Magic Lantern Tales: Songs By Cheryl Frances-Hoad
Beth Higham-Edwards, vibraphone
George Jackson, conductor
Anna Menzies, cello
Natalie Raybould, soprano
Collin Shay, countertenor
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music has been described as “like a declaration of faith in the eternal verities of composition” (The Times), with “a voice overflowing not only with ideas but also with the discipline and artistry necessary to harness them” (The Scotsman). Now published by Chester Music, she has been commissioned by BBC Proms, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Spitalfields Festival, and recently premiered a piano concerto. This is her fourth album for Champs Hill Records.
“…I endlessly repeat words & phrases, trying to find the music in them: the exact pitches and rhythms needed to portray a particular emotion… I often only discover what the poem really says to me when I reach the final bar.” Cheryl Frances-Hoad T
The collection includes texts by Kei Miller, Tamsin Collison, Andrew Motion and Stuart Murray written especially for Cheryl, and pre-existing ones by Kate Wakeling, Aristotle and Ian McMillan. It is from South Yorkshire poet and well-known radio voice Ian Macmillan’s cycle Magic Lantern Tales that the album takes its title, telling the stories of dementia sufferers.
Performers include Nicky Spence and Sholto Kynoch, Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone (who get a special mention for playing egg shakers in The Thought Machine with texts by Kate Wakeling). Scenes from Autistic Bedtimes is a result of Cheryl’s time as a Cultural Fellow in Opera Related Arts.
- Sleeve Notes
'Strongly recommended 21st-century music that should frighten no one but make them pause frequently for thought (not least through her beguilingly idiosyncratic titles)' - Guy Rickards, Gramophone, September 2017.
Among today's brightest luminaries, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, born in 1980, has been composing to commission since she was fifteen. Classical tradition (she trained as a cellist and pianist at the Yehudi Menuhin School before going up to Cambridge (Gonville and Caius), gaining a Double First, and then King's College, London), along with contemporary influences including literature, painting and dance, have contributed to a creative presence provocatively her own. 'Intricate in argument, sometimes impassioned, sometimes mercurial, always compelling in its authority' (Robin Holloway, The Spectator), her output - widely premiered, broadcast and commercially recorded, reaching audiences from the BBC Proms and festivals to school workshops - addresses all genres from opera, ballet and concerto to song, chamber and solo music.
She's a composer who cheerfully, skilfully and imaginatively bridges all styles. 'Everything from the great classical works to jazz, pop and electronic music, anything from Bach to Ligeti, inspires me, and I feel very lucky not to have to worry about whether I’m in or out of fashion musically. I find it really exciting to collaborate with all manner of different artists, as well as people beyond the arts'. In its rhythmic twists, its 'felt' more than calculated durations, its brittle attacks, lush harmonies and sudden oases of dawn wilderness, its mischievous denial of the expected, much of her work suggests a self-portrait. 'Thought and planning aside, composition for me is largely about distilling feeling to the nth degree … a massively more confident, heart-on-sleeve version of the real me, everything magnified and sent over the edge.'
Winning coveted prizes and awards notwithstanding – 2002, a good year, included a Mendelssohn Scholarship, the Bliss Prize and (jointly) the Harriet Cohen Award – she's a musician agreeably in touch with society, reality and modern-day economics, taking obstacles in her stride. (The 'Failure CV' on her website goes entirely with the person.) 'I think you have to be determined to the point of utter bloody mindedness … A thick skin for rejection is very useful, and somewhere (however deep down) you need total self-confidence in what you are writing' (The Cross-Eyed Pianist, 'Meet the Artist', 24 January 2013).
'Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music is melodic, passionate, equal parts humour and reverence … I urge you to become acquainted with this composer’s work … worth your time' - Stephanie Boyd, American Record Guide, March/April 2018.
Magic Lantern Tales (November/December 2015). This cycle of five songs sets words by the South Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan from his collection Magic Lantern Tales (2014) written in response to interviews and documentary photographs by Ian Beesley. In 1994 Beesley was appointed Artist-in-Residence at the Moor Psychiatric Hospital in Lancaster where the majority of patients suffered from senile dementia or Alzheimer’s. Here he came across a drawer full of glasses and another full of photographs. Some patients had been in the hospital for decades and for those who had died with no living relatives, their last few possessions were placed carefully into these drawers. ‘Many of the photographs,' remembers Beesley, 'were related to the First World War, soldiers [...], family gatherings, weddings with the grooms in uniform. These glasses were the glasses they must have used to look at their fading photographs perhaps [in an] attempt to pull back some fading memory. Two simple wooden drawers containing a visual eulogy to forgotten lives. This experience prompted me to photograph and interview as many men and women who had experienced the First World War before it was too late'.
'My cycle,' Cheryl says, 'tells the stories of three of the elderly people interviewed by Beesley: Lily Maynard (101), Harry Holmes (100) and Mabel Walsh (104).
