Howard Moody – The composer’s journal
#3 Receiving the libretto
Historically, trust between a composer and a librettist has not always been a happy tale! The process requires intense communication and understanding of each other’s creative processes. This is one of the reasons why I have often written the libretto myself. However, over the course of writing three pieces together, Anna and I have developed a direct flow of communication and a deep understanding of each other’s style. This means that we can write to each other’s strengths. It also makes it possible to work fast and meet short deadlines for commissions such as Solar.
I always find that I cannot start writing the music until the libretto is complete. This gives me a picture of the whole drama from which to develop musical ideas. But to keep me in the loop throughout the writing process, Anna likes to show me sections of the script as she goes. This means that I can expect an excited phone call from Anna at any point during her process in which she will announce having completed a scene or wanting to tell me her latest idea.
About 10 days into Anna’s writing process for Solar back in April, we met for breakfast and Anna read me scenes 1 and 2. I didn’t want to read the words off a page but preferred to hear Anna read them out loud, knowing that she would have written something with an incredible sense of verbal rhythm, internal rhymes and dramatic force.
I was knocked out by the power with which her work grabbed my attention from the opening. It was like hearing the start of Verdi’s Otello for the first time. Verdi / Boito started with a storm. Anna begins Solar with Daedalus holding his nephew Talus over a cliff, burning with envy. Brilliant. I remember listening to it and immediately saying “don’t change a word”. Our discussions about the piece that followed, propelled both of us onto the next stage of the process and we were buzzing with excitement.
Hearing any lyrics or a libretto spoken is always the test of whether it has real poetic quality or just a prosaic style. Anna has a unique way of writing that allows a director, choreographer and designer plenty of space to tell the story through their nonverbal disciplines. Above all, she trusts the power of music to expand the meaning and intention of her words. The rhythms, sounds and dramatic momentum of her text are so captivating for a singer, who can then use them as the core of their performance. Hearing her read Solar for the first time reassured me that she had found an intensity of style that would make my task of composing the music exciting and challenging.
It was very convenient that Anna was able to take the whole of April off from her job as a lawyer in order to write the script. The deadline for delivery was quick, so it needed the focus of a whole month of really hard work and total immersion. We were trying to ensure that I would be able to go to Brussels at the end of June with musical material for each of the main chorus groups (‘The Sun’ and ‘The Apprentices). I was immediately confident from the first two scenes alone, that I would be able to give the young singers music that would capture their imaginations and inspire their dramatic involvement in the production.
The artisan craft of composition and writing is too easily glamorised - it is actually all about really committed and focussed hard work - so I was so impressed that Anna, true to the language of a lawyer’s responsibility to deliver on time, sent me the whole libretto at 5pm at the end of the last working day of April. This reminded me of Bach having to start his next Cantata on a Monday and deliver it for performance the following Sunday!
When I start writing, I often ask Anna to give me adjectives to describe her intention of feeling in every dramatic moment. I will scribble these down in the margins of my script to refer to as I go. This means that I can be clear about the difference between moments of “desperation” or “mourning”, of “liberation” or “magical transformation”.
The next time Anna hears her words will be from my attempt to show what I have written by playing it on a piano and singing along. This is light years away from a professional orchestra, large chorus and international soloists performing it on stage, in the same way that reading a libretto is so different from the final musical version. And once the words and music come together and are delivered on paper, we both have to let go of what we have written whilst it gets interpreted and hopefully understood by the production team.
It was a thrilling moment to receive the final script. I read it and re-read it so many times before I felt that I could approach the piece musically. The June workshop was coming up fast and there’s nothing like a deadline to get a composer started. Now I had the complete libretto, I had no excuse!