castells is comfortable with the piece being seen as controversial, saying that 'controversy is good, as long as it makes people think about these important issues. The system needs numb people but the planets need them fully aware and awakened'. In fact Life from Light, which debuts on 15 November at the Union Chapel in Islington, deals with far wider issues than just sexual intercourse and can be seen as controversial in other ways.

Castells describes Life from Light as 'an exploration of the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. The starting point is Sir Charles Darwin's excerpt in "On the Origin of Species" (1859) where he talks about "the impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity". Like Darwin did in his day, I want to expose the audience to the question of whether the miracle can happen just by chance alone.' Castells doesn't claim to have answers and doesn't provide any in his new piece, his main aim is to make people think.

The idea of God and the existence/non-existence of God is one which seems to fascinate Castells, and is intimately bound up in his conception of Life from Light. He points out that even Richard Dawkins says that he can't be sure of the non-Existence of God. Castells quotes Einstein who felt that the universe was such a complex place that we are like children in a vast library, unable to comprehend the mysterious force which controlled things. Controversy has also arisen because Castells points out that Darwin was initially a believer and saw his theories as compatible with the idea of a creator. Castells has even received hate mail about such issues.

All this seems a long way from a composer whose music has been described as Morricone meets Satie. But words are important to Castells, he talks of them as the must fundamental things for him as a composer, saying that 'People underestimate the power of words, words have changed or transformed our world'. He takes care with words, taking longer to find the right words than it does the right melody.

Melody is also important for him. Coming from a small town in the Spanish Pyrenees he first experienced music via a black and white TV, hearing Abba, and knew that he wanted to be involved. He studied at music school but also played in a band which was moderately successful - the band got signed and released an album which was labelled one of the best albums of the year. He subsequently relocated to London where he started his project Momo, which merges classical music, opera, pop, poetry, electronica and the visual arts.

He intends his music to appeal to the widest possible tastes, but he also thinks that the music industry underestimates people and that they are capable of understanding more evolved and artistically interesting content. His inspirations are diverse, Faure and Puccini to Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Nicolaas Jaar and Anthony Gonzales. When challenged to provide a favourite piece of music he comes up with the Faure Requiem, a piece which transformed his understanding of music when he was studying music. And the piece he would most like to have written himself is Suzanne by Leonard Cohen.

Castells created the of Life from Light libretto himself. It is the story of a woman in the 21st century, but told in a more abstract manner; Castells likens it more to Picasso than Velasquez. The work has elements of both oratorio and opera but Castells thinks that perhaps it is closer to oratorio in that the performance will be closer to a concert, but accompanied by a visual element. The work also has a spiritual element which could link it to oratorio without it actually being sacred.

At the Union Chapel on 15 November, the performers will be sopranos Susan Jiwey and Camilla Kerslake, and counter-tenor Oliver Gerrish accompanied by piano, harp cello, violin, trump, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums and electronic drums. The performance is live, but electronics will be used to synchronise the music to the visual elements with some elements amplified and some not. The visual element will be videos created by Thomas Yeomans, a video artist and RCA graduate.

Castells wants his audience to think about what it means to be human, to see life in a different light and to understand what a miracle it is that we are here and now on this wonderful planet. It sounds as if those people going to the Union Chapel on 15 November are in for a thought provoking time.

Further information from the Union Chapel website.

You can hear an extract from Light of Life on Vimeo.

Elsewhere on this blog

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