Song Cycle Composing

It has been a pretty intense period of composing since I last checked in. Also my blog and website has sort of moved and been given a much needed facelift.

The composing has primarily been focused on the new song cycle for tenor Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia, which will premiere in November (see events). I have been working with poetry by Les Murray from his collection On Bunyah (and this will be the title of the song cycle) and the poems I have selected build a subtle narrative arch for the cycle.

What I started to see in Les’ poetry was the emergence of a 'poet farmer' figure which the tenor could be identified as. This central figure gives voice to many aspects of Australia (the bush, land, kangaroos, fire, death, machinery and the 20/21st Century) without sentimentality. The distinctive Australian flavour of the collection of poems embraces the similar experiences and challenges of other rural communities with the ‘poet farmer’ functioning as both a rural and modern day ‘every-man’.

Mark Padmore and I had discussed the possibility of a structural narrative for the cycle as a good idea if the work were to be staged in some later incarnation. We both think of songs as operas in miniature and hence if the cycle were given strong theatrical ingredients at its conception, that could be amplified and made more apparent in a full staging then this would give the piece a genuine reason to be staged. At the same time I am composing the cycle so that it will completely work as a concert piece without feeling that anything (a staging) is lacking.

There are 10 songs in total, scored for a string quartet and piano from the Britten Sinfonia. The piece contains a mix of moods, with fun and humor being just as important as moments of loss and sadness. The voice is very much center stage in the cycle and clarity of text and poetic meaning is also paramount. That said, in every song there are moments for the instrumental ensemble alone and many smaller combinations of the six instruments emerge over the course of the 10 songs.

I am on track for making this a 30 minute work. Beyond the premiere, I envisage the piece being orchestrated for full orchestra and when doing this I hope to add 2 dances to the cycle. These link to Bunyah itself and the Scots-Irish traditional dances that were performed in the community, where the poet himself grew up and where all of the poems have their roots.

I should be finished the cycle before too long and when I next check in, it will be about my upcoming residency at Snape Maltings with the fabulous La Nuova Musica.

Luke Styles