Ein Laib des Wahnwitzes, Aufgegangen und Bebacken

Ognun nel mondo ha un ramo di pazzia...
(Luigi Balocchi: Il Viaggio a Reims)

Songs, street robbery and owning-up

Sir, I must have your wallet and your telephone.  Give them to me now or I will take them.  It was not a good start to the day, but I was bigger and fitter than my assailant.  He left, empty handed.  A blind beggar boarded the train, singing  at the top of a harsh, tired voice: Old Satan!  Old Satan the devil will run away when the Lord is leading our ways.  I thought it the loveliest song I had ever heard so I wrote it down and gave the singer a generous wad of Rand.  I am glad I did, because by the time she had left the carriage - still singing -  The Stolen Smells had begun in my head.  All afternoon, Old Satan followed me round Cape Town and I must have seemed very distracted to the people that I had to meet and talk to about artistic policy and repertoire.  A couple of days later, on the train to Durban, I wrote the first five minutes of the marketplace scene, straight into full score.  At Johannesburg, sent a postcard to Tom Hengelbrock with a message: Africa is productive; I have thwarted a robber and begun writing another opera.  I am unsure of the subject but there will be thieves in it.

I don't remember when or where I first heard the story.  It is a folk tale of middle eastern origin, common to Muslim and Jewish traditions.  A simple story is a good place to start when you're writing an opera but it must grow into something richer if it is to work on the stage.  This one asks an intriguing question: the baker Mukhtada isn't stupid, he isn't insane so why does he make his ridiculous demand for money?  Seeking an answer, I considered a stock Buffo plot - a goatish old man wanting a young bride - but after a couple of drafts of libretto I abandoned the idea as too simplistic and too inherently cruel.  Fortunately, my characters had by then started telling me what they wanted to do.  One should always listen when this happens, and the story we have this evening - a family feud gone horribly wrong - has a good deal more room for the compassion which comic characters need if they are to win our sympathy.

The opera is set in Baghdad but it could be anywhere: the location was spawned by Mukhtada's theme, which popped into my head one morning complete with its mocking, alliterative words; Mukhtada, Mukhtada, the best baker in Baghdad.  Baghdad it is, then, but a Baghdad that is, as the introduction says, long ago or perhaps outside time. The characters are similarly out of their time but quite modern in their ambiguity.  Mukhtada  the "villain" isn't really bad, he's foolish.  Though horrified by the consequences of his actions, he isn't grown up enough to admit that he's wrong and like many weak men, he chooses the worst possible ground on which to make a stand.  Then, finding himself in a hole, he carries on digging!  The young "hero" Djemaal is an irritating twerp and the author of much of his own misfortune but he knows perfectly well that he's a terrible poet who should do something useful with his life - and I think he deserves a bit of sympathy: after all, he is mixed up with Amina, who may be the "heroine" but who is also a heartless little minx.  Kadayif the deus ex machina is a pompous bungler, Solomon, the supposedly wise king, can't make up his mind about anything and Sheherezade, by far the strongest personality, is silent for much of the time as she works herself up to the courageous action that resolves the story.  The chorus, like all crowds, is just plain fickle.  The most eloquent character is  the orchestra.  It has no violins because I wanted this nocturnal tale to have a dark background, added to which the viola has an astringent quality in its upper reaches which I enjoy. 

Opera Buffa is a tricky medium to handle but  I have had fun with its mannerisms.  Characters sing at crossed purposes, sneak up on each other, digress into furioso arias that hold up the action and regularly indulge in bursts of  grandiose bathos.  This was done without any irony or postmodernistic posturing: the traditions and the games that I play with them are all part of the fun.  People do not, for the most part, sing as they go about their daily business and if we evade the artificiality of opera in pursuit of some unattainable naturalism, we move further away from the truth of the story, not closer to it.  The old structures are economical ways of covering a lot of ground in what is always a slow-motion medium even when it goes at breakneck speed.  Though at every turn I've tweaked convention's tail - sometimes I have pulled it very hard indeed -  I need it to be there because it makes dramatic sense. 

From the start, I conceived it as a piece that would, if need be, work in a concert performance.  This demanded something like a symphonic structure, with  classical forms pressed into service where they suited characterisation.  Amina is usually angry to an edgy minuet; whenever Mukhtada is plotting, his music is fugal because it sounds like the devious fool that he is (and in a sharp contrapasso it is to the same music that Kadayif confronts him with what he has done).  The marketplace scene is a sonata rondo because people in groups generally repeat themselves and each other - in fact I sometimes think we live in ritornello form!  The ensemble for the whole cast after the first scene with Solomon - the only time they all sing together - repeats the music of the prologue, occupying the place in sonata form where a short recapitulation would precede the most unstable and developmental part, which in this instance is the trial.  Someone - not me - has drawn a parallel between Berg's use of classical forms in Wozzeck and my little piece, but my approach is less intellectual and more directly practical than his.  For example, the Scene 2 trio over a ground bass What I Do, I Do For Love is there because it precisely describes the attitudes of the people on stage: Mukhtada is obdurate, Amina and Sheherezade are exasperated but powerless to influence him.  My more lyrical music sometimes sounds like the Blues, though the major/minor shifts that I write originate in the restrained tradition of English liturgical polyphony.  I've noticed this trait appearing more than usual in The Stolen Smells and I think it is because, in this story, all emotions are ambiguous.  Even the "love" motif which accompanies Djemaal's first recitative, and thereafter is seldom absent, never perfectly settles. 

