Setting Sally Purcell's Songs

Setting poetry to music involves a psychic intimacy which leaves the composer with a sense of a poet’s fragrance similar to the physical memory of a lover. To call the experience erotic is too easy, for it leaps right over that territory to end within a domain of the soul where memories of relationships are stored as a dynamic accretion to one’s own self.

A few years ago I made this journey into Sally Purcell’s poetry, and it was one of the most rewarding of my creative life. There is often a tension as to whether text or music is the senior partner—a clue lying in whether the term poetry or lyric is used—but in my experience of setting Sally’s poetry there was no tension of a hierarchy; just a reciprocal flow of language and music entwining to enhance the emotional meaning.

I feel I can use her Christian name even tho I didn’t ‘meet’ Sally until 14 years after her untimely death. An Oxford contemporary gave me her collected works in 2012, and I was immediately transported to another world. It was like entering a stranger’s house and knowing you were going to fall in love. There was an immediate openness between souls. ‘My friend speaks my mind’ is the phrase used in Quaker circles.

Entranced by her delicate precision of language and the refined awareness it displayed, each night before falling asleep, for a couple of weeks I enjoyed reading a couple of her poems. Immersing myself in the dense and richly mysterious images was like nodding off in a perfumed room.

There seemed to be two main themes in her poetry: erotic love and the spiritual dimension/s of life. Or if you prefer, a single theme: the relationship/s formed by personal and trans-personal love. And what makes her writing so luminous is that, unusually for an educated modern, she saw no a distinction between the two.

Being first attracted to set her Sestina for soprano, tenor and piano that June, I followed it immediately with a themed selection of 11 short poems I titled The Arc of Love. But I could see further diamonds buried within the pages hinting in perfect metaphor at aspects of the perennial mysteries of faith; and in August one of these, Temenos, caught my meditative eye as an ideal text for a poor man’s Spem In Alium.

The poem evokes the magic of sacred space created between humans, and I first thought to emulate the majesty of Tallis’s 40 voices; but as I began I encountered some of the logistical problems that Tallis himself must have faced notating 40 staves of music four centuries ago, the first being to find manuscript paper large enough, compounded by a contemporary consideration now that all scores are computerised, that I would’ve required a 60” screen to be able to read and work on the whole score vertically at any reasonable resolution. As I have only a pair of 27” screens to work on I compromised by using 20 voices as five spatially separated quartets who share and echo canonic exchanges. To be honest noone can actually hear a difference between 20 and 40 parts since there are only seven notes in the scale.


Sally was truly a poet of kairos. She captured jeweled snapshots of rainbow moments where all the mercurial elements that float in the ether of our lives align. Hers was a quantum craft wherein she crystallised the randomness of life into moments of moral coherence, like a great photographer who uses even ambiguities of focus for expressive effect.

Where I feel kinship is that Sally didn’t write for approval or applause, she wrote because she had seen truth. She understood that truth is both eternal and transient, and that kairos lies in the momentary intersection between them; and it was her faith in an ultimate reality, an ultra-reality that transects and interpenetrates terrestrial existence, that gave her the courage to see and to live under the perpetual whiplash of a vulnerability most of us dim by allowing as-it-were a protective moral cataract to form :: which is the world’s lie disguising the nature of the power, privilege and precariousness of existence.

The pieces I’ve referred to setting were all solitary creative experiences as performers have not yet shown interest in them; however my final excavation of Sally’s rich seam of poetry was to make sequence of poems which trace the outlines of the liturgical year, which I called The Quiet Spaces. And I am delighted that six years on these have been brought vividly to life by Greg Skidmore’s Lacock Scholars.

My decisions about how to treat these poems: Eternal Image – First Mystery –Poem for Lent or Advent –Magi – I see them walking in the Air of glory – Rilke: came about this way. I’d had a composition performed in Manchester, whose timing allowed us to take a circuitous route home via a unique concert of William Byrd’s late motets given by The Cardinalls Musick in Stondon Massey, Byrd’s ‘own’ parish church in Essex.** Hearing his five-part motet Beata Viscera exquisitely sung in this resonant space—accompanied by the spectacular aerial display of an excited bat—was to feel the veil of time dissolve.

On my return the music for each poem came to me as fast as I could write out the previous one. My intention was that the first five motets should be performed together as they share a transpersonal dimension, and then after applause, the sixth, Rilke, be offered as a subjective encore featuring solo voices singing ...
    Even if we know love’s landscape
    and the little churchyard with its mourning names,
    and the frighteningly silent ravine for which others are bound,
    time and again we walk together under ancient trees,
    time and again lie down among the flowers opposite the sky.
Lake and Labyrinth 1985

To enjoy The Quiet Spaces I recommend turning captions on to display the text.

What I adore about Sally is how she illuminated the mystical realities of faith real without surrendering an iota of the complexity of a modern viewpoint. Like Olivier Messiaen she retains a naive belief in the ultimate goodness of Life with a kind of intensity that Tallis or Byrd would have recognised. Both modern visionaries offer a way forward for contemporary consciousness which sidesteps the sterility of intellectual art, and in Sally is the more remarkable for sustaining an authentically feminine vision within a life that offered precious few material comforts, and probably an unfair amount of gender discrimination.