'Lily found a young man cowering in the bushes on her way back from the fair during a thunderstorm. She rather liked him, so she coaxed him out and took him home. They started going out and were planning to get married when he was called up. He went to the Somme (July-November 1916) and never came back. Lily never married.
'Harry Holmes was a decorated war hero, serving at Ypres, when he returned to Bradford to be a painter and decorator. He became good friends with Harry Ramsden (of fish'n chip shop fame). The pair loved to while away the hours down the pub, but when Harry K found a teetotal wife, the pub trips had to stop ... until Harry H hatched a cunning plan, for Harry R to buy a dog so that they could walk it (to the pub) every day! This continued for many years, unbeknown to Harry R's wife. When Harry R died, his wife had to start walking the dog. It promptly lead her to the pub where Harry H was propping up the bar …' All Harry ever wanted was 'a stroll, and a pint, and a kiss'.
'Mabel Walsh used to go out with J B Priestley before he was famous, but "he was an argumentative bugger" so she had to "jack him in". She found a fiancée who was more her type, but, loading a truck in 1918, he was killed instantly by a tiny piece of shrapnel. She never married.'
The three poems are framed on either side by 'Marching Through Time', offset by a pedalled tolling 'bell' in shades of green - the 'colour' of the note/key E for the composer: 'They marched through the streets of these Northern towns, and their winding sheets and their hospital gowns are not all we remember of these marching men'. In the course of each number there are telling homage-allusions to songs or individuals associated with the First World War period. I, V - 'The Lads in their Hundreds' (A Shropshire Lad, A E Housman/George Butterworth, 1911: Butterworth lost his life, shot through the head, at the Battle of the Somme, August 1916). II – Keep the Home Fires Burning (Lena Guilbert Ford/Ivor Novello, 1914: 'They were summoned from the hillside,/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men') III – Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile (George and Felix Powell, 1915: 'Smile, boys, that's the style. What's the use of worrying?'). IV – Elegy (Thomas Moore/Cecil Coles, 1907: 'When weary wretches sink to sleep/How heavenly soft their slumbers lie!/How sweet is death to those who weep,/To those who weep and long to die!' Coles was killed by a German sniper on the Western Front, April 1918, aged twenty-nine.
Magic Lantern Tales was premiered by Nicky Spence and Iain Burnside at The Venue, Leeds College of Music, as part of the Leeds Lieder Festival, 2 April 2016.
Star Falling (24 July 2004); Blurry Bagatelle (2017) 'Star Falling, a contemplative miniature for piano,' writes the composer, 'was penned and sent as a gift in an attempt to stop a partner from leaving me. It did not have its desired effect (which in retrospect was tremendous luck!). A simple, calm reflection on some of the lines in Else Lasker-Schüler's 1910 poem Versöhnung (Reconciliation), it was written purely intuitively in a matter of hours.' The sonority and spacing of the 'white' C major close lingers long and achingly. 'We want to wake the night,/Pray in the tongues/That are shaped like harps./[...] And our lips want to kiss,/Why do you hesitate?/Does my heart not verge on yours -/Your blood colors my cheeks red./We want to reconcile with night,/When we embrace we do not die./A big star will fall into my lap.' Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), 'the Lady Gaga of the Weimar Republic' (Rick Fulker), was notorious in the cafés of Berlin for appearing in costume as a Persian girl or Egyptian boy. Versöhnung was published in 1912 in Der Sturm, illustrated by Lasker-Schüler's fellow expressioninst, Franz Marc (1880-1916). 'Why did you illustrate [this].' she asked him, 'are you also painfully lost as I am, that I have no roads anymore, only ravines'.
Blurry Bagatelle was a commission in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society, marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Presteigne Festival founded by Adrian Williams in 1983. The fifth of a series of six 'Bagatelles after Beethoven', contributed by six composers – Martin Butler, Jack Sheen, Gabriel Jackson, Michael Zev Gordon, Cheryl, David Knotts – the inspiration of the collection was Beethoven's final set of Bagatelles, Op 126, published in 1825. Paul Conway writes: 'Blurry Bagatelle was influenced by Beethoven’s Op 126 no 5 (Quasi allegretto). Phrases and gestures from the model [though not its G major key] found their way into the new piece, whose title alludes to chords sustained by pedal and fingers. The central episode [dolce e piangevole] sets the letters of the name “George Vass” [current artistic director of the Festival] as a nod to his sixtieth birthday year'. Stylistically, the music alludes somewhat to the pages of the Homages piano cycle (2009-15). The first performance was given by Tim Horton at St Andrew's Church, Presteigne, 25 August 2017.
A Song Incomplete (17-18 August 2013) This aphorism after Aristotle – 13 bars plus a lunga pausa – was written for the wedding of Cheryl and the American trumpeter and percussionist, Brant Tilds, 31 August 2013. The three singers on the occasion were Natalie Raybould (soprano), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano) and Anita Mackenzie Mills (soprano). 'At the touch of a lover everyone becomes a poet'.
