Saturday 28 May 2022

Time corkscrews inwards: Tom Coult on clocks, time & humanity in Alice Birch & his opera Violet

Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with Frances Gregory, Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts)
Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with Frances Gregory, Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts) 

To have the premiere cancelled is not the best way to launch your first opera, but that happened to Tom Coult and Alice Birch's opera Violet thanks to the recent pandemic. Thankfully, things were rescheduled and Violet, with music by Tom Coult and text by Alice Birch, is being premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival on 3 June 2022, with further performances in Aldeburgh and elsewhere [see Tom's website]. Tom is currently resident composer with the BBC Philharmonic, whilst Alice is an acclaimed playwright known for her powerful female-centred writing (her screenwriting has included the recent film adaptation of the Graham Swift novel Mothering Sunday and her play [Blank] premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2019). Violet has an intriguing premise; the heroine, Violet, is stuck in a stultifying marriage when time starts to quicken and each day is an hour shorter. I recently met up with Tom, during a break in rehearsals, to find out more.

Having decided 'let's make an opera' there was a question of now what?

Writing an opera has always been an aspiration for Tom. He is from a family of theatre people and has always enjoyed reading plays, and he always wanted to find something where he could get really excited by the words and then set them to music. He first met Alice in 2014 and she sent him some of her plays, then he saw her play Revolt. She said. Revolt again (which premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company as a part of the Midsummer Mischief Festival in June 2014) and was blown away. They both became excited by the idea of creating an opera, but having decided 'let's make an opera' there was a question of now what?

Tom Coult (Photo Tim Lutton)
Tom Coult (Photo Tim Lutton)

Tom admits that he doesn't routinely come up with narratives and stories, but playwrights do. The two of them came up with something together, and he has gone on to be surprised by Alice's words so that she might send him a scene and he would not know how it would end. To start with Tom sent her a list of things that he finds creatively exciting. It was a very varied list, but one item on it was clocks and clock-making, something that Alice loved because there was so much detail. This led them to the idea of exploring the way time could malfunction.

A strong concept, but Tom feels that Alice has imbued it with character and humanity

The setting for the opera is roughly nicked from an Edgar Alan Poe story, The Devil in the Belfry, about a rather cartoonish village obsessed with clocks and cabbages. They used the setting (and the clocks but not the cabbages) as a starting point, then took the plot in a different direction. In the story, the clock strikes 13 and they toyed with the idea of using this, but then hit upon going in the opposite direction and having fewer and fewer hours in the day. So, in the opera, the story is told in 24 increasingly short days and by the time we reach Day 23, this is only one hour long. There is no day 24! Time corkscrews inwards till the end of time and space. This is a strong concept, but Tom feels that Alice has imbued it with character and humanity, so the text explores how the villagers deal with this ending of time. 

As a composer, time is important to Tom 'to a certain extent', after all, it is the canvas of a piece, the basic medium. But it is the accoutrements of time, sounds and mechanisms, that are of interest to him and he is interested in the work of composers such as Ravel, Ligeti and Birtwistle who were similarly interested. What fascinated Tom is the way the ruthless objectivity of a metronome or a clock can meet artistic time. In the opera, clock time malfunctions, so that something whose character should be most reliable becomes liquid. And this Tom finds really interesting.

What Tom love's about Alice's plays is their terseness and economy, and these are virtues that you need to have in a libretto. In her text, everything is very precise and tightly organised, but there are also wild flights of imagery that can dazzle you. For the libretto, Tom wanted some juicy imagery and turns of phrase, and Alice has definitely given him some. But there is darkness too, along with humanity and empathy.

Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with director Jude Christian (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts)
Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with director Jude Christian (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts) 

In 2018, they were lucky enough to be able to workshop the opera as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme at Snape. Tom wrote about 25 minutes of music and they had four singers and a full band (the Britten Sinfonia). At that point, Alice had not written the whole libretto. Part of the importance of the workshop, for Tom, was that he was thus able to show Alice what he had been working on. Afterwards, they made changes, altered some of the later trajectory of the story and even removed one character. The very end of the opera Tom left entirely to Alice, and he was genuinely surprised when he read it! But whilst the broad trajectory of the piece was agreed upon, he left the details to Alice.

What would you do if you and everyone else had hours to live?

As to what the opera is about, for Tom, there are two points, a general one and a specific one. The general point is the question what would you do if you and everyone else had hours to live? Would you scream at the gods, get in a boat for safety knowing that there is none, hold hands with your family or what? The specific point is about the character of Violet. She has been in a stultifying marriage where she feels profoundly unfulfilled and so, has a different way of looking at the world. When time changes, she is excited, something is happening (even if it is the end of the world), and the old order is changing.

