Composer Thoughts: Tansy Davies

16th June 2021

Features NMC Recordings

Tansy Davies takes us through the process behind the creation of her album Nature (released in April 2021) in this article originally published in our Friends Newsletter. Alongside articles like this, our quarterly Friends Newsletter is packed with behind-the-scenes updates on recordings and education projects, as well as invitations to see our work in action plus opportunities to meet composers and artists; find out more about becoming a Friend here.

Putting together a new disc like this, at a time like this, feels miraculous. This point in history doesn’t leave space for much true creativity, let alone ambitious artistic work. We have to fight to make room for expressions that, by nature, are new and strange. The power of music – an invisible art form - must be accounted for, like everything else, against a tide of deep-set beliefs about what does and doesn’t matter; about economics and the value of material things over ideas, feelings and experiences. I count myself incredibly lucky to live a life in music, with all the thrilling and nourishing interactions (and miracles!) it brings. This new release is a crystallisation of many important musical journeys and discoveries made with incredible performers.

All of the pieces, for me, have geographical backdrops and interconnected histories. The pieces are directly linked to the commissioners and performers, and to each other. I’ll aim to tell some of their life stories.

The first piece on the disc Dune of Footprints began life as a commission from a small German festival, Camerata Freden. Inspired by the Cave of Niaux Cave, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the work was composed in rural south-west France. I later manipulated a recording of it and slowed it right down, at which point it shape-shifted, to form a backdrop or ‘electronic harmonic field’ for my chamber opera Cave.

Nature was composed at my parents’ home in West Chinnock, Somerset; a house previously owned by two very dear artist friends of mine: the poet Ruth Fainlight and her husband, novelist Alan Sillitoe. Nature was the first of my explicitly ‘spiritual’ pieces, written in the run-up to my first opera Between Worlds. It balanced ideas about female desire, spirituality and wildness, and used encoded text - loaded with longing - that I crushed into systems that placed highly technical demands on the players. The rhythms require intense mental and physical engagement from the musicians, as does the inherent drama of the work. This performance is absolutely stunning in every way.

What Did We See? took me back to the heightened emotions of my first opera Between Worlds. It was a wonderful opportunity to re-visit the orchestral palette of the opera; to be able to expand the colours and textures, to redraw the big musical shapes and allow the music to speak more freely than it could while supporting the opera’s clear narrative. The premiere, by BBC Philharmonic at the Proms, was closely followed by the recording that appears on the disc; by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. I made some revisions before the second performance – second performances are crucial for me, since I almost always revise!

I composed Re-greening in the immediate aftermath of the run of my opera Between Worlds, at the Barbican Centre. This commission, from NYO, was just the refresher I needed. I was presented with a completely different and very joyful challenge – to compose for large singing orchestra, without conductor, that should incorporate one or two old English folk tunes. I wanted to make the piece a celebration of youth and new life.

I remember – while composing the work at home in Kent, into the early hours one morning – I experienced a minor (but to me dramatic) earthquake. It was as if a very large object had suddenly been dropped on the ceiling directly above my head. Spooked; I took it as a sign from the gods that I should perhaps stop working so hard, go back to bed and maybe even give up on what I was doing. The next day I was pleasantly reassured – on Twitter – that it was more likely a sign of their approval.

Photo credit: Rikard Österlund

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