Tom Coult’s Beautiful Caged Thing, a song cycle for Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra will be unveiled this weekend at the Aldeburgh Festival. Ahead of the premiere, we caught up with Tom to find out more.
Beautiful Caged Thing sets poems you have created yourself by arranging sentences and phrases from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Why Wilde, and what led you to this way of working?
I’m a real devotee of Oscar Wilde. His back catalogue manages to take in aesthetic proselytising, thoughtful analyses of socialist political theory, some highly provocative silliness and hedonistic absurdity, morality tales and modern fables, wit of such audacity and acidity it could burn through steel, and deeply personal and moving accounts of his own personal hardships. And all with a literary technique that imbues every sentence with more linguistic elegance than many writers manage in a lifetime.
I’ve long wanted to set his words – to tap into the lightness and playfulness of his plays and the strange pronouncements of his gnomic, flippant characters. But his poems, largely early works, seemed too restricted in metre and rhyme for my purposes, and they seemed to be weighed down by their wealth of classical allusions. Too ‘Earnest’, in fact… (having said that, I’m an admirer of the later Ballad of Reading Gaol which is wonderful but of completely the wrong atmosphere for the piece I wanted to write).
So I set about The Picture of Dorian Gray, typing up phrases I liked, then printing them out on little bits of card. I then spread them out on a big table and re-arranged them, like those fridge magnet poetry sets, but with sentences or phrases rather than words. I made three poems that each has a certain situation, attitude, or story – it’s not random Dadaist collage – and those became my texts. Each poem has, on a sentence level, all the linguistic elegance of Wilde, but in tone they tend to be more surrealist.
The great advantage of this way of working is that I didn’t have to be precious about this ‘great poem’ that I was trying to set. If I needed to cut a line for musical reasons, I’d cut it. If I needed lines to be in a different order, or to go and find some new words, I’d do that too.
Can you say anything more about this new – feminine – poetic voice that you have assembled from Wilde’s words? What is the relationship that you envision these poems as having to the original text?
It’s not related in terms of character or setting whatsoever – there are no Lord Henrys, or Basil Hallwards, or Dorian Grays, and it’s got nothing really to do with the opium-soaked homes of upper-class Victorian layabouts. Also, one of the striking things about the novel is how peripheral and scarce the female characters are, so perhaps it’s more interesting to put these wonderful words into a female voice (perhaps my favourite line in this spirit is the disapproving ‘Men get intoxicated; shoot each other in bar-rooms; use bad language…'. Instead, though the words might have been taken from any of the novel's characters, there’s broadly speaking a sense of a sole narrator. In the first song ('I have known everything') she rather self-importantly imparts some important facts she’s come to know (‘All good hats are made of nothing…We have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things…’). In the second ('Monstrous marionettes') she narrates a scene between a capricious lady and a sleazy, manipulative man. Lastly, in the third she’s more world-weary – ‘I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else…looking like a beautiful caged thing’.
Whilst the soundworld of these songs is often glistening and luxurious, under the surface there seems to be, more often than not, something quite rigorous and ordered going on in terms of musical process… Can you reveal something about what is going on here and in the cycle more generally?
I always use various techniques and number games to get me going when I’m starting, or when I’m stuck, and I like the process of concealing these processes, or colouring them, so the music doesn’t sound mechanical. The whole third song is based on a mensuration canon at the octave at a tempo ratio of 5:4, a lot of the second song is a mensuration canon at the major seventh at 5:8:12 (ish). There are all sorts of other tricks and games that are in there, some of which I’ve forgotten.
In particular, there’s a 12-tone series that gets used here in the first and third movements, and it’s one with some very interesting properties – it’s constructed out of just semitones and major thirds, and contains two transpositions of a certain 5-note chord. It’s an object that’s intrigued me since I first used it in a piece back in 2011. It’s been used in various ways since, in the third of my Études for violin, in Sparking and Slipping, in this piece, and also rather emphatically in a forthcoming piece of mine…
Ultimately though, it’s like the rivets used in a building – if the architect has designed a horrible building, then nobody’s going to care about the ingenious techniques used to stitch it together. They’re not interesting in themselves (but if they weren’t there then the whole edifice would collapse, or never get made in the first place…).
Your last piece to involve voice was your Seven Face Pictures from 2010. How has your music evolved in the intervening time, and what preoccupations have stayed the same?
Rather a lot has changed, I suppose – Beautiful Caged Thing is my most recent piece and Seven Face Pictures is one of the earliest pieces of mine that I still allow out of the house… There are a lot of things that have stayed similar however – in Seven Face Pictures, I used Caroline Bird’s wonderful poems collectively entitled Facial. These have a similar mix of surrealist imagery, strange wit, and sentence-level elegance as the texts of Beautiful Caged Thing. I think I was after the same things from texts back then as I am now…
There are various links in terms of how I think about the ensemble, but I think my attitude to vocal writing has changed a lot. It’s really bloody hard to write vocal music…it throws up a lot of issues that late 20th and early 21st century music is very angsty about – mostly surrounding melody. For Caged Thing, I didn’t want to duck these issues, and my priority, though I found it challenging, was to find ways to make the voice really sing (rather than use the voice as another instrument, or as a mine of timbral and syllabic gestures).
Claire Booth is one the UK’s leading exponents of contemporary vocal music, and has premiered numerous important works by the likes of Knussen, Harvey and Bedford. How have the particulars of her voice guided your approach to this piece?
I knew Claire’s voice from concerts and recordings – her voice can have real power but is always characterised by an amazing sensitivity and musicality. I wanted to write something that uses her wonderful abilities. I had very helpful discussions with Claire about her voice, and tried to create a piece that allows her to enjoy the notes she’s given, rather than just being able to ‘reach’ them. For one example, she told me she really liked singing in E major because she enjoys singing around high E, so the whole first movement is based around that note.
You are currently coming to the end of a five-week residency in Aldeburgh hosted by the Britten-Pears Foundation at the former home of Imogen Holst. How have you found it and what have you been working on?
It’s been great…I normally live with three others in a flat above a shop on Rye Lane in Peckham, complete with noises from buses, trains, saxophone buskers, evangelical preachers with loudhailers, and housemates practicing the violin and guitar. I love it, but it’s been quite nice to have a quiet space in which to compose. I’ve been working on pieces for the BBC Philharmonic and London Sinfonietta, as well as leafing through the volumes of Elizabethan consort music that Imogen Holst owned…
Coult's Beautiful Caged Thing receives its premiere on Saturday 13 June as part of the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival. George Benjamin conducts Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
The recently published sales score of Coult's Four Perpetual Motions is available to purchase from the Faber Music Store here.