'I took a big step into my own harmonic world' - Tansy Davies on composing Between Worlds

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Between Worlds, the highly anticipated operatic debut from Tansy Davies, opens at the Barbican Theatre, London on 11 April. A bold and highly individual response to the events of 9/11, the opera, commissioned by English National Opera, brings Davies together with and librettist Nick Drake and acclaimed director Deborah Warner. A disparate group of individuals are trapped high up in one of the Twin Towers, caught between earth and heaven, life and death. As the opera progresses, it opens out to a universal panorama of human beings in extremis. Contemporary music specialist Gerry Cornelius conducts a cast that includes countertenor Andrew Watts as the Shaman and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley as Mother.
 
Lasting around 90 minutes, with no interval, the opera is scored for 16 singers, chorus and a small orchestra of 35. Fortissimo caught up with Davies during rehearsals to find out more.
 
How did the opera come about?
 
I met Nick in 2008 to discuss the possibility of working together on an opera. We had a subject and story in mind that had a focus on the Twin Towers, but not on the events of 9/11. That changed over time as a result of our continued and ever expanding talks. Deborah Warner joined our conversation in 2010 and after that the subject began to shift towards the events of 9/11 and we moved slowly but surely towards the creation of Between Worlds.
 
In addition to working with Nick Drake on this opera you’ve also set some of his poetry in songs. What particularly attracts you to his work and how do you find collaborating with him?
 
In 2009 I set two of Nick Drake’s poems, This Love and Static. Nick and I became friends right from the start and have a natural way of working and being together that has always felt creative and positive. What I’ve found is that there’s a flexibility in both of us, coupled with a mercurial way of thinking that allows us to take huge leaps of faith together, and to throw out ideas that at first might seem very wild, or even silly.
 
Shamanic thought has influenced a number of your previous pieces [Nature, Iris] on a conceptual or formal level and plays an important role in your opera. What first attracted you to these ideas and can you explain to readers what role they play here?
 
For me the act of composing requires the unique skill of combining a lot of technique or brain-power, with a kind of letting go of the mind or the self entirely. The technique part, acquired over a lifetime in music, becomes the vehicle for potential journeys of the soul, but there has to be letting go of any notion of what’s known or expected in order to allow these journeys to happen. I think musicians are very often like shamans and vice-versa; sound is important in shamanism, as is ritual, which is important in music. Shamans use rattles, drums, and compose unique songs or icaros to enable them to travel through levels of consciousness to communicate with the spirits of ancestors, animals and even plants, in acts of ritual healing. Music can reach or open up different spaces within us, lift our spirits and ultimately lead to transcendental experiences.
 
Much of your music is made from an almost obsessive reworking, or kaleidoscoping, of very small building blocks. How did you go about tackling this, your longest work to date? Did you have to find new compositional strategies?
 
Although there are similarities in the techniques I develop for different works, I always start off from the perspective of stepping into unexplored territory, but of course some steps are bigger than others! Before composing Between Worlds I don’t think I had made a conscious or wholehearted decision to look in depth at the meaning and potential of the vertical harmony in my music. In composing the opera I took a big step into my own harmonic world, which became both a map and a guiding light, leading me through the terrain of Between Worlds.
Actually I began as I often do, by making a horizontal line of pitches, led by the spaces and relationships between them. I then traced patterns through the line, forming an elaborate web of interconnected notes that later I turned on end; stacking them up into vertical positions to form eleven big chords. These chords became both structural pillars for the eleven scenes, and the substance for a stream of unending orchestral waves that course freely through the entire opera on horizontal trajectories.
In some philosophies, the number eleven is considered an important spiritual number; in the I Ching, Hexagram 11 translates as ‘peace’. In Numerology, the 11 symbolizes the potential to push the  limitations of the human experience into the stratosphere of the highest spiritual perception; the link between the mortal and the immortal; between man and spirit; between darkness and light; ignorance and enlightenment. And visually I saw the shape of number 11 mirroring the structures of the Twin Towers.
Another important musical element is a tapestry of interwoven cycles of closely related pitches that revolve simultaneously at different speeds. This forms what I call the ‘fabric of the universe’, and represents the long distance view of the events of the opera; a view from the cosmos or the void; the space in which the Shaman (one of the key characters) dwells. The texture of this material is glassy and veil-like, and often hovers as background vibration to scenes that take place inside one of the towers; where individuals within the glassy structure move closer to the veil between life and death.
A further compositional technique I developed for the opera is something I call ‘Tree-form’. Located along a melodic cell or line are specific points of renewal or ‘nodal points’ out of which branch  different versions of the same cell, all unfolding in different directions and at different speeds and all containing their own new ‘nodal points’. This material is heard during moments of reflection and mourning for those lost and, for me, represents the interconnectedness of life or the ‘tree of life’, and the potential for new growth and new life out of chaos and death.
 
Is opera a form that has always meant a lot to you? Which operas do you admire and did you have any in mind when you were writing yours? 
 
I loved opera as a child; one of my earliest memories is of being transfixed to the TV when I accidentally happened upon an opera broadcast. Which opera I’ll never know, but I remember that family weren’t interested but didn’t want to spoil my fun, so they left the room and closed the doors, leaving me all alone to enjoy my first opera! I didn’t have any in mind when I wrote Between Worlds, but some of my favourite operas are Berg: Wozzeck, Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Wagner: Das Rheingold, Debussy:Pelléas et Mélisande, Benjamin: Written on Skin, Lachenmann: The Little Match Girl and Sciarrino: Infinito Nero.
 
Many of your pieces incorporate electronics, but they are notably absent here... Why is that?
 
The two main reasons I didn’t use electronics were, firstly the practical side; the matter of budget and the additional complications that electronics bring. And secondly a desire to create the sound of opera as much as possible from living souls, since focus of the opera is a journey of the human soul, and about souls reaching out to each other across time and space. As an artist my intention is to look for the truth and the heart of any project I undertake and my overriding desire is to give more to the world than I take. Like many, I feel an urge to respond to negative actions with positive ones; to try to transform bad into good, and this is an area in which art can be very effective. We know from the beauty of art created through the centuries, that from the depths of darkness and pain can spring healing and renewal. Going deep into the pain and shining a light into the darkest corners of humanity, through music, can help lift the energy around us, help us understand ourselves and each other, and help bring about a healing vibration.
 
Between Worlds is at the Barbican, London from 11-25 April. 
More information can be found on on the ENO website here
 
Further Reading:
 
Between Worlds will be featured on Radio 3's Music Matters on Saturday 11 April and is being recorded for broadcast.