World premiere of Cecilia Speaks

by isabelrogers

Yes, I did just write that title. No, I can’t do it without laughing: one day I’ll take myself seriously. Today is not that day. (I take my work seriously – but that is a different blog post.)

Are you free on Saint Cecilia’s Day, Sunday 22nd November? I only ask because if you like music and can get to London, there’s a concert. Let me tell you a story.

I write poems – you knew that. I also love music, and one of my poems is written in the voice of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians (for the avoidance of doubt, I am not Saint Cecilia, the Roman virgin who hummed to God). Anyway, while at a musical thing I showed this particular poem to a composer friend simply because I thought its subject would interest him.

It did. He asked if I had any more poems. I blinked and agreed I did perhaps have a few in my bottom drawer. He asked to see them.

Ian Stephens (photo by Adam Shawyer)

Ian Stephens (pic by Adam Shawyer)

This composer friend is Ian Stephens, so at this stage my excitement levels began to rise. (I have to warn you, this post contains increasing excitement – a crescendo, if you will. We are currently about mezzo-forte.) Ian’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was performed in the 2013 Proms, narrated by Michael Rosen himself. Ian has form with poets.

I gave him some work I thought might suit being set to music. There’s no point being clever-clever with line breaks and puns if it’s going to be pulled around, so I tried to stick to my more regular metered ones: not rhymed, necessarily, but ones in which the words could resonate with each other. I’ve sung in choirs all my life, and know what works. [German, of course, has different rules, and it is a wise choir that securely fixes any dentures prior to some of the more challenging consonant-rich passages.] My poems would also have to fit with each other, however tenuously, so I tried to look for common themes or registers.

Ian replied with one of the two most exciting emails I’ve ever received. (Excitement level now approaching forte by way of a sforzando.) He did like my work. In fact, he liked it so much that he wanted to set three poems as a complete song cycle for unaccompanied choir and was I interested?

Reader, I was interested. I love Ian’s music, and having toyed with the idea of setting my Cecilia poem for choir myself, couldn’t believe my luck in having a professional composer offer to do it instead.

My sister suggested I commission him. I was so green about this whole area, it had simply not occurred to me, so I hit on a plan. You may remember (I think I droned on at the time) I won a poetry prize last summer, which came with a cheque. An embarrassingly large cheque for one poem, even if it was the longest poem I’d ever written. What could be more fitting than recycling some of that dosh? Money for poetry going towards making more poetry sing? I was quite smug about this whole circularity thing, and promptly sent Ian some funds. I should probably get a Buddhist bowl and contemplate karma or something.

Over the last year, Ian has been updating me as he worked towards completing the piece. A few weeks ago he sent me a copy of the finished manuscript. Wow. [Excitement level = stringendo.] I’ve never wished more that I could play the piano, but even I could stumble through a few chords and hear that he’s written something quite special.

A sneak preview ...

A sneak preview …

The result of all this is that The Exmoor Singers will premiere Cecilia Speaks on Saint Cecilia’s Day. The other two poems Ian set are Telephone spell to rewind love, and Orsino’s dilemma. None of these has yet been published, and I am so delighted Ian loved them enough to wind his music through them. I can’t wait to hear them. I’m hoping to sneak into a rehearsal, but since I’ve never done this before, I don’t know the form. Hiding at the back is ok, isn’t it?

If you’d like to come along on 22nd November, the Exmoor Singers’ link for information and tickets (not yet on sale) is here. It will be in St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Rd, Kensington, London SW7 – not sure what time yet, but I guess it’s an evening performance. Maybe see you there?

[As an equally delightful postscript, Ian liked a fourth poem of the original bunch I sent, and he has set that as a standalone piece for the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir. They will start working on it in September and perform at the 2016 Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod.]

These are the three poems Ian set:

I   Cecilia Speaks

I am weft to darkened warp,
twined around these strings for you.
My hidden song is only hope
until I know your love is true.

But when you touch my steel and wood
I’ll show you then what can’t be taught,
and rise through air and fill your blood,
and drug your mind, and silence thought.

And while I breathe you shall be God,
and while you’re God, you will forget
the day you trembled where I hid
and lost your heart, when once we met.

II   Telephone spell to rewind love

One drop of electrical silence.
His words, carded and spun,
threaded into a dark voltage
reassembled as some familiar magic.

Space shrinks into the tremble of electromagnets.

A breath held until he speaks will pleat time,
and the wondrous, many-layered cake
cannot be traced to those few crumbs
and suspicion of sweetness on your tongue.

III Orsino’s dilemma

Betrayed as poisoned food of love when lovelorn
artists whored their muses: this could be
a synaesthete’s doomed ultimate conceit.

But maths and serotonin can’t alloy
a half-heard breath and science. Music waits,
an opaque cave beyond the waterfall.

Our journey there through sheeted water loosens
ingrained dirt of deep-learned language, calling
out the paradox of time itself

creating pulseless folds: each ends where one
began. Then it is gone, so fleet its breath
blows back a mirage through the hole it spun.

Music is a dead man’s heartbeat. It can
interleave your atoms with the stars.
A chemical. It will not be described.