Recently we had our first creative “brainstorm” for the O Antiphons project at St Paul’s Knightsbridge. I’m reasonably good at staring reflectively into space (see left) but the business of capturing flashes of possible inspiration so as to examine them with a collective critical eye is fascinating.
Choreographer Hubert Essakow (far left) and composer Tom Hyde (centre) are old hands at making something ex nihilo; their respective roles demand that they make decisions in order to begin to create. But as a singer I am more accustomed to being an interpreter than a creator. Generally I am handed the finished product, at which point my creative process begins, which is to lift the song off the page and breathe life and individuality into it. One of the things composers learn early on is that they have to be able to release their creation to this process and trust that the performer will make something of it that is good, even if it is also different from what they had imagined or expected.
So being involved at the very beginning of this creating is already a challenge for me. How to talk about something that doesn’t exist yet? How to describe what qualities it might have, physically or musically? Are any of my ideas any good and do I feel brave enough to try to articulate them?
We do at least have the texts to respond to (particularly attractive to me with my fondness for words) and they offer a useful starting point. As a group, the texts have a general theme, but individual texts are of different temperatures and contain images that may be concrete or abstract. The O from which the Antiphons take their name is a call, an address – O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O King of the Nations – and the O shape is both a graphic image with a rich symbology, and a sung/spoken vowel. Possibilities start to open up from those starting-points, before we even begin looking at the broader Advent themes of light out of darkness and anticipation. The history of ritual and the circle of the liturgical year offer still more possible points of contact for the creative team.
With so many ways in, the need for some early structural decisions is quickly apparent. Hubert could suddenly decide up to the last moment (budget permitting) that an extra dancer is required, but for Tom to get on and write much, he needs to know what he’s writing for. Our O Antiphons will contain sections for eight-part choir, organ and a couple of soloists. Different texts suggest themselves for different combinations. Questions of spoken vs sung text are relevent here too; in an operatic situation I feel strongly that to come out of singing into speech has to be properly justified but in a liturgical setting where we regularly toggle between the two, the transition feels much more natural, with and without accompanying harmony.
We’ve also decided to let the music lead a certain amount of the process but to elect one movement in which the dance will come first. The music will, therefore, be created in response to this. It’ll be interesting to discover what, if any, difference it makes to do it this way round.
Photo credits: James Bellorini