Saturday 4 February 2023

Unexpected creativity: cellist Margaret Maria and soprano Donna Brown talk about the joys of collaboration on the words and music of their album Between Worlds

Donna Brown and Margaret Maria
Donna Brown and Margaret Maria

Cellist and composer Margaret Maria and soprano Donna Brown, both Canadian, have been collaborating on an album, Between Worlds, which has recently been released on the Canadian Music Centre's Centrediscs label. Consisting of eight songs which feature Donna's voice and her words, plus Margaret's music and her cello, the album is very much a joint venture. 

As a soprano, Donna began her opera career with Peter Brook's production of La Tragédie de Carmen, a work which involved two months of intensive workshops with Peter Brook, learning his method of acting based on Stanislavsky, followed by three months of performing La Tragédie de Carmen in Paris, and then touring it throughout Europe for a year with his troupe. Since then she has performed all over the world and had special collaborations for over 15 years with Helmuth Rilling and John Eliot Gardiner, doing numerous recordings with both of them. 

Margaret trained as a classical cellist as a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and was a professional cellist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra, she has since developed a career as a composer very much focusing on her own instrument. Her most recent solo album was Where Words Fail - Music For Healing from 2021, with music is born 'in the hope that it can be helpful to others…it can offer some healing, some understanding, some comfort, some strength when we feel weak or when words fail us'.

They see their new album as very much a creative outflow from two people, and the moods and emotions of the music they hope will elicit a reaction from listeners, and they comment that it is almost a mini-opera in the sense of journey, the music takes you there and back. They want the album to be a piece that makes people react. 

The two met whilst Margaret was playing in the NAC Orchestra and heard Donna singing in projects with the orchestra. As Margaret started composing she felt that if she were to write for anyone's voice it would be for Donna's. Donna was a friend of friends and came to do a fundraiser for OrKidstra, the musical charity that Margaret had co-founded, so Margaret asked Donna about singing some of her music. Not that Margaret had written anything for voice at the time, and that first project took patience. Also, Margaret did not know what texts to use but when she mentioned this to Donna, it turned out that Donna wrote poetry or as she commented to me, 'I write stuff'. These texts spoke to Margaret and the collaboration was born.

The words, largely, come first, but for the final song on the disc there were initially no words and Donna added them later, whilst different songs took different paths to fruition. Talking to the two, it is clear that though technically one wrote the words and the other the music, the songs are the result of a strong and intense collaboration. And the material for the album evolved over two years. At first, their thoughts were that the subject would be the seasons, but then they included some spoken texts and they started to see a different pattern, about responding to your inner creative voice, your muse. And how, if you ignore it, chaos ensues. It helped that they both realised that the words and the music were in tune with each other, the poems had in them what Margaret's music did, both reflected the same journey. 

They see the music on the album as reflecting that whilst we live in the present we also live in an inner place that is elsewhere, a concept which was conveyed both in the music and in the words. The journey of the album is about moving from the real world to that inner space and back.

One of Donna's early texts, Follow the Star, was written long ago and was about moving in and out of the real world, and both find it phenomenal that they both had the same spiritual journey. Also, as a composer, Margaret is always seeking melodies and she found that these fitted with the vocal lines for Donna's voice. The times when Margaret felt she couldn't do things would often lead to createive collaboration between the two. Donna found that Margaret was very open-minded so that Donna could give ideas to her. The collaboration has been both fun and a challenge, and has stretched every aspect of their creativity, and the two seem to be on something of a roll and they are already talking about a new disc. I am assured it will have a story, and that the title will be 'I am breathing stars'

The music Margaret creates is often story-like, and Margaret loves the way this has developed in the album, creating a narrative from one song to another, and the way the creativity between the two of them produced unexpected results. But it was necessary to go with the flow of that creativity, some songs were scrapped because they did not fit in, again something that fitted in with the album's theme of being true to your muse.

Between Worlds was presented in a live concert in Ottowa in 2019, but that was very different to the disc as the music was orchestrated for a large orchestra. The result was a big, exciting sound, but Donna had always loved Margaret's recordings which she creates by layering multiple cello lines with some electronics, a sound Donna felt was more cutting edge and different. The live performances, using a conductor, were more elastic whereas on the disc they were multitracking with Donna recording to a pre-recorded track, something that Donna found rather a challenge. Then for two tracks, at the time of recording the music did not exist so Donna recorded them cold and Margaret added the music later.

Donna Brown & Margaret Maria - Between Worlds - Centrediscs

Margaret uses Cubase and often manipulates the different cello lines, adding octaves, as well as other effects and she comments that she is not shy of using technology. This is something that she has grown in confidence with; originally people would comment that the music was not classical, but it has developed into her own style. The new disc adds drums and piano to the mix too. Donna's style of performance developed too. In one song she had to 'do some yelling' and found that there was too much contrast between the 'yelling' and her operatic voice, so she sang more on the edge of the voice. This worked better, and she feels that she will go further in this direction next time.

They are talking about further live performances of the music, perhaps arranged for chamber ensemble for a smaller format. But besides collaborations, the two have their own separate musical lives.

When we are chatting, I mention Alexander Shelly, who is musical director of the NAC Orchestra in which Margaret used to play, and whom I interviewed recently. It turns out that Alexander is an ambassador for OrKidstra and comes and conducts the children (he was at their December concert), whilst another ambassador is the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. OrKidstra is based on El Sistema and was founded 15 years ago as a free programme for children not able to play an instrument.

Between Worlds for soprano and cello orchestra - Margaret Maria, Donna Brown - Centrediscs CMCCD 3052, Spotify

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