Saturday 2 December 2023

The Hidden Light: composer Joanna Marsh on her triptych of pieces for the choir of St John's College, Cambridge

Joanna Marsh
Joanna Marsh

Composer Joanna Marsh has been commissioned for a triptych of pieces for the choir of St John's College, Cambridge, the first commission under its new director of music Christopher Gray. Joanna's first piece, The Hidden Light was premiered at the recent Service for Advent with Carols at St John's College, and the service is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 3 December 2023. Joanna's other pieces for the commission will be performed at Epiphany and during Lent, and all three use texts by the priest/poet Malcolm Guite.

I spoke to Joanna whilst she was in Cambridge for rehearsals before the Advent Carol Service on 25 November, though problems with Wi-Fi meant that we had to make do with a rather indifferent connection in a café that she had found! When I asked how rehearsals were going she was most complimentary; the music is complex, using eight parts, and she found the choir stunning, though she has just tweaked a few things in the music.

The impetus for the trio of works came from Christopher Gray as he and the choir are recording James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados in July 2024, and were looking for three pieces to complement these. The idea was that the first of the new pieces would be an Advent carol with the other two suitable for other times in the church's year. Whilst the texts needed to be suitable for a sacred context, they wanted texts relevant to today.

Joanna Marsh, Christopher Gray & choir of St John's College, Cambridge (Photo: Stephen Stoakes)
Joanna Marsh, Christopher Gray & choir of St John's College, Cambridge (Photo: Stephen Stoakes)

Joanna comments that for many, the church does not always feel related to everyday life. So, she wanted to find a text that not only gave her thinking fodder but provided an opportunity as an artist to create a work for people to engage with, something of relevance to now. One poem that she had in her mind was Refugee by Malcolm Guite. She found Refugee online and describes it as an amazing poem, it talks about the contemporary issue of refugees and ties together the issue with the cosy church-going life of many, yet where faith is still necessary. She sees

She told Christopher Gray that she would be interested in setting Refugee. Christopher Gray was open to the possibility of using Refugee, he likes texts that have direct language, as does Joanna who sees direct language as something on which to hang the music, and music can be a powerful way of creating an emotional link to a challenging topic, a real opportunity as a composer. Refugee is more of an Epiphany text, so chatting with Christopher Gray and the music department at St John's, it was decided to commission two further texts from Malcolm Guite, for Advent and Lent. The resulting words provided exactly the sort of approach that interested her.

With the Advent piece, The Hidden Light, the theme of the text fits in with the meaning of the service, and Joanna sees music as creating meaning within a sacred setting. With both The Hidden Light and Refugee, Joanna's settings link back to the older tradition of carols, she likes music that hints at other idioms. With Advent, she used chords which create an idiom similar to a carol, and with Refugee she added extra words, Alleluia, again harking back to carols. She adds that she did this with a light touch, not everyone will notice but she finds it rather exciting as a composer to be able to add a musical subtext.

The third piece, Still to Dust, is a work in progress but here the words link to climate change. All three of Malcolm Guite's poems feel multi-layered, enabling Joanna as a composer to create an interesting structure.

Malcolm Guite (Photo: Lancia Smith)
Malcolm Guite (Photo: Lancia Smith)

Since 2007, Joanna has divided her time between the UK and Dubai, where her husband has business interests. Whilst she has written pieces that use elements of Middle Eastern music, she comments that composers tend to make active choices about the material that influences their music. She grew up with Medieval and Early Music, and this is still very much behind the scenes in her writing. But her harmony is also influenced by modern jazz. Whilst she enjoys listening to Arabic music, she has not really incorporated it into her own music; to do so, she would need to be writing for the right ensemble, the right people.

However, she enjoys her time in Dubai because it is so quiet. In London, there is such a rich stream of creativity that she would be constantly tempted to explore, whereas in Dubai she 'lives under a rock' in her studio. And when she does go out, it is a very different world. She enjoys Arabic culture and the people, finding life there exciting in a way that would not be possible in the UK.

Whilst Middle Eastern regimes are usually seen as repressive, she points out the irony that whilst in the UK there are significant cuts to the Arts and musical education in schools, in Saudi the opposite is the case and music is being added to the curriculum in every single school. She goes on to add that she finds it ironic and astonishing that in the UK, we do not seem to be able to appreciate what we have got, that musical talent makes for a rich society. She then apologises for getting on her political soap-box but that what is happening to the Arts in the UK makes her mad.

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