The Darkening Green

a community composition project


The Project: May 2010 – February 2011
The School Workshops
The Narrative and the Music
The Artwork by James Wedlake
Concert Recording (17th February 2011)

The Darkening Green is a new work for children’s choirs and ensembles with chamber orchestra. As James’ dissertation solo project, its aim was to develop a process for creating a large-scale choral-orchestral work through collective collaboration between schools and local communities. The resultant forty minute work, based on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, was performed on 17th February 2011 by four schools in York and musicians from the University of York Music Department. It is James’ hope that the project could be used in the future to bring orchestras and their local schools together, in the name of educating communities and children about music and the value and importance it can have in our lives.

The Project: May 2010 – February 2011

James first invited schools to participate in May 2010, and thereafter the project ran its course in three stages: the composition workshops in November-December 2010, the rehearsal workshops in January-February 2011, and the full rehearsal with all the schools plus the chamber orchestra followed by the final performance on 17th February 2011. The four schools involved were Bootham School, Bootham Junior School, Fulford School and St Aelred’s RC Primary School. This choir of 71 children and a chamber orchestra of 31 University of York Music students was conducted by James Whittle in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. James’ composition of the orchestral score began in August 2010 and was completed by January 2011.

The project involves a series of composition workshops for primary and/or secondary schools, suitable for school choirs, music ensembles and class groups, enabling the children to compose whole sections of the work. The resultant compositions are interspersed throughout the orchestral score, which also features tutti choral sections for the children to sing, short orchestral-only pieces, and recitations of poetry over the music. The workshops allow for the children to learn about music composition as well as the extramusical themes found in both the poetry and the music, and how to convey the themes and emotions of the words through music.

The Narrative and the Music

Split into two parts, ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’, the work follows characters taken directly from the poetry, Lyca, the Little Boy Lost and the Ancient Bard, on a journey into the imagination of a growing child: fragmented thoughts discovering the values of friendship and guardianship, coping with change in a sometimes dark world. The poetry of William Blake (1757 – 1827) is full of dichotomies, oppositions and collisions: on one level, we have day and night, the Lion and the Lamb, the young and the old; on another, the knowledgeable and the unaware, the free and the cloistered, the seen and the hidden. This quasi-narrative, constructed from the weaving together of whole and parts of poems, moves towards the optimsistic concept at the work’s heart: the enriching of life and the wisdom gained through togetherness.

Colour is a strong elemental force for expressing emotion and the tonality of emotion. Green has many connotations: nature; illness; ‘on the green’ has in the past meant ‘on the stage’; ‘to green’ has meant ‘to hoax or to humbug’, as well as ‘to desire earnestly, to yearn, to long after, for’. Blake’s style is simple, but never simplistic; his great proverb that ‘One thought fills immensity’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is ever consistent. Whatever can be implied by the words, the music and poetry are connected inextricably.

These ideas suggested a musical idiom that is on one hand contemporary and forward-looking, and on the other, retrospective and nostalgic. In The Darkening Green there are “sing-able” melodies – and less “sing-able” ones – so that music, like the green landscape, is in flux between two states, though one is hardly ever its own outright, inviting ironic sentimentality as the two reflect and converge upon each other. The work has two parts, one where words are far more abundant than the other, and musically, the interval of a second/a seventh is important.

The School Workshops

The primary school workshops were based around the idea of how melodies in songs will often have a musical shape reflecting the words. The children learnt global folk songs (such as the Afro-American ‘Kelele’ and the Polynesian ‘Tongo’), and how the stories of the songs relate to the music. They drew musical shapes to understand the words of ‘Frère Jacques’ (the sound of bells, “ding dang dong!”), and ‘Greensleeves’ (a rising phrase was happy, a falling one sad).

The children were then put into small groups, and each group was given a small piece of text from poems from the Songs of Innocence, chosen in advance by James, as the children would perform their songs consecutively as one set. First, the children talked about the story and meaning of the words, and drew musical shapes, before experimenting with musical phrases to match. Eventually, they could sing their songs to the rest of their class: these were transcribed and then rehearsed. The children performed their songs exactly as they wrote them, the only addition being a separate piano accompaniment for each one, built using just the children’s melodies as guides, to lend them support – and the starting note!

The secondary schools’ workshops presented new kinds of classical music to the classes, both Year 10 GCSE Music sets, posing questions about what ‘classical music’ is and can be, and how we can respond to a literary text in order to write music. Music from the last 100 years demonstrated the huge variety of styles and perspectives: examples of new combinations of instruments, tonalities and techniques in the music of European composers, with pieces by British composers demonstrating non-classicl influences, together showed that anything is possible.

As the classes were to be split into small chamber ensembles, James selected the poems for each school in advance, so that, collectively, each school’s ensemble groups could have a consistent character and function in the work. Fulford School’s three pieces portray the Ancient Bard, a mysterious figure who warns the youths of naivety, and whose laments for the despair of the Earth drive a transition from innocence to experience. Bootham’s character is a grown child who revisits the green, reflecting on decay and restraint. The children experimented with instrumental extended techniques in group improvisation to create music and sounds that are distorted and unexpected, shadows of their former selves.

The Artwork by James Wedlake


Accompanying the performance in February was an exhibition of a painting by History of Art student James Wedlake, commissioned by James Whittle. The painting’s length, eight feet by two, requires one to peer closely and move from left to right as well as view the whole object, whilst, similarly to the music, inviting reflections on the images and associations that transpire. James Wedlake writes:

“Although currently studying art history, I have always felt more at home with the practical discipline of painting. I was flattered when, on first telling me about the project last summer, James welcomed me to contribute to it. I applaud the concept of an art community project because I dislike the way in which Art with a capital ‘A’ can at times seem exclusive and inaccessible. Having known about the project when the idea had only just been conceived, I had a long time to let my thoughts wander. This allowed me to get to grips with the themes in Blake’s poems, but also to form my own personal response to them. By keeping in touch with James, I was aware of the development of the project.

“All of these factors went into creating the painting. Although I had decided my response before I started the painting, I had not planned how I would translate it into something visual. Almost all the compositional decisions were made during the creative process. The combination of images, which do not exist in the same pictorial space, but instead form a fragmented whole, show a narrative of my thoughts. I would not think it helpful to comment on the choice of images, as that would defeat the object of having a painting. My work has been done in putting it together. It now falls to the beholder to engage with it, and if it is worth its salt, leave having gained something.”

Concert Recording (17th February 2011)

Please contact me to hear the work or check here again soon.