Saturday 6 April 2024

Spell Book, Witch & Stone Fruit: composer Freya Waley-Cohen on the power of ritual and spells

Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Héloïse Werner, Manchester Collective - Barbican (Photo: César Vásquez Altamirano)
Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Héloïse Werner, Manchester Collective - Barbican (Photo: César Vásquez Altamirano)

On 1 February 2024, Manchester Collective, Héloïse Werner (soprano), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano) and Céline Saout (harp) presented the world premiere of Freya Waley-Cohen's complete Spell Book at the Barbican in advance of the song cycle's release on NMC Recordings in October 2024. Setting feminist spell-poems from Rebecca Tamás' 2019 collection WITCH, the cycle mines a vein that Freya Waley-Cohen also explored in her 2020 opera WITCH. In a totally different vein, February 2024 also saw the premiere of Freya's Stone Fruit at Wigmore Hall performed by the Colin Currie Quartet.

Freya Waley-Cohen (Photo: Patrick Allen)
Freya Waley-Cohen (Photo: Patrick Allen)

When Freya first read Rebecca Tamás' poetry, it caught her imagination and expanded her way of looking at the world. Freya loved the idea of witches and spells, the poetry was fantastical, playful and powerful. She also felt that the ritual of the concert hall and concert going was akin the the ritual of a spell, the two different yet linked. And Freya loves the way Tamás language flips between shocking and beautiful, catching your attention and making you see something shocking in a new light. And she points out that only in certain societal frameworks are these things shocking at all.

Whilst she read and enjoyed the poetry collection, Freya did not immediately think of setting it, but the ideas from the poetry started to invade her dreams, making her somewhat horrified, yet she could not stop thinking about it, and in the dreams, it was unclear whether she was surrounded by witches or was one. She met up with Rebecca Tamás to chat and share ideas, and then Freya embarked on writing the song-cycle Spell Book, something that kept her occupied, on and off from 2019 until now. During the same period, she worked on her opera WITCH, the two are different but linked.

In 2022, Longborough Festival Opera staged the first six songs of Spell Book as part of a double bill with Francesca Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero, directed by Jennie Ogilvie with the festival's emerging artists and the instrumental ensemble Chroma. This was only half the music, and the order was very different to the completed work that premiered in February 2024; seeing Spell Book at Longborough spurred Freya on to complete the work.

She thinks of the song-cycle Spell Book as a dramatic concert work, so it can be staged but this adds another layer of someone else's interpretation, rather than her's. She does not feel that the work needs staging, and in February 2024 there was simply a use of lighting, and little else, creating a dramatic concert. Her 2020 opera, WITCH, was inspired by Rebecca Tamás' book but very little of the poetry made it into the opera; the libretto, by Ruth Mariner, took the work in a different direction because of the need to have a narrative.

Having lived with the ideas of Spell Book since 2019, with the Barbican concert and the recording, Freya sees the project as complete. This isn't the first time that she has had ideas that developed into complete projects, but it is always good to come out the other side. That said, Rebecca Tamás' work is incredibly inspiring and Freya will be taking elements of Spell Book forward into other things.

Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Longborough Festival Opera, 2022 (Photo:  Matthew Williams Ellis)
Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Longborough Festival Opera, 2022 (Photo: Matthew Williams Ellis)

The Colin Currie Quartet premiered Freya's Stone Fruit at Wigmore Hall on 27 February 2024. Working with a percussion ensemble allowed Freya to get playful. The work uses sets of vintage china tea cups as Freya found that each cup has a subtly different tone and she describes the resulting microtonal instrument as sounding delicate and intense. To create it, she tinkered with different sets of cups till she came up with the ones she wanted. Then later on in the composition process she also added Pyrex mixing bowls whose sound has a gentle luminosity. The Pyrex bowls were almost tuned, but a bit off in a magical way.

The work was inspired by daily rituals such as having tea together; small domestic rituals are important to people. They are what life is made up of, and interesting and beautiful to play with. The title refers to the way fruit might be beautiful and sweet but have a hard stone inside that can chip your teeth. The delicacy of the overall sound world belies its intensity.

Our discussion then moved on to chatting about forthcoming works, which somehow led us to talk about language. Freya is fascinated by how much meaning is contained in language, much of it given to us by our families and in our home settings. But though we might use language every day, there can be so much depth in it and we don't always know. And language can shape our thoughts.

Freya Waley-Cohen: Stone Fruit - Colin Currie Quartet, Wigmore Hall
Freya Waley-Cohen: Stone Fruit - Colin Currie Quartet, Wigmore Hall

She sees her music as often being anchored around melody, but what often comes across is the contrast between the more spacious areas, the in-between of the notes, and the concrete, earthy rhythmic passages. But then, having described her music, she admits that she usually starts to think of pieces that do not fit the description. Her teacher, the late Oliver Knussen, felt that it was best not to get too self-conscious about your music as this can hold you back.

Freya comes from an artistic family and her elder sister is the violinist, Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Freya decided she wanted to be involved in music fairly early, and because her big sister was a violinist, she wanted to be one too. She has an early memory of Tamsin playing the violin and young Freya asking for one too; her parents tried to dissuade her, but she was insistent. By the age of eight or nine she was also learning the piano, and her teacher learned that a good way to keep her attention was to let her bring along the things that she had written down, and also encourage her to improvise. By her early teenage years, she realised that she liked improvising and composing.

She studied music at Cambridge University, doing a general music degree but focusing on composition. She counts her teachers as significant influences, Oliver Knussen and, at the Royal Academy of Music, the late Simon Bainbridge. She names Olivier Messiaen as her favourite composer, but also mentions George Crumb for his celestial vision of the world, though she admits that she is not as impractical or brave as he is. She also admires great melodists like Mozart and Schubert, and she always ends up going back to Bach, doodling through Bach's chorales to get her brain in order.

When I ask about heroes, she comments that she is uncomfortable with the idea of a hero and scared of making one. She listens to a lot of the music of her peers, and she has always listened to her friends and peers and mentions Gabriella Smith and Andrew Norman.

Freya Waley-Cohen: WITCH - Royal Academy of Music, 2022
Freya Waley-Cohen: WITCH - Royal Academy of Music, 2022

The process of writing music, for her, involves both paper and computer. She sketches a lot on paper and fills notebooks with manuscript and writing, but then she gets onto Sibelius and continues things there, but might jump out and return to sketching. She admits that she has never had tidy or fast handwriting. This is partly because she is ambidextrous and when young, was told to choose and opted for being right-handed. This was the wrong decision and she changed to being left-handed when she was around 12. She can still write with both hands, and she thinks differently depending on which hand she is using, making her thinking patterns different.

Manchester Collective's recording Freya Waley-Cohen's Spell Book is being released on NMC Recordings on 25 October 2024

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