a community composition project
The Darkening Green is a composition project for children: a large-scale choral-orchestral work based on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.
The project ran in 2010-2011 and involved 71 pupils from 4 schools in York – Bootham Junior, St Allred’s RC Primary School, Bootham School, and Fulford School – plus a chamber orchestra of 31 University of York Music students conducted by James.
Following workshops with James, the pupils devised and performed their own songs and instrumental pieces responding to select poems. These were interwoven with new orchestral music and songs by James.
The resultant 40-minute work premiered on 17th February 2011 in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York.
Project Timeline and Summary
Schools invited to participate
Orchestral score composition begins
School composition workshops
Orchestral score composition completed
School rehearsal workshops
Full rehearsal and final performance on 17th February 2011
The project comprises 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 an orchestral score which also features tutti choral sections for the children to sing, short orchestral-only pieces, and poetry recitation over the music. The workshops allow for the children to learn about music composition as well as explore extramusical themes in both the poetry and the music, so that they can develop their own creative response by conveying their own themes and emotions through music.
Narrative and 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 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 ‘Kelele’ and ‘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.
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.”
Please contact me to hear the work or check here again soon.