Out of the Shadows

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Composer Joanna Marsh introduces her new piece, SEEN, and the way she worked with live electronics for the first time

Fiona Lindsay, Glen Scott, Joanna Marsh
Fiona Lindsay, Glen Scott, Joanna Marsh at rehearsals for Marsh's SEEN

Ahead of the 20 May world premiere of her new work SEEN, performed by the BBC Singers and conductor Sofie Jeannin, in this guest posting composer Joanna Marsh discusses a very different approach to her creative process, working with live electronics for the first time for a brand new BBC Radio 3 commission.

I began working on the commission that became SEEN in 2020, although my first conversations with the BBC Singers date from a few years ago. One thing we had loosely talked about was technology, and how it might be integrated into a choral piece. Whenever I have listened to an acoustic piece that has had added elements of electronics, I’ve always found the sonorities particularly mesmerising.

Electronics can create a greater sense of immersion provided by the mixture of sound sources, acoustic performers and amplification, but sometimes it’s the sheer surprise and delight that the actual sounds inspire.

By the time I got to work on the commission, I felt that my own music tech skills needed a brush up! I received an email from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama who were running a number of evening classes during the Covid-19 lockdown. Normally, I miss out on all these opportunities as I live in the Middle East, but when everything moved online I was able to attend a Music Production course run by producer, multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer Glen Scott.

Almost immediately on undertaking this course I realised that Glen had exactly the skill set that would complement mine for this commission. My instincts proved correct, and Glen has been incredible to work with. His ‘musical ear’ is second to none and he has a real vision for what can be achieved.

I also had to think about who might provide the ‘lyrics’ for the piece. I’m always interested in the ways in which themes from the distant past can resonate strongly in our modern lives. A mutual friend connected me with writer and creative producer Fiona Lindsay, who has expert knowledge of classical texts through her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

When we first spoke, she had been producing a documentary series for Digital Theatre on themes connecting key women in Greek plays, and I was transfixed! Fiona is particularly interested in the notion of strong female voices in Greek theatre who over time have been marginalised, their voices obfuscated and warped because male writers were control of the narrative.

The characters in SEEN provide a lens to focus on the voices of all those that have been marginalised and is a call to action to reclaim the narrative and be seen. What I particularly like is the way in which the technology used in the piece actually masks the voices, echoing the meaning of the lyrics where the truth has been previously veiled.

There is more harmonic space in the piece than I might normally allow – this enables Glen to add effects that have time to play out without cacophony ensuing. There is a consistent crotchet pulse for the duration of the piece which is 178 beats per minute, inspired in part by the way melody and pulse function together in R&B songs.

Composition can be very solitary work, so this commission provided a refreshing change to the way I normally create music. Somehow, sharing the process with Glen and Fiona made the creation of the piece feel a bit more like a puzzle or a game, rather than solitary labour, and I really benefited from their expertise and input.

Something surprising that came to light when we workshopped SEEN in March was how different the listening experience was, comparing the electronic influences to a purely acoustic work. The live effects added a great deal of space and we felt absorbed into this vastness, as listeners – it was incredibly immersive. The rhythmic heartbeat that runs through the 20-minute piece at times gives it an almost hypnotic feel.

There are so many more ways this work could be performed, and it’s not limited to a small concert hall due to the amplification used. I would love it to take on a new guise in a theatrical setting – perhaps taken on by a dance company, adding movement to the space itself. These are new avenues for my work that I am keen to explore.

It feels quite different having other people be as invested in a work from the early stages of development, and the conversations Glen, Fiona and I had were fascinating, inspiring and often involved a great deal of laughter! Having never worked so collaboratively before, I did wonder beforehand whether it might limit my creativity, but I was absolutely proved wrong. We were all working on completely separate creative pillars within the work and bringing that together for the world premiere later this month will be a real privilege.
Sofi Jeannin, BBC Singers & Glen Scott rehearsing Joanna Marsh's SEEN
Sofi Jeannin, BBC Singers & Glen Scott rehearsing Joanna Marsh's SEEN

SEEN
receives its world premiere at the Barbican’s Milton Court on 20 May 2022 in a concert by the BBC Singers, conductor Sofie Jeannin. Tickets are priced from £12, available via the Barbican box office

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