Thursday, February 01, 2007

The American composer John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls was the inspiration behind a project I've just finished with the London Symphony Orchestra, working with Scottish composer Paul Rissmann. Together with three wonderful LSO players, we were working with young people to compose a piece reflecting their lives and experience of the London tube/bus bombings.

Over two weekends, ending on my birthday, January 28, we played music and experimented with words in St Luke's church, the LSO's beautifully restored centre in Old Street, London. The sun floods through vast windows and warms the wood. The young people rose to the challenge brilliantly and Paul took them through the principles behind John Adams' music so expertly that when they performed their composition at the Barbican Centre before John Adams took the stage to conduct the LSO, connections sparked.

It was exciting for me to work with words and music in this way. On the Transmigration of Souls uses text from missing posters and messages sent on and after September 11 in New York. The words are critical but deceptively simple. I had to try and find a way to help this group of young people make words work for them without sitting them down in a conventional poetry workshop because there just wasn't time, apart from anything else.

The first full run through with music and words was a only a couple of hours before they were due to perform. We recorded the words to play over the music - triggered on I Tunes. It was nerve wracking as I was operating the laptop. One or two mistakes in rehearsal, but okay at the real thing, I think.

John Adams took time out before he was due on, to sit, listen and meet the young performers. Then we piled into the concert hall to listen to his music. It was an astonishing evening that made me realise how inadequate CDs are in communicating the power of an orchestra.

So at 52 I discovered, at last, why some people have such a passion for live classical music. I've experienced nothing as overwhelming as that concert, particularly the piece we were responding to, performed with a full choir. It made so much more sense being able to pick up some of the themes that Paul had introduced us to, recognising what was happening in the music, and it reminded me of my experiences at the Avignon Festival with CEMEA over the last two summers, the subtle links that the French animateurs make between workshop activities and a piece of work.

A project like this is so affirming. It makes sense of working with young people, of working collaboratively and using brilliant art as a model. It stretches everyone and opens up new ways of doing things. It also leads me to realise that I'd love to work with musicians to experiment, to find the places where music and words connect.

The John Adams project's transmigration theme also took me deeper into the Taliesin poems, in particular The Battle of the Trees, that have fascinated me for several years. It feels like a treat to be paid to work with such talented and inspirational collaborators. And it reminds me that Avignon sunshine beckons again this July. This year I want to go by train. I am already imagining the changing landscape. Fields of sunflowers, sun bleached rock and wild herbs in the quarry where last year we listened to opera in Russian and the crickets accompanied a canary in a cage.

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