During the recent Samling Artist residential program, Jonathan Dove spoke to young singers about his writing process and the composition of his new song cycle.
When I write songs, the hardest part is finding the right words. There are many wonderful poetry it is not changeable. Simple lyrics can be better because the words add something to the music, but they should always speak to me. Once I find the right words, they will tell me how they want to be sung.
I was introduced to the work of Australian poet Judith Wright in a coffee bar in London on a very rainy morning just before the pandemic, by Karon Wright (no relation!), the artistic director and executive of the Samling Institute for Young Artists.
Karon asked me to write a cycle to mark 25 years of the extraordinary work that the Samling Institute does to train the best young singers and pianists. His idea was to have a set of songs for two singers, a man and a woman, singing alternately. She had made a selection of five of Judith Wright poems that she thought might work well together.
Two voices. This already suggests that there must be a relationship between the singers. I immediately wanted some of the songs to be duets: it would be a duet cycle, something that I had only tried once before. I took Karon’s selection poems away and ruminated on them. I found them to be very lyrical and direct. I wanted to explore more and read more about Judith Wright’s work. She writes with wonderful vitality, on life, love and nature.
I was hoping to find some kind of story that would link our two singers together. For a while I thought about a bigger selection of ten poems, mainly from a private collection, Woman to Man: I did some preliminary sketches to see how they might work together as songs. In the end, I settled for six, including four of Karon’s initial picks. Little by little, the story emerges of a man, returning from war, who meets a woman in a wine bar: it ends with the voice of the child who emerges from this union. As I began to seriously set Wright’s lyrics to music, I discovered that the clarity and appeal of his writing is deceptive: it has hidden depths and takes the reader or listener beyond what. they expected. When I started trying to sing them, I discovered that I was drawn to the idea of imagining new sounds – new to me, at least.
I often work on the accompaniment first: vocal melodies are born from the meeting between the accompaniment textures and the words. Some images of nature initially tempted me to paint too much, which would interfere with the vocal lines. The intricate bird song had to be reduced to fewer notes, and as I explored the imagery of trees (“Standing here in the night / we are turned into a big tree”), the rich arpeggiation must have be simplified into rooted and strummed chords, like the accompaniment to a popular song, to allow voices to flow freely. It was exciting – these were sounds I had never made before.
The final poem, ‘Stars’, was the most difficult: it took me a long time to find the right texture. I started with a very charged piano twinkle, with the vocal line in the middle of it all, but eventually found that the stars must emerge slower, into a vast sky.
I can not sing. So I sing through the voices of others. I can only offer something that artists can connect with and take to the world. I almost never mark the dynamic or the expression of the singer: I want the musical performance to be shaped by the singer’s individual response to the words and the stories they tell. It’s not all in the notes: the song must be completed by the singer. I’m just part of a relay race, passing the baton to other musicians.
I was delighted to spend a few days in July with the Samling Institute as part of their Residential Artist Program, with course leaders Sir Mark Elder and Yvonne Kenny, and to see for myself the incredibly hard work that goes on. unfolds, as well as the love and care that the team invests in young artists. It was their first program since the pandemic: it was very special to see these young singers, who have lost so much, start to find their wings again. It’s no surprise that so many Samling artists pursue such impressive careers, including the three who will create my cycle – soprano Alexandra Lowe, tenor Filipe Manu and pianist James Baillieu. I will be working with them before the concert and can’t wait to see what they bring to these beauties poems.
Man, Woman, Child will premiere at the Samling Artist Showcase at Wigmore Hall in London on Sunday 7 November.
Read all our reviews of Jonathan Dove’s music here.