Islands – a choral piece

I thought it was worth mentioning another project I’ve been working on.  While this is not a soundtrack work but a free-standing piece of music for performance, it does draw on several of the themes I’ve been exploring here too.

This was a commission from my parents to mark their 40th anniversary and the holiday they took to mark it.  They travelled to St Kilda, the Scottish islands famous for having been the home of an isolated and entirely autonomous people until the mid-20th century when in the end the people had to abandon their way of life and community and resettle on the mainland.  My mother in particular has held a fascination with their story for a few years now.

One – also well-known – story to emerge recently from St Kilda is the almost-lost folk tunes that have been re-discovered.  You can read the story of a man in an elderly person’s home playing them on the piano there, having been rote-taught them as a child, and them being captured by a local musician and eventually turned into a successful recording of arrangements by leading British composers here.  There is also a recording of the original piano version on the home page.

My parents suggested that they would like the piece maybe to draw on themes of the sea, St Kilda and the story of the people, but gave me a free creative hand to see where my imagination took me.  They also said that if I liked I could make it suitable for their local community choir and also, if I liked, I could use one of the tunes from St Kilda as a starting point.

So I set myself the parameters of making this musically straightfoward to perform, but conceptually I could allow myself a little complexity if I wished.

The melody ‘Soay’ (named after the island) has enjoyed some popular success and I also found myself latching onto it.  In contrast to composer Rebecca Dale, whose response was to ‘grow’ it into a kind of cinematic fantasia evoking natural landscapes in the tradition of Vaughan Williams, I found myself focussing on what I felt was a rather introverted quality in the music (though of course I may have been influenced by my awareness of its origins).

More and more the themes of isolation emerged as I played – personal isolation in all its forms; community isolation; ideological polarisation; geographical separation; discrimination of minorities; nationalism – and – inevitably for me, as I do seem to keep returning to it – autism.

Thus, the Soay melody, with its simple Ionian/Major modality, became the basis of a layered collage of voices which I gently nudge with the other layers to imply otherness, within what an amateur choir can handle.

Layer 1

In my research I came across the now famous poem ‘I Am Odd’ by a young man from the US called Benjamin Giroux, which began as a school project and now has achieved international fame for its ability to capture and communicate the isolation and misunderstanding that can be engendered by autism and neurodivergency.

Benjamin’s public Facebook page

I now have his permission to use the poem, which is very kind of him!  His poem is the central feature of the piece now and is sung by a soprano solo, spacially isolated in performance.

Layer 2

I wanted to have as many dimensions I could in such a small-scale piece, to add a kind of perspective texture of thought.  To me there is a paradox about isolation in that in a way we all share it.  We are born and die alone in our own consciousness and the time in between is lived together but retaining that single perspective only.  However, this is a thing we all share, so it unites us!  I used a section from Psalm 102 – ‘I am like a desert owl…’ to get an arc over history and draw out the universality of alone-ness.

This is also sung by a woman, spacially separated.

Layer 3

I have produced a backing track that is simply four layers of rhythmical sea waves sound I have built.  The dream would be to mix and perform in surround sound, but this seems unlikely in a village church!

Layer 4

The chorus have an aleatoric section.  Slightly at odds with the melancholy, serene atmosphere, they are each singing a repeated fragment of an assertion taken from people contributing to a ‘standard issue’ argument about Brexit.  I took these quotes directly from social media.  They are not hard to find, as I’m sure you all know!

I wanted to introduce the notion of ideological isolation and just lightly allude to how people with different personalities or backgrounds can see an issue so differently from each other. The more specific issue of how a small island like the UK relates to the rest of the world also adds another layer.  I hesitated to do this, though, as I was not sure if it would fit, but the murmuring effect prevents any of the jarring words or phrases from dominating the audience’s ear, I hope.

Here’s what my dad (as a client!) said when I put it to him:

I think that if you want the political message in the background, it could work…

So they stayed.

Layer 5

This final layer is the chorus, humming first an accompaniment to the first soloist, then finally bringing in the Soay melody at the end.  I hope that their voices joining the texture can provide a bit of a ‘yep, me too’ to the words of Benjamin Giroux’s poem in particular.

I will post the score and mock-up recording of this piece shortly.  (Here they are!)