Love Bytes (July 2012), commissioned by the Tête à Tête Festival, sets a text by the audio producer, director and librettist Tamsin Collison. 'A virtual romance. Two cyber lovers ask themselves exactly who is on the other end of the line - Can you trust your heart in the digital age?' 'Wide-eyed yet restrained excitement' no more, to the fading strains of a vibraphone (she) and cello (he), 'They close their laptops/I-pads/blackberries, pick up their coffee cups and walk off in opposite directions'.
For Jennifer Johnson and Alistair Hogarth, Lament (September 2009), to a poem by the former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, 'was written for the Cultural Olympiad “Artists Taking the Lead” project - which we didn't get'. 'Then we shall walk out together as before/Hand in hand through the streets and the parks/Where birds sing when the rain passes away'.
Conceived as a response to Britten's Canticles I and II, 'the cutting edge of the vocal lines increased by their density and the bold gestures of the piano writing' (George Hall, The Guardian), Invoke Now the Angels (2013), a joint-commission to mark the centenary of Britten's birth, was premiered by The Prince Consort at the Wigmore Hall, 22 November 2013. For the text Cheryl commissioned a poem from the Jamaican poet and essayist Kei Miller. Tensionally, the work phases strikingly between drama, dream and decay.
Commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival, The Thought Machine (August 2016) sets ten poems from Kate Wakeling's first collection of children's poetry, Moon Juice (2016) – an anthology 'full of curious characters and strange situations ... musical, sometimes magical, and full of wonder at the weirdness of the world'. On the one hand, the words and currents, the fantasy, of a child. On the other, the sophistication and tides, the fantasticality, of an adult. Cheryl has journeyed the Schumann road before (One Life Stand, 2011), and her way with subtexts, associations, parody and distillation – the notion of obeisance - has always been Schumannesque. At times Robert's Album for the Young or Scenes from Childhood seem but a step away from The Thought Machine. The creator as 'moonstruck maker of charades'. The trickiness of the vocal and piano writing is considerable. Especially, one notes, the attention to pedalling, prolonged depression of the damper (as well as sostenuto in 'New Moon') leading to a dancing resonance of overtones and misty images floating in and out of focus. Unexpected twists bring a smile, for one the 'optional egg shaker, or any other percussion instrument that rattles' allocated to soprano and baritone in the sixth song, 'Machine'. For another the theatrical cues: 'Baritone could act as if asleep in a car' ('Night Journey'); 'Soprano could have been staring horribly at the baritone … making the baritone freeze' ('Rita the Pirate'). 'Shadow Boy' touches magic, 'Comet', closing the cycle, thrills.
The Thought Machine was given its first performance by Sophie Daneman, Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch (dedicatees respectively of the second, third and sixth numbers), at the Holywell Music Room, 27 October 2016.
Scenes from Autistic Bedtimes (2012-13) ‘Any encounter with disability is for most people an encounter with difference.’ Linked by a unifying leitmotif ('It is showertime; it is bedtime'), these three scenes from a projected chamber opera were workshopped in Leeds, with Natalie Raybould among others, during Cheryl’s tenure as DARE Cultural Fellow in Opera Related Arts in association with Opera North and the University of Leeds (2010-12). ‘I look back on my DARE Fellowship as one of the turning points of my composing career. Being able to concentrate on writing for two years, and having access to such a wealth of operatic and academic knowledge and experience was incredibly valuable, artistically and personally.’
The libretto was the idea of Stuart Murray, Professor of Contemporary Literatures and Film at the University of Leeds, Director of the multidisciplinary Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities, and author of Representing Autism (2008), the pioneering book on the condition – one ‘surrounded by misunderstanding and often defined by contestation and argument’. ‘I do think,’ he's said,* ‘that historically the representation of autism has largely been a history of misrepresentation. The classic example is that there are still many many people who believe that if you are autistic you necessarily have special skills, that you're good at maths or memory or calculation or music - a cultural narrative going back to Dustin Hoffman's [autistic savant] character in Barry Levinson's film Rain Man from the 1980s.
'Our scenario is about a parent taking a child up to bed. Repeatedly. A lot to do with autism is about repetition. I really like the idea of repeating a whole sequence of events with slight differences. Originally I intended just the internal voice of a child who cannot communicate verbally. But once I'd written the first experience of bed time from that point of view, I almost immediately, without stopping, went on to the reaction of the parent. So each evening, each bedtime, we have these two voices - competing on the same topic from different angles, asking questions, responding to the moment. Having filmed (and shared) the spinning, twirling, very idiosyncratic movements of the younger of my two autistic songs, Lucas, was something I was also keen to convey. The thing I love about opera is that it’s all so fantastically artificial, in so many ways so brilliantly preposterous. Those great moments when you realize that it's through the seemingly very artificial that you actually get to a wonderful kind of truth telling.'
For the condition to be shown as it is - manifestation not metaphor - lies at the core of Autistic Bedtimes.
* 'Autism and Opera - Two Weeks of Autistic Bedtimes', DARE interview, 21 June 2013
© Ateş Orga 2018
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