Composer Cecilia McDowall and poet Seán Street have collaborated on the creation of many choral works in recent years, from Shipping Forecast to Angel of the Battlefield. Here they discuss some of the challenges and pleasures of balancing words and music to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Cecilia McDowall (CM): Writing for choral forces, characteristically, requires text and I feel whatever words I choose to set they must be ‘good’ words, words which give strength to musical expression. For me, the most enriching part of this creative process is collaborating with the poet; it is a chance to fashion something new, something, one hopes, which will have a resonance for our times.
Seán Street (SS): Successful creative partnerships carry a degree of enigma about them, an almost psychic link that the superstitious might fear could be disturbed by too much analysis. Nonetheless recent collaborations have led us to consider the nature of the synergy between text and music in our work together, and it may be, I think, fruitful to explore it at this time.
The evolution of a partnership
CM: Seán’s poetry has given inspiration in some very different and interesting ways as in these examples; a string trio based on the poem, Time between Tides; a setting of poems in the cantata, Shipping Forecast; and most unusually, when copyright was denied for the use of poems by Borges and Neruda, Seán created text to replace the forbidden poems without my altering a single note in the score of the already premiered orchestral song cycle, Theatre of Tango. His sleight of hand enabled this work to be recorded with impunity. Our more recent collaborations have taken a new direction…
SS: Looking back on our working relationship to this point, it’s interesting to reflect on how it’s evolved from settings of pre-existing texts, to recent more collaborative and interactive works. This has been enabled as I’ve become increasingly familiar with Cecilia’s ‘sound’, and way of musical thinking. It’s a type of teamwork that has refined into a hybrid connecting composer, writer, and subject in what I’ve found to be a highly rewarding method of collaboration. To blend a text in a shared thought with someone from history, and hear the two elements interpreted through music, is a thrilling experience.
The practice of musical and textual collaboration
CM: Any creative process is a solitary business so working with the poet, for me, brings an added dimension and great enjoyment. I’m also interested in finding ways of bringing some historical element to the music I write, hoping this might communicate directly with the listener and perhaps encourage further exploration of the subject matter as in the Red Cross commemorative Brightest Star. There has always been a sensitive partnership between Seán and me; one where I might suggest including words from a historical figure and then leave him to get on with the hard work of incorporating them into the text!
SS: Words written specifically to be set are not the same as a piece of writing designed to be read silently, interpreted by the eye and brain. For one thing, the listener can’t turn back the page! And where the subject is a person from history, as in the case of Edith Cavell (Standing as I do before God), Rosalind Franklin (Photo 51), and Clara Barton (Angel of the Battlefield), the relationship between the sounds becomes even more significant. Words spoken or written by the subject and incorporated into the text, carry equal weight with created text in the musical interpretation, so it becomes a three-way partnership.
Sound and meaning
CM: The balance between composer and poet, I feel, is an equal partnership; the words are crucial to the essential expression of the music and the music should not obscure the meaning of the words in any way. And if we can succeed in achieving this creative equilibrium then the possibility of communicating with our performing artists and our audience becomes more assured. If one is lucky, the performance can become an immersive experience, one which may perhaps continue to resonate with the listener.
SS: This is where the real interpretation takes place, where marks on paper become sounds and express themselves through time and space. An auditory response to those sounds is as individual as each person who makes and experiences them. And that is the key word: experience. This whole process from idea to performance is a journey; we offer our words and music to the performers and they pass them to the listener. Theirs is another partnership, and what is heard and felt at that point is a fusion of many things, which, when it functions at its highest level, defies analysis.
CM: The fusion of words and music is a magical process. The text gives so much richness and depth to the meaning behind the musical idea and I feel it is incumbent on the composer not to get in the way but to try to enable the listener to inhabit another world, a sphere of the imagination.
SS: We’re the servants of the subject; this must never be lost sight of, because what we’re telling is their story, and while a version of their voice is heard when it comes to the performance, they don’t have a say in the process. That’s a responsibility for us to take very seriously.
Featured image: extract from ‘Naming’, Movement III of Shipping Forecast, composed by Cecilia McDowall, words by Seán Street