Howard Moody – The composer’s journal
#4 Writing music for the first chorus workshop
The first pressing deadline for Solar was the delivery of some chorus music for the first workshop/rehearsal at the end of June. This involved the Children’s Choir of La Monnaie (who play ‘The Sun’) and the Youth Chorus (who play the Apprentices).
The challenge was to give each group a couple of contrasting choruses from the opening of the opera in order to capture their imaginations and help them internalise the story through singing and movement. The dramatic choruses of scene 1 which frame the murder of Talus offered a great starting point. These could then be contrasted with the Sun’s magical transformation of Talus into a bird and then the Apprentice’s mourning of his death in scene 2. This Lacrimosa offered an opportunity for me to write music in four parts for the older Youth Chorus, maximising their ability to sing long sustained vocal lines in harmony.
I initially had six weeks to deliver the score for this rehearsal. It was important for me to be able to show my music to Benoit Giaux before it was printed. Our mutual understanding of what makes a project work for his choirs is a special connection. He had already told me exactly what range fits each group best, the amount of rehearsal that they would be likely to have and the numbers of voices involved. He is brilliant at his job and so precise and demanding when required. It was important for me to deliver a perfectly edited and accurate score, especially since it is difficult for young voices to re-learn music with changes in it later on in the process. They learn so fast and ultimately by ear, so once a melody in inside them, it stays for ever! I managed to get the scores to Benoit ten days in advance, enabling him to do some work on the music before I arrived.
My role as conductor as well as composer involves me in two completely different processes. The most important part of taking on both roles is that I have to own every single note as a composer. If I write something too challenging, voiced in an awkward way or not naturally “vocal”, then I have to face that head-on in rehearsal and also in performance! Sometimes I have been in situations as a conductor where a new piece has been given to singers with no awareness of what is possible. This causes rehearsals to become miserable (even if in the end an unusual effect may be achieved).
But the commission of Solar is a fantastic opportunity for me to write for voices and groups that I know so well from writing previous operas for La Monnaie. One of the singers took the lead role at the beginning of The Brussels Requiem in 2010, others have sung all the other operas for La Monnaie since 2014, including Sindbad, Orfeo and Majnun and Push. Therefore, the workshop day in June felt like a unique moment in a continuum of work and it was thrilling when the young La Monnaie chorusses immediately internalised both the music and the drama from the music that I had written.
I hope my experience of these voices will ensure that Solar becomes a piece ideally suited to other similarly trained groups who are attached to big opera houses. There is so much scope for a new body of work for these voices - all of whom have so much to express on stage, especially about the environmental issues that Solar exposes.
Within a short time, Karine Girard (the choreographer) created a wonderful atmosphere with her movement work. Circles and high energy diagonal movements showed the burning, raging sun. In contrast, still but strong movement defined the Apprentices’ grief. This was all facilitated by Benoît De Leersnyder (the director) who is a master of drawing everyone into the deep significance of an opera’s metaphor. We had the dream team: buoyant, happy, focussed and serious all at the same time.
The day finished with the Apprentices learning the lachrymose song that mourns the death of Talus. It sounded completely beautiful and touching after some real work on sound and balance. After they had sung it from memory, one of the young singers asked me how I had written it. Having heard my music sung with such commitment, I had to answer only with utter honesty. I admitted how a few blobs of ink on paper doesn’t look like much when you are given it as a performer but that feeling certain enough to deliver it as a composer is the product of extremely hard work.
I described how I have ideas that I sketch, perhaps over many days (like Beethoven’s sketch books) but that musical fragments have to form with a true dramatic intensity. Making my own theatre in my head is very much part of that. I then showed them how the chorus was constructed over a ground bass, with each of the voice parts building up with their unique melodies that weave amongst the harmony, completely independent of each other.
There was a magic in the air when everyone sang the piece again. The request to sing quieter was no longer an instruction but something that everyone could understand as necessary to bring out different melodic lines and emotions.
I returned home feeling absolutely ready to complete all the solo music of Scenes 1 and 2. I haven’t met the extremely fine soloists yet but I have heard them on recordings and I know the sound world of the choruses that they will be joining. It was always the idea to put the voice of the next generation into the centre of Solar and I am confident that their urgent voice for change will be heard.