The concept of Island started back in June 2013 at (conductor) Steve Bingham’s 50th birthday concert at West Road, Cambridge. Renowned ELT specialist and folk singer Jeremy Harmer was introducing me to his “crazy idea” of a narrated orchestral work for children – rather like Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf but with children actively engaged in the performance. I was keen to be involved, both from a musical aspect and from a curriculum perspective with the topics mentioned above. Steve, Jeremy and I have worked together since the mid-2000s, when Steve was Head of Strings at Colchester Institute.
Our pitch was simple:
“West Side Story meets Peter and the Wolf, on an island with a dog.”
Forces: Full Orchestra, Ely Choristers, KS2 School Pupils from the Ely region, Soloists, Colchester Institute Cantores choir and In Voco Parentis choir.
Duration: 45 minutes
Deadline: September 5th 2014, reading for the start of the school year.
Venue: Ely Cathedral
WORDS AND MUSIC
With Jeremy penning the synopsis and draft script, we spent the following months refining it in a variety of locations – Cambridge, Colchester and a cramped village hall kitchen somewhere near Huntingdon, which was more profitable than it sounds. Jeremy would compose folk songs for Sophie and Jack and their parents’ “Song of Peace” and I would transcribe these from audio and video clips of Jeremy’s DADGAD guitar tuning. We both wrote songs about the dog, Bubble and, like all good songwriters, combined the two songs for the final version. Using Skype and email was economical and useful as Jeremy would often be flying from ELT conference to conference around the world. Jeremy’s gift for lyric writing and simple yet powerful harmonic progressions were enhanced with my quick and effective orchestrations. I needed the orchestral side of the music to be easily enjoyable by a family audience and not too contemporary or atonal. Quite often, a bed of strings and a lyrical flute would support the simple children’s songs, enhancing the structure with its developing texture.
During holiday periods outside of my day job, I composed using film music scoring techniques for a reduced orchestra, to match that of Peter and the Wolf, should it be programmed together in the concert. This was also a financial consideration. We needed to ensure that any schools or semi-professional groups could afford and “fix” the orchestral players. It can also be performed using a smaller ensemble using piano and guitar at the heart, with strings and flute, trumpet and percussion as additional instruments depending on the provision. This makes it ideal for primary schools with a fixed or reduced budget.
Other musical homages (to entertain the orchestra and to awaken the subconscious of the audience) were the paradise-inducing harmonies and orchestration of Aram Khachaturian’s main theme from the BBC drama the Onedin Line, elements of my friend Louis Clark’s inspirational string writing for ELO, The Monkees’ Daydream Believer, other hidden quotes (notably the dramatic death-motif Dies Irae) and cinematic styles from composers John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Max Steiner and even Danny Elfman’s motif for Batman. This all helped make it approachable, familiar and more importantly, suitable for the audience – and keeping a level of intellectual musicality.
“SOMBRE BUT NOT SCHINDLER’S LIST”
In October 2013, I was commissioned to compose a two minute string piece for a British Council documentary about WWI and this short but sombre piece was written overnight, recorded within a couple of days by Steve Bingham, his wife, a cellist and myself on double bass. This was soon to be incorporated into Island.
In order to fulfil my creative need, I researched the orchestration and compositional structures of William Walton (Crown Imperial) and Edward Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance) to flesh this out to a full 10 minute overture entitled “The Great War Overture” in a very British style. This was in tandem with the Island composition and I knew that the orchestral sections of the Island would be drawn from the Overture and, although I hadn’t finished either at the time, vice versa. This is scheduled to be performed in 2018 to celebrate the centenary of the end of WWI.
JOINING THE DOTS
Other aspects of my compositional method were to take Jeremy’s song melodies for Sophie and Jack (which could be sung together over the same accompaniment) and, firstly, to arrange a version of each in the style of the child’s character (akin to the animals/instruments in Peter and the Wolf). Sophie was portrayed by a Celtic number with recorder, distant hunting horns and drones; whilst Jack was portrayed by a cheeky brass band with playful interjections by the children (the I’m the king of the castle motif). This enabled the melodies to be learned by the audience who would later have to sing along with the children. Repetition but with a subtle twist.
Leitmotif techniques (themes for each character) were employed e.g. the children’s themes, Bubble‘s energetic rhythm and the Dies Irae motif. This enhanced the coherence of the work, allowing the audience to identify the characters and build familiarity with the whole.
The choirs’ prayer for peace (Dona Nobis Pacem) was composed by adding the Sophie and Jack melodies together and calculating which note of the each chord was missing for each bar (vertically). This gave a mathematical solution which satisfied standard harmonic rules and this framework was crafted into a canonic (call and response) hymn, accompanied by strings and the full cathedral organ, at our disposal. Naturally, this theme was interwoven throughout the earlier duet “Song of Peace” on the flute, for subliminal introduction. By the finale, all three melodies (and a fourth incompatible melody) were carefully combined to create the big spine-tingling finish, to which we added the audience participation.
Additional underscore was composed by responding to an audio recording of Jeremy’s performance of the narration. This enabled me to judge the correct mood and timing even though the script was ever changing; Roz Chalmers was a great external editor for us who often would see the bigger picture. Demos would be shared online between the creative team for input and re-working.