Anna Moody - The Librettist’s Process
#4 Hearing the music for the first time
I think this is the hardest part of the process to explain. Nothing quite captures the feeling of hearing the music for the first time. But I’ll give it a go...
I count myself uniquely lucky to have grown up hearing Howard play his compositions to me. The familiar sight of him at his Steinway with various pencils and manuscript paper spread out in all directions, and hearing him playing and singing to capture an orchestra of some forty instruments as well as multiple choirs and soloists all at once, takes me back through every single year of my life. Those moments of hearing him express things that are so much bigger than any human words, really shaped my entire world-view and showed me what is possible when you give voice to your whole heart.
Now that we write pieces together, there is an incredibly deep connection, communication and understanding between the words that I write for his music and the music that he writes for my words.
In an opera, the music is what characterises every single moment of the drama: the emotional characteristics of each section, the pace of the action, the depth of the characters and the tensions in their relationships. The words - which must be alive and spacious enough to become music - can only point the composer in a particular direction. And so, once Howard has set off down a pathway that I’ve signposted, the world-building of the piece continues and expands.
For Solar, the first bit of music that I heard was the end of Scene 2, when the Apprentices and Icarus grieve the death of Talus. The words on the page are four distinct verses, which look like this:
By one hand, goodbye,
and all change,
losing ground, falling away as if in a dream.
One life goes cold, nothing remains,
but we carry on and on as if in a dream.
Will we trust again
when we’re left behind? Can we live as before when we long to rewind?
Beat our hearts, the rolling waves, day by day they flow.
We carry on, our tears fall,
it’s time to let you go.
Behind the text is a sea of feeling which the words alone merely a gesture towards. Howard has an incredible ability to exactly capture the character of that emotional sea - its colour and movement and the particular energy of its rising waves and tides. He sees straight through words, follows their rhythms and sounds the heart behind it.
In musical form, these particular words are expanded and layered in so many different vocal parts and harmonies. Howard has taken phrases and used them to build a web of interwoven melodies, that lead to sections of text being repeated and passed between different vocal groups (for example, “beat our hearts” and “as if in a dream”).
And so, it is only when I hear Howard’s music that I truly understand the full meaning of what I have written. Every time it knocks me sideways.
Howard always gives a disclaimer when he stops playing - that he alone can’t do justice to what it will sound like with an orchestra at full-pelt and all the singers giving it everything they’ve got. When I do hear that, and see all the different musicians playing and singing what he’s written, it is quite overwhelming. Just a few short lines of text take flight and become something that is breathing and physical and alive.