The play's the thing!  Gluck was right: we should direct everything we do towards the telling of the tale.  My instinctive language is tuneful and, for me, small gradations of harmony and timbre have always been emotive things.  My hands are partly paralysed: I can't play a keyboard and dislike computers.  The process of composition is therefore a meditative one; I think for a long time, then once I know what is in my head I sit at the kitchen table with a pencil and paper.  It discourages the writing of too many notes!  There is also a sound practical reason for simplicity: it works! I am in good company in believing so; storytellers as diverse as Mozart, Weber, even Berg all have recourse to simple melody and by some miraculous process my hero Verdi manages to create the highest art out of what is very often the music of the street. 

Dramma per musica is the most directly human of art forms.  Emotional confrontation is its natural territory and an opera composer must be a dramatist, preoccupied above all  else with character.  I avoid academic abstractions because they are harmful to serious work: this is an unfashionable approach, as is my habit of writing melodies, but I have serious reasons for it.  Our age is beset by a musical orthodoxy that prizes complication for its own sake, which seems not to care whether anybody is listening and which has succeeded in many cases in making the creation of music into a hostile act.  Certainly it has a vocabulary that is too restricted to be able to tell a story, to establish a character or to arrest a listener's attention.  People must be allowed to write as they wish, but that doesn't mean we need share the modernists' belief that if you write with respect for the human voice, know the ranges and capabilities of the different instruments and if your audience can listen to your work without needing therapy afterwards, then somehow you can't be serious about what you're doing.  The Stolen Smells has a very serious subtext, but an audience is more likely to hear what you have to say if you enchant it with a story, present it with bold music and if possible make it laugh as well.  A singer will not fully develop a character if their attention is monopolised by impossible rhythms or unsingable notes, and a harmonic language that originates in theory rather than humanity has scant hope of  touching its audience.  I sincerely believe that if a work depends on a programme note - or if it is written in such a way as to encourage musicologists to write about it - then it's failed.  Does that make me a greybearded iconoclast?  I suppose it does, which rather pleases me:  I don't see why the young should have a monopoly on being enfants terribles!

It's an Arabian story but if you seek Arabian musical influences, you will search in vain.  All my life I have been an incessant traveller; many journeys were in Muslim countries, leaving me with an abiding love of the culture, the art and the traditional music of those places.  The Stolen Smells contains a few fragments of melody gleaned on my travels, but to have pressed the forms or the wonderful microtonal scales of Arab music into my own language would have been a bit like wearing fancy dress.  It would, however, be fair to say that the piece is driven by a sense of place and of mystery that grows the more I wander.  As a very young man I managed to get lost after dark in the labyrinthine medina at Fez .  The strange songs, cries and shadowy figures that filled the night were both alarming and enchanting.  Eventually a benign, mysterious old man helped me escape, but ever since that evening I have never been able to regard the Thousand and One Nights as a work wholly of fiction.  In a small Arabian town the streets really are blind.  Traditional dwellings have no outer windows: they turn their backs on the street and look inwards to a courtyard.  As anyone who has strolled the alleyways of Djerash, Musqat or even (if you know where to go) Istanbul will tell you, the sense of something happening just out of sight, behind a door or on the other side of a wall, is palpable.  It is easy, on a moonless night, to believe that nothing is what it seems to be, and it is a feeling that encourages the telling of stories - and the singing of songs. 

I will talk to anyone (I have quite a few scars to prove it) and in many countries people often sing as they tell a story.  This is strangely compelling and the idea of a yarn enhanced by song (preferably one told to a huddle of nocturnal listeners in a dark doorway) informs every bar of The Stolen Smells.  There have been so many singers: as well as that lady on the train, there was a man grating to a gembrii on a bus in Morocco, a voluble incense seller in Jordan, two Tartars who sat on a bank somewhere on the central asian Steppe and sang competitively for an hour, each praising his own horse at the expense of his rival's.  There was Durkan who sang to the sacrificial sheep at the feast of Eid in Samarkand, there was Julius, a mysterious Ugandan thief who made me sit up all one night in Ndere market while he boasted of what I hope were imaginary crimes - and there was one extraordinary dawn in Bombay, when I saw a street of sleeping bodies come to life, starting the day with song, with prayer and with hot sweet tea that they shared with a stranger.  All of them have added something, and in a sense it was for these storytellers that I wrote the piece: certainly it would not have happened without those many anonymous meetings and intimate songs.

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