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a writer's life Music

About ‘The Centaur’, an opera written with Helen Russell

I’ve not talked much about the work I am doing with Helen Russell. We met in December 2014. She contacted me after hearing the CD called Clameur I had done with Matthew Pollard, and she needed a librettist for new a project based on a short story by José Saramago called The Centaur. Here is a link to Nadine Gordimer reading the story.

The project was an opera. And its narrative is centred on the last living Centaur. Saramago shows us the struggle of his half man, half horse nature. He has managed to survive by hiding in the woods of Europe over the centuries. Naturally, he is lonely, and an encounter with a woman by a river triggers a series of events where the centaur draws attention to itself. Eventually he falls from a hilltop trying to escape pursuit, and is split apart and killed on a jagged rock.

The story is deceptive, it seems quite simple to begin with, but rewards reading and thinking about. Nadine Gordimer wrote, ‘there’s as much in this little story as in 20 novels and 20 poems’. Certainly the more Helen and I thought about its dramatic and philosophical implications, the more excited we became. In the intervening years we have found ourselves discussing philosophy, mythology and ontology and the whole process has been one of personal growth. For me it also led naturally from poetry I’ve written re-imaginging mythological characters in a contemporary space. My poem ‘Minotaur’, from the pamphlet, The Nightwork  is one such example. Here it is set to music, not by Helen, on YouTube. I like it when your work seems to organically develop like this.

So for the last couple of years I have been popping around to see Helen in Hove every now and again, armed with tranches of libretto, while Helen has busied herself writing a lush and involving score. With now more than an hour of the opera safely on Sibelius software, plus notebooks of musical sketches and our carefully worked out, our vast project is gradually taking shape. Naturally, as it is opera, there’s no need to hold back from passions, and writing on a grand scale. We have written all kinds of scenes, the first we worked on was a love duet between the woman bathing in a river, and the Centaur who chances upon her. All looked over by Selene the goddess of the moon, as baying dogs and an angry crowd gather offstage. Not every day that you put yourself into that kind of imaginative space.

This is a long project, but I intend to put some more about it here. Meanwhile, here’s a snap of Helen Russell at her piano.

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Categories
Autobiographical Music Real life

A one-way ticket to Palookaville and other random observations

There are all kinds of romantic ideas about how you should behave as an artist. But starving in a garret, which I have done in the past, was not for me. Just recently, pockets full of air after moving house, I had a sequence of six freelance assignments being cancelled one after another – all for legitimate and completely random reasons. Suddenly worries were tugging at my sleeve like a tiresome child, saying ‘how can you be wasting your time on stupid POETRY when you are not earning any MONEY’. Luckily the pesky tyke has given it a rest lately as I have work again. Obviously, thanks to the work I’m now doing, I have no time to finish off the poetry I was able to start in the last few months, but was too twitchy to complete. The Catch 22 of real life.

Having returned from 15 or 20 years scribbling about locusts in the wilderness, I notice that the poetry world is now populated by poets who market themselves excellently through social media. Of course there are people who are giants in cyberspace, but Lilliputians on the page and vice versa. But I love the fact that the internet has opened up avenues to all kinds of writing. But I do get irritated by all the ‘on-message’, relentlessly positive stuff – almost as much as I do with passive aggressive self-righteousness. When the little homunculus of real life is goading me and I’m not feeling positive, I try to steer clear of cyberspace for a few hours. With my marketing hat on, I’d say sincerity is an undervalued commodity when building any kind of a brand, especially a personal one.

I prefer to get hold of a book or a pamphlet and read a collection. I want my attention to focus on what I’m reading, not see it on a screen where there are a bazillion other possibilities trembling with life at the touch of a finger or the click of a mouse. I felt this when I started and edited an e-zine around 2000-2003 called AnotherSun. Although it was quite obscure it featured the work of poets around the world and was visited by quite a few in its time.

A one way ticket to palookaville
A one way ticket to Palookaville

One way to be successful, of course, is to focus on one thing and do it properly. A life lesson I have never been able to learn. If I had focused on AnotherSun for a few more years, for example, perhaps I could have been somebody, instead of sitting writing this at my computer screen like a bum.

But focusing on one thing is just not who I am. I wish I could because I think I would be a lot more successful. Poetry as my first love has cut the deepest, but I can never resist diversification.

The Opera I’m working on with Helen Russell, for example, is going remarkably well. We have settled into a good working arrangement, meeting regularly to discuss at length the section we are about to write, and how it fits with the shape of the whole piece. I write some words and Helen then scores them for singers and an orchestra. Naturally my bit is a good deal faster than Helen’s, but we already have nearly half an hour of music fully scored with words since February. I like writing these words as you can introduce as much fighting, sex, and stabby stuff as you like. After all, they lap it up in opera I’m told. More news of this when it happens.

Categories
Music Poetry Telltale Press

A stocktake

Thanks to hefting a sack of wet sand just before New Year, January was a trapped nerve. Weeks of sleepless and painful nights left me groggy. In one fanboy moment I tweeted (it seemed right) Pascale Petit about her fabulous poem Ortolan about her father eating a songbird. She told me that it was written after a sleepless night in Paris. I wish insomnia made me anywhere near as creative. Anyhow, with January swept under the carpet this is a snapshot what I’m up to, and who I’m up to it with.

  • Board Games a rather surprising entry this. But I find that I am long-range adviser to Amanda Milne, doyenne of New Zealand’s board game inventors at SchilMil, who is planning to set a game on an island well known to me.
  • Music I have begun a new collaboration with Helen Russell, a Hove based composer, who got in touch after hearing the Clameur CD I did with Matt Pollard. My project with Helen is in its infancy, but it is a longer piece of music with orchestra and singers. We are basing the piece on a story by Jose Saramago. This is the first time I have worked with an existing text as a springboard but, now I have adjusted to the idea, I’m quite enjoying the structure this provides. It is exciting to sit at the piano listening to Helen play some of her emerging beautiful fragments and sketches. I’ve already begun to supply some words, and I’m fascinated to see how this project unfolds.
  • Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Already this year I have been working on  IBS and swine health projects. Annoyingly other more glamorous projects are about to go live, but I cannot yet speak of them due to commercial sensitivity. In the could-do-better department, however, I am also working to improve my marketing blog.
  • Poetry Under the benign influence of Robin Houghton, I am being more methodical about sending my poems out for publication. There was room for improvement. But after a few weeks I’ve already had an acceptance already from Helen Ivory at Ink Sweat & Tears. I am also now firmly part of Telltale Poet’s Collective with Robin Houghton. We are about to go into Borg mode and assimilate new poets. Further readings and publications will be announced. I’m also consumed by a passion for reading poetry again. Poets I’ve read in January included (in no particular order) Pascale Petit, David Harsent, Rhona McAdam, Tamar Yoseloff, Ester Jansma, Jorie Graham, Catherine Smith, Kathryn Simmonds, John McCullough, Stephen Bone, Tara Bergin, and Tua Forsström.
  • Prose I have vowed this year to finish my children’s novel featuring a character called Skelton Yawngrave. I have been writing this off and on for about eight years. It must end now, mustn’t it?  Could this be the year Skelton Yawngrave emerges from the shadows?
Skelton Yawngrave
Skelton Yawngrave