Temenos, the 20 part motet, exists only with synth voices. As it makes great demands of the singers, time alone will tell whether I shall hear it with my physical ears or the ears of spirit – but I know that I will eventually because it speaks of the perennial truth that Sally expressed, which cannot be crushed or extinguished because it is Life itself. Whatever my state when it is performed I expect to clasp Sally’s spirit hand, and we shall be like two separated parents acknowledging the graduation of the child they conceived but could not raise together.

**Ironically, as a fierce recusant Byrd was regularly fined for his refusal to attend Anglican services. Notwithstanding which, there is a memorial in the church to him which records the obituary where Byrd was cited as ‘a father of music’.


The Quiet Spaces

The birth fairies give some people things they don’t understand or necessarily even want. Mine was to be given Faith. All my life has been about coming to terms with an experience of confidence in my life’s eventual outcome which many people search for with a life of nighttime tears - and yet I feel I might have been better off without. 

These thoughts are in my mind because I’ve just published the Lacock Scholars’ exceptional recording of my Quiet Spaces on YouTube using subtitles to provide complete clarity. If the business of art is projecting one’s inner world into or onto the outside world, then this could not have been done better than by Greg Skidmore’s committed performance of my choral songcycle to words by the mystical poet Sally Purcell. 

It lifts a burden from my shoulders because I feel this piece at last represents perfectly what I have striven for during so many decades of silence – to project what is not merely a musical voice but a spiritual one. Altho I have always been conscious of what my authentic voice (/meaning) was, I could not make it audible to others because I could not find people to perform what I wrote. Notwithstanding; I remained convinced that my 'children' were as deserving of a fair hearing as anyonelse's; so it was only my faith that 'my redeemer liveth, and at the latter end he shall stand upon the earth' that kept me sane and on track. (Prophetically, this aria from Messiah was my audition piece for choir school.)

People, other than family, who know me would probably not have detected this cognitive dissonance I carried. My family alas probably saw or felt it all too clearly. For there has always been a paradox within the idea of meaning (/voice). For most people, I’m guessing, Meanings are forms of shared communications with families, lovers, friends and the wider world. In a word they are, in the classical sense, eros – the ‘relatingness' dimension of existence. But for me Meaning was always the voice inside me, logos the intellectual antithesis of eros – which I had to find a way to project if I was to have any place or raison d'être in the world. 

Because these issues were not yet clear to me, in my youth I espoused demotic music, and sought to compensate for the isolation which my voice seemed to enforce by seeking work within broadcasting where I could borrow shared musical Meanings, and pretend to belong. But this was not how I experienced authentic inspiration, and eventually in the late eighties it became increasingly clear to me that if I was to reach my potential as a creative and spiritual individual I should have to voyage throu darkness to find where /what /how my true meanings were. The ordeal by fire, where everything is reduced to ash, and only the refined gold remains. By that time I had fashioned a lot of the tools by which to extract meaning from my inchoate interior, namely how to cognise and make imagery of my Inner Otherness – whether or not it held value for others

A central tenet of Jung’s was that our Unconscious always shows us the face (/respect) we show it. My sense of my Unconscious has always been so strong (through dreams and direct inspiration) that I would almost turn the dictum around and say that I have had to learn how to show my Unconscious the respect it has always shown me. And to do that truthfully was something I felt that noonelse could help with—which was why I refused all higher education after running away from school—for instinctively I felt any form of ready-made answer would contaminate the authenticity of the thought-form I sensed taking shape within me, but which as yet was painfully lacking in coherence. 

The nature of this sacred obligation is one that I tried to run away from, like Jonah, because it aroused impossibly conflicted emotions in me. Due to the complete lack of encouragement to express myself from my parents or teachers, composition, to which I was inwardly impelled, was at one and the same time the most acutely painful activity because I had been taught that the end process of engaging with my unconscious was unwanted; and thus to produce a gift for the world was to be brought face to face with my isolation from the Meanings of others. 

Thus I felt as if I had to make my entire creative personality from scratch. The responsibility seemed utterly overwhelming; and I have described the process by which I did so in The Creative Voice. A main event for me has been to determine the nature of this Otherness I experience? Is it my mind? Is it access to a greater collective Mind? And/or is there a transpersonal element, and if so what is its nature? When I first became aware of this concatenated tangle of issues, at the age of 13, it was bound into questions of identity and sexuality and my alienation from almost everybody in the world. The result was an intense depression, from which I thought it impossible to be released. And yet within me was the conviction that it would all make sense one day; and if I could survive the next 40+ years, in old age people would be willing to hear from me what in youth there were unable to. I would therefore describe my life as a crescendo of happiness, which was begun by the intervention of Jane Clark Dodgson in my life, followed by meeting and marrying Clancy in 1975; and the joy that children and grandchildren and other relationship have brought.

