Christopher Fox's brand new HCMF commission

Fox

"Across a divide of nearly 650 years Machaut feels like a very modern collaborator"

Across a divide of nearly 650 years Machaut feels like a very modern collaborator.

It's now eighteen months since I started thinking about comme ses paroles. At the 2006 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival EXAUDI and Apartment House gave a mesmerising performance of Paragraph 5 from Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning. Afterwards I talked to Graham McKenzie about how much I had enjoyed the performance and by the end of our conversation I'd suggested writing a new piece for strings and singers. I thought this might be about fifteen minutes of music; Graham thought otherwise and a couple of days later he asked if I would be interested in writing something much longer.

In early 2007 BBC Radio 3 joined the project as co-commissioners with the Festival and by then comme ses paroles had grown to about 70 minutes for eight voices and amplified cello, with many more voices pre-recorded. Much of the rest of 2007 was spent slowly working my way into the material, getting a sense of the overall shape of the piece. I made lots of sketches and gradually realised that the only way to work would be to start in the middle. At the centre of the piece is a long, slowly evolving vocal texture, which for about half the piece forms the musical space which the live voices and the cellist inhabit. This music gradually accumulates more and more voices, first the eight live voices, then eight more pre-recorded, then another eight, until there are forty voices filling St Paul's. Once all this music was created I was able to work out in both directions, to discover first how the singers arrived at the point where they would begin to sing and then what they would do when the space was completely filled with their voices.

In a way the gradual layering of more and more voices is like the acquisition of memory and, as with our memories, in this music new ideas can always be related to what has gone before. When I began comme ses paroles I was reading Roland Barthes's 1977 book Fragments d'un discours amoureux (‘A Lover's Discourse'), in which he constantly relates his own thoughts to those of earlier writers and at first I thought this was going to be the source of any words I needed for the piece. But I soon realised I needed words which had been written with music in mind and I found what I was looking for in the Livre du Voir Dit, written between 1363 and 1365 by French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. This extraordinary exchange of poems and letters between a lover and his beloved also accumulates its own history; Machaut is not just writing poetry but quite self-consciously assembling them into a book full of cross-referencing.

Across a divide of nearly 650 years Machaut feels like a very modern collaborator, although I've chosen not to listen to any of the music he made from these words until I've finished comme ses paroles. Nor will listeners to my music be able to hear too much of Machaut's texts: in turning them into music I am concentrating less on what they mean and more on how they sound, the wonderful, sensuous ebb and flow of alliteration and assonance; that's why it's comme ses paroles, ‘like his words'. I've found many different ways of translating Machaut into music: the words are sung, of course, but the whole piece begins with a scene in which whispered intimacies pass from singer to singer and there's also a section in which the cellist's two hands spell out texts on the fingerboard. Later on the cellist reflects back parts of what the voices are singing so perhaps he's both writing and reading this music as it happens?

It's been a long and sometimes laborious journey but as I write now it's the middle of June 2008 and I am within sight of the end. In September EXAUDI will record the many layers of the central section of the piece and by then the rest of the music will be ready for them and for Anton too. In November we will rehearse in London and then bring the piece to Huddersfield. Will it work? We won't know until you hear it.

Christopher Fox, June 2008