In Conversation: Joby Talbot

In Conversation: Joby Talbot

On the importance of music in a fragmented world.

In Conversation: Joby Talbot

On the importance of music in a fragmented world.

Path of Miracles, originally written for Tenebrae, is a work that seeks to spread peace and light throughout an increasingly challenging world. Can you tell me about the process of writing this emotional work - where the concept came from and what the message is that you were hoping to share with the listener? 

The original idea for the piece came from Nigel Short, the founder and conductor of Tenebrae, and singer Gabriel Crouch who I had met when I wrote the madrigal The Wishing Tree for The Kings' Singers. Gabriel called me and asked whether I'd like to be one of four composers to work with Tenebrae on a new project about the Camino de Santiago. The original idea was to have the choir walk the pilgrimage, performing the new pieces singly, then sing all four together for the first time in Santiago itself. I imagined this incredible choir singing my music in such an extraordinary context and immediately asked (rather presumptuously) whether I could, in fact, write all four movements! I then travelled to northern Spain and visited the four locations after which the movements of the piece are named. The very different feelings I experienced in each place gave me the idea of for the overall structure of the work. Roncesvalles would be a energetic prelude - a coming together of people filled with excitement at the journey ahead of them; Burgos a kind of a Dies Irae; Leon a Lux Aeterna; and Santiago a joyous finale with a contemplative postlude inspired by the cliffs of Finisterra - the 'end of the world' on the Galician coast.

The text is made up of numerous multilingual historical and sacred documents, combined with the poems of English writer Robert Dickinson. How did you choose and combine the writings that you used and what was it about Dickinson's style that worked so well alongside the other texts? 

I'd come across Robert Dickinson when I read his poem Proofs which is about medieval French saints. It was published in The Independent newspaper and I was so struck by the tone of the poem - which, in a few short verses, offers a devastating critique of organised religion, while celebrating the beauty of simple faith - that I cut it out and kept it in my wallet for years. On some level, I must have known that the Tenebrae commission was going to come along one day! With the help of The Poetry Foundation, I contacted Robert and asked him if he'd be interested in working with me on the project. Meanwhile, Gabriel Crouch put me in touch with the historian, Professor Jack Sage, who is an expert on medieval Spain based at Kings' College, London. Jack gave me a pile of ancient texts associated with the Camino, and Robert set to work setting them in the context of his own verse with my four-movement structure in mind. The idea of incorporating a wide variety of languages refers to the extraordinary mixing of cultures that the medieval Camino enabled, something that is still a striking feature of the modern-day pilgrimage. 

Across four movements, Path of Miracles follows the pilgrim trail, Camino de Santiago; offering to the audience an understanding of the difficulties and privileges of travel. Has traveling been an important part of your life and work? How does travel complement or inspire your creative practice? 

Travel has always been important to me and an inspiring part of my creative life. I think that deep down in all of us is the urge to keep moving, and journeying through space enhances and celebrates life's journey through time. Path of Miracles is a piece about journeying in the widest sense of the term and I intend the experience of listening to & performing the work to feel like a journey in itself.

What are the challenges and highlights of writing music for choir?  

Like most musicians growing up in Britain, I sung in a lot of choirs as a kid but always thought of myself as an orchestral player and composer first and foremost. Path of Miracles was the first substantial choral piece I'd written and I guess I brought a kind of useful naivety to the process of writing for Tenebrae. Nigel Short had given me the range of each individual singer before I started and I think I basically wrote for them as though they were instruments. I really had no idea whether it was going to work but I kept in mind that a similar approach had served me well with The Wishing Tree and fortunately it all turned out well.

You've said that the ultimate message of the work, but also all music, is to share hope for humanity. For you as a composer, why is music such a powerful medium for sharing love and empathy?

I think that, at heart, all my music (or at least all my good music) is about that. Music is a communicative art form that transcends language and can express the widest possible palette of emotions. When people come together to perform and listen to a piece like Path of Miracles it's a very lovely thing -  a beautiful act of faith that I hope will have a lasting and positive impact on everyone involved. It sounds trite to say that music brings people together, but it does, and in an increasingly unstable and fragmented world this is important.

For young musicians hoping to get into composition, do you have any advice for choosing and setting texts? 

Choose texts that speak to you and respect them in the setting. You can do all kinds of things with the words when setting them to music but they should never lose their integrity. I also feel that it's important to pick words that seem to want to be put to music, otherwise what's the point? So much poetry, for instance, is most beautiful when spoken, so I would avoid setting that. Likewise, I would avoid setting anything too prosaic. Most importantly make sure you can sing your vocal lines. I'm not a great singer so I know that if I can manage the pitches and rhythms a proper singer will have a great time performing it.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presents the Sydney premiere of Joby Talbot’s acclaimed acapella choral masterpiece Path of Miracles on Friday August 17 and Saturday August 18.