Tom has written extensively for orchestral and chamber forces, but fewer works for voice and he admits that writing for voices is not his first language. But he has tried quite hard over the years not to ride roughshod over the reality of writing for voices, and when working with singers is always open to changes. And when writing for singers, has learned a lot, tried his best to work with the voices and talked to the singers. He was written concert pieces for singers and had sessions with the performers that were very helpful. And he comments that the more you speak to singers, the more you imbibe things you should think about. Also, when he was a student he studied with George Benjamin at a time when Benjamin was busy writing his own operas, so Benjamin had lots to say about writing for voices.

These are all operas that wear their structures on the outside

When I ask about the opera most important to him he names Mozart's The Magic Flute, a work he would be happy to see any night of the week. He admits that in certain respects, the piece does not work and has a bizarre plot, but the music is generous, inventive and charming, and it gives him a sense of enormous joy. Another opera he names is Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges. And Tom finds Birtwistle the most amazing dramatist, the way he sculpts drama over time. Tom also enjoys Baroque operas by composers such as Handel and Monteverdi. Then Tom points out that these are all operas that wear their structures on the outside. Some are number operas, but both Ravel and Birtwistle's operas have that sort of structure too with vigorous demarcations of sections. And this is true for Violet; between each scene there are pre-recorded and treated bell sounds that delineate scenes as well as indicating the passage of time, creating a formalised and ritualised element that Tom likes.

Violet is written for an ensemble of 13 instruments (six strings, flute, two clarinets, percussion, harp and brass), but Tom adds that there are extra little treats, interesting doublings and all sorts of fun things too. He describes his music as having quite a lot of orchestral and harmonic colour, especially when he is writing for large ensembles, and he admits that it can be technicolour music with a touch of the flamboyant. He also tries to cultivate a lightness about things, not jokes as such but a lightness of touch.

Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts)
Tom Coult: Violet in rehearsal with Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard (Photo Patrick Young / Britten Pears Arts) 

It was listening to Jimi Hendrix (on his Dad's tape) when young that made Tom want to be a musician for a living. He was also influenced by Bob Dylan's approach to being an artist, appreciating the distance you could put between what you might think and feel as a person and what goes into the music. This was very much music as a mask. It was the music of JS Bach that first got Tom into classical music, and Bach remains his Desert Island composer. Stravinsky made him want to write music down in manuscript; this was the later Stravinsky, not the Rite of Spring, and here again, we have music as a mask. The Big Bang came when he heard Pierre Boulez' music for the first time; listening to the exquisitely voiced chords, Tom felt like he new knew that harmony could sound like that. This experience changed his own music a lot. Another composer he mentions is Elliott Carter. Whilst Tom does not always like the sound of Carter's music, he enjoys the way it moves intelligently rhythmically, and Tom's rhythms owe a lot to Carter.

Listening to Jimi Hendrix when young that made Tom want to be a musician

Whilst he wanted to be a musician from being that teenager listening to Jimi Hendrix, he assumed it would be in a band. In fact, he played in a lot of bands but his idea of the type of musician evolved. In his later teens, he discovered films and film music, notably the work of Danny Elfman and the sound of his orchestra. But then Tom discovered that Elfman used an orchestrator, and this was something of a punch in the gut, a loss of innocence. And this knowledge veered him away from film music and led him to the less profitable but autonomous world of classical composition. For his first degree, he studied music at Manchester University, following this with a Masters in Composition. As an undergraduate, he arrived in Manchester knowing the music of Bach and Beethoven, blues, jazz and country, but rather hostile to 20th-century music. But he soon got the bug.

Tom Coult
Tom Coult

After Violet, Tom has a spell as composer in residence at Musikdorf Ernen, a festival in the Alpine town of Ernen, Switzerland, where they will be playing some of his chamber music and he is writing them a new horn trio, Two Nocturnes and a Maze to be premiered by Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Daniel Bard (violin) & Alasdair Beatson (piano). Violet will then be receiving a second production, at Theater Ulm in Germany on 28 October 2022 (conducted by Hendrik Haas, and directed by Rahel Thiel). He is also in the middle of being composer in residence with the BBC Philharmonic. The orchestra premiered his Violin Concerto last year (and the work will be performed in London in October by the London Philharmonic Orchestra), and he is writing a second piece for the BBC Philharmonic.

Tom Coult & Alice Birch: Violet - director: Jude Christian, designer: Rosie Elnile, costumes: Cécile Trémolières, conductor: Andrew Gourlay, London Sinfonietta - Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard, Frances Gregory, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks - Aldeburgh Festival (3, 5 June), Cardiff (8 June), Mold (19 June), Hackney Empire (23 June), Buxton Festival (18 June) - details from Tom's website

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