Saturday 7 October 2017

The World's Wife: composer Tom Green talks about inspirations for his new opera

Tom Green
Tom Green
The composer Tom Green has an intriguing background, mixing electric guitar rock and funk with classical training. His new opera, The World's Wife, combines Carol Ann Duffy's poems with music for soprano and string quartet. The opera premieres on 15 October at the Weston Studio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff with soprano Amanda Forbes and the Mavron Quartet, and then tours to Brecon, Swansea, Holyhead, Aberystwyth, Caernafon and Milford Haven. I recently met Tom to find out more.

As a teenager, Tom had a background in rock and funk, playing electric guitar by ear. He became fascinated with the idea that it was possible to write things down, and he talks about learning to read music at the age of 18 as being a major discovery. He went on to study music at university, and describes himself at this period as learning a lot about the expressive flexibility of the classical ensemble, but he did not want to jettison his aesthetic inheritance in rock and funk as well as a sense of storytelling using song-like forms.

He studied at Southampton University, including a period with composer Michael Finnissy, but it is clear that it was only after university that he was able to knit together these various influences and write with his own voice. He talks about institutions demanding that you either fight against them or go with them.

In person Tom makes charming company, we meet at a popular coffee bar in Camberwell, and our conversation repeatedly takes us on interesting by ways as we find our discussions full of mutually engaging topics, so that the interview threatens to diverge into an engaging yarn with a mate.

He started writing in earnest after his degree, and calls his catalogue 'a strange mix' as he writes for classical ensembles but also mixed groups such as electric guitars with string quartet, or drummer with brass group, and  a work for contemporary jazz orchestra moves between Xenakis and Duke Ellington. He now feels that he is more focused on achieving aesthetic unity between these strands.

Amanda Forbes
Amanda Forbes
The World's Wife is written for soprano and string quartet with a twist, as it uses loop pedals. The soprano is Amanda Forbes who sang in Music Theatre Wales' productions of Philip Glass' The Trial and Sciarrino's The Killing Flower. The quartet is the Mavron Quartet, and Tom has written for them before. After his previous piece for them, they asked him for a longer piece, lasting around an hour, and Tom suggested adding words, making it for soprano and quartet. The result became The World's Wife

Tom discovered Carol Ann Duffy's poetry collection The World's Wife almost by accident. Working as composer and music director in the theatre, he happened to be working with Duffy's texts and came across The World's Wife and loved it. The poems deal with the forgotten women of history and there there is a great diversity of characters in the poetry collection, but also something intimate about it which Tom felt suited a setting for string quartet.

Surprisingly, for a musician with his mixed background, Tom is very cynical and wary of the use of electronics in modern classical performance and he adds that as electronics is conventional in the pop world, perhaps this has stripped his excitement of it. He feels electronics can muddy the purpose of the music, though he agrees that there are exceptions and a lot of pieces do make it work. At this point in our conversation we have one of a number of fascinating diversions, as we explore the highways and byways of electronics in classical music.

Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife has 30 different characters in it, and Tom planned to use 11 in the opera, but he adds that there is  sense of a meta-character building to an archetype, the forgotten woman of history, the world's wife.

Tom felt that the best way to create this archetype was to enable to the soprano to multiply herself. So he uses a sophisticated loop pedal which combines complex pre-programming with immediate control by the singer. This enables live sections to be captured and to then return later in the piece, with all the various characters returning towards the end, joining together as a chorus. The string quartet also loops its material, though less from a dramaturgical necessity than to create a satisfying aesthetic link. All this was planned by Tom via a series of 'sleep inducing spreadsheets'. For this new piece, Tom feels there is a real dramaturgical necessity for the electronics, and he talks of composing it being a brilliant puzzle, having to solve what goes where.

He has been working with Amanda on the opera for the last six months, so it is very much tailored to her voice and her character. Tom admits that a big tension in the work is that Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife is a major feminist text, and he is a male composer. In the current climate we cannot pretend that questions of gender in the arts are solved. Within his music for the piece Tom uses material from past female composers, such as Barbara Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Francesca Caccini and Elizabeth Lutyens, some times just a few notes, sometimes whole quotations. It is always his music, but it might melt for instance into a baroque figuration. Tom enjoys this playing with the listener's sense of chronology. Tom points out that a lot of the music written by female composers was originally credited to men, and wonders if he is just repeating this.

He feels that it is important to bring these issues into the open,and pose these questions about the opera. As for Carol Ann Duffy, it seems she thinks that 'men can be feminists too', and that for her The World's Wife is a defined text, and tom  is just adding to it.

Rather impressively, Tom is not just writing the opera, he is producing the tour himself with help from Welsh National Opera and Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea. So not surprisingly, though he has ideas for other projects, his time has been very much taken up with writing and producing The World's Wife.

One idea which he would like to pursue is for some compositional outreach, where he would invite members of the public to come and watch and talk to him as he works on the piano. But he admits that of 20 projects which he is desperate to make, 18 will never make it, and in contrast to the idea for outreach part of him would like to simply lock himself away and write.

Tom Green, Carol Ann Duffy - The World's Wife
Like many composers to whom I talk, physically writing out the music is an important part of the process for Tom. Also, as he does not completely trust his ear when he has five or more lines going, he uses the piano. But he also like the tactile experience at the piano as part of the composing process. He enjoys the process of listening to sounds in his inner ear, trying to turn thoughts into something more explicit, then figuring out how to manifest that in a score.

The World's Wife Tour 
15.10.2017: Weston Studio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff
19.10.2017: Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon
21.10.2017: Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea
28.10.2017: Ucheldre, Holyhead
1.11.2017: Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth
2.11.2017: Galeri, Caernarfon
3.11.2017: Torch Theatre, Milford Haven  

Elsewhere on this blog:

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