Patron - Judith Weir CBE

Composer Jamie Brown discusses his Festival commission

The Voices of London Festival team recently met with composer Jamie Brown, to discuss his forthcoming commission, A Cornish Requiem, which will be premiered during the Festival Finale:

Hi Jamie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m sure everyone is hugely excited about hearing our festival commission, and it’s great to gain a little more insight into its creation. Firstly, the title: A Cornish Requiem. Can you explain that for us, please?

Thank you! I’m delighted to have been commissioned to write a piece for the Festival. Very simply, it’s a Requiem in Cornish, much like the idea of Brahms’ German Requiem. It does contain some Latin, however – the piece begins with a traditional Latin Requiem performance, somewhere in Cornwall, which is soon drowned out by the forces of nature (like the sea waves crashing against rocks) through which my setting of Pol Hodge’s Cornish poem ‘Mernans ha Remembrans’ (Death and Remembrance), is heard. The idea behind using the Requiem text is simple – once spoken throughout Cornwall, Cornish became extinct in the 18th century but recent regional support, academic interest and political will has successfully revived it, and it has now been re-classed as a living language. The first bilingual English-Cornish speakers for centuries are growing up learning the language at home and at school, and Cornish is once again used as a rich, creative language of poetry and literature – it has risen from the dead to live again.

And what gave you an interest in Cornish language and literature?

Alongside my composing, I work as a linguist, and am really interested in sociolinguistics and minority languages. The revival of the Cornish language is particularly close to my heart as I have very strong family links to Cornwall, and have spent a lot of my life there. I grew up with stories of smugglers and shipwrecks, and later my grandfather introduced me to the poetry of John Betjeman. In fact, my grandfather passed away in 2007 – we scattered his ashes at a rocky area of the north Cornwall coast near Trevone, and I think this was where the first ripples of an idea for a Cornish Requiem began.

Have you received much local support for the project?

It’s been great. The Cornish and Language Partnership have been very generous with their time and support; it was through them that I met the poet Pol Hodge, and commissioned the poem. Many Cornish people have got in touch to say they’re excited to hear the end result, and I hope the piece will have life in Cornwall after the London premiere.

So, it’s scored for several different ensembles; can you tell us more about this?

As collaboration is a key theme of the Festival, we were keen to produce a piece that could include lots of choirs, including community groups. This was ideal for me, as various choirs can take on the Latin or Cornish elements of the piece. You’ll also hear an organ depicting sea waves crashing on rocks, a brass quintet evoking the changing clouds and elusive sun above, and a percussionist representing the Cornish processions and festivals.

Why are you excited to be working with the Voices of London Festival?

I think it’s a great initiative – very much in the spirit of many festivals I’ve been involved with in the past. The spirit of collaboration and amateurs working with professional musicians, involving so many people, is brilliant – and I love vocal music’s ability to tell stories and speak so directly to its audience. All the best bits about music-making in one place.

For those who won’t know your music, can you give us a flavour of your soundworld?

I like clean lines, changing textures and plenty of narrative. My biggest influence is undoubtedly my composition teacher, Judith Weir – but I think you can also hear my love for artists such as Björk and Sigur Rós, all sorts of folk music and other composers including Britten.

Is this the first big commission you’ve taken on?

It’s the longest piece I’ve written for a while, since my cantata Meadows of Gold in 2009 (also conducted by Hilary Campbell!). Previously, I’ve been commissioned by The Roald Dahl’s Children’s Festival, The Autumn in Malvern Festival, Polam School in Bedford (a school musical) and many groups and individuals.

What other choral or vocal works are you working on at the moment?

I’ve actually just finished a setting of Psalm 1 for choir, and completing a song cycle for tenor, piano and cello called White Flowers. Work continues on my second opera The Westerners, in which the main role is played by the chorus, and I’m also interested in completing the Latin Requiem that gets interrupted by the Cornish text in this piece!

Can you tell us a little about how you got into writing music?

I always loved storytelling, even as a child – in fact, my grandfather was an almost Dahl-like figure who could capture your imagination with one look and a few well-chosen words. Later, learning music at school, I went on to do music A-Level and was asked to write the incidental music for a school production of A Winter’s Tale, which appealed to my sense of narrative. I suppose I realised that I had as much to say through music as with words, and by the time my music studies at university started, composing was certainly my overriding interest (just ask my piano teacher!).

Any advice for aspiring composers?

Write what comes from the heart, not what you think people want you to write. Sincerity is the first thing they’ll hear, so stick to your guns.

Thank you very much for talking about your music today, Jamie. We’ll wait with baited breath for the premiere!