Yet the meaning of these eros=relating relationships existed in parallel with the logos=inner-arising Meaning which I felt it my dharma to express; and my karma to overcome the barriers which inhibited its expression – on whatever plane of reality these may (/not) have existed. I knew, in fact, that I could not die until I had accomplished it; and so, in a way, I knew that no lasting harm could come from my hurling myself and those I love into difficult situations because I had to reach (by the blind guidance of the unconscious) the destiny and destination of accomplishing some kind of autonomous authenticity before as-it-were converging with my soul at the point of death.  

Despite writing a setting of Dylan Thomas's There was a Saviour when I was 21, which I believe stands comparison with what anyonelse was doing at the time, I was quite unable to obtain any performances. (I eventually conducted a recording of it myself with a volunteer choir in 1999.) I had not found a way for my Meanings to gain traction in the minds of others, far less in the collective Mind. 

The thing that terrifies us about some forms of (mental) illness and addiction is that they are without periodicity. There does not appear to be an intervention able to bring an end to anguish, which is as painful for observers as for patients. I was in the interesting position of being able to see and chart this experience (which I did in my play The Watcher in the Rain) – since so long as my 'voice' could not be heard, to passing musicians (those whose only meanings are ones they can eat off) I was just another ‘time-waster with a manuscript’. While I could not exhibit what my Meaning/s meant in the real world was because there was no defining output distinguishing intention from accomplishment for others to grasp. 

The music and the ideas behind it did not synchronise with contemporary cultural discourse, for reasons known only to the Ancient of Days. So until this point, at the age of 72, a meniscus of silence around my major works (written after 2003) has been preserved, and it is only now, thanks to Greg and the Lacocks, that the ambrosia can seep out. 


I am not claiming these experiences as unique. I suspect they're perfectly normal for such individuals who—by whatever accident of genetics—have mindsets where there is a strong awareness of Inner Otherness, regardless of the vocabulary or medium in which describe what appears real to them. What has been important to me however, and for which I found the perfect vehicle in Sally Purcell’s pœtry, is that my music embodies a Christian spirituality that moves beyond the straightjacket of formalised religious thought to embrace a world in which all faiths can meet and respect each other. All true Art represents the small nuggets of eros-meaning we refine from the logos-enigma from the privilege of existence.

I would love what I compose to be popular, in the sense that I would love it to be a vehicle for others bringing people together to share its Meaning/s – but this outcome is unlikely for such thoughts that lie outside the general discourse. All I can do is be a witness to a view of humans that acknowledges their 'within-ness' is simultaneously their access to 'outwith-ness'. 

And the role of Faith in this? Well without this ‘delusion’ I wouldnt’ve built what I have, because for one thing I wouldnt’ve had the plan. And now at last, hearing The Quiet Spaces, I feel vindicated – that my redeemer or advocate does indeed stand upon the earth. 


What is great music?

Maybe music falls into two main categories? One that meets our current expectations – the other that takes us beyond them on a journey to a larger space.

Giving people what they’re familiar with is a laudable and honest enterprise – mostly! But to me what is exciting is to lay out a beautiful sound-path that leads listeners to musical experiences  that go beyond their expectations. I believe that the unique feature of all true art is that it allows our own personal ‘meanings’ to engage with the evidence of our senses; and in the merging of the inner and outer to derive a greater sense of Meaning, or, if you prefer, a sense of greater Meaning. 

A matter of the greatest sensitivity therefore is selecting and presenting music that attracts people to join this ’space trip’.  And what we call ‘great' is music which is a proven vehicle for the experience. 

This explains what a Bach violin concerto and the entertainment Façade are doing on the same bill on Saturday 15th September 2018 at Compton Marbling Barn. The Cherubim Chamber Soloists  will perform four complementary concertos in the first half, which give four of our Cherubim Musicians a chance to show what they can do: and they make a super sequence, being linked by a beautiful string orchestral accompaniment. Those who have been to our Festivals before already know flautist Octavia Lamb, violinist Gabriella Jones and cellist Josh Salter. Only vibraphonist Diogo Gomes is new, but what a sonorous instrument the vibraphone is, and the Séjourné concerto shows its range of colours to superb advantage.

So we hope you will come and support them. But those concertos then prepare us to crack open the jack-in-a-box that is Façade, and out jumps a cornucopia of fireworks. There really isn’t another piece like it – witty, sad, flat-out mad and touching all at the same time.

And why? Because it’s held together by William Walton’s wonderful music. Each movement is a little jewel perfectly expressing the mood of the poetry – which the 19 y/o Walton probably didn’t even understand! So what appeared to everyone in 1922 as an ephemeral  jeu d’ésprit has stood the test of time and grown into work of intriguing ‘greatness' that people are still performing and enjoying 100 years later.

I urge you to give it a listen. I can’t guarantee you that inner space journey; but I think it’s safe to say that music-lovers who have come to our events have found the experiences they were looking for as well as being offered intriguing glimpses of the worlds that lie beyond.

Book here for a great night out and a chance to share the magical energy our young performers bring.