Classical: To the voice, with love

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The Independent Culture
The composer Jonathan Dove thrives on possibility. So

when Glyndebourne asked him to create a `community'

opera, his imagination soared.

Jonathan Dove's shortest piece lasts a mere 30 seconds and has been heard literally hundreds of times. During 1995 - the BBC's British Music Year and Purcell Tercentenary - you couldn't switch on Radio 3 without hearing it. Even Brian Kay's Sunday Morning show adopted it. It was the very model of a modern musical monogram, a logo with aspirations, a jingle with airs.

Two airs actually, both by Purcell. Dove's brief was simple: gestate from a period to present day sound, make it pithy and proud and insidiously memorable. And so his piping rendition of "Hark, the Echoing Air" effloresced into a sumptuous soundbite of Purcell's greatest hit, "Fairest Isle", and all in no more time than it takes to sell the very latest brand of environmentally friendly detergent.

But you learnt a lot about Jonathan Dove from those 30 seconds: his personality; his wit; his sense of timing; his love of melody and ear for sonority; and his ability to inhabit the moment and make it count. To make more of less, and make it to measure. In the few seconds that it takes "Fairest Isle" to achieve lift-off, a tiny drama has been enacted. The duration may be fleeting but the scale is operatic; the theatricality inescapable.

Then you learn that, as a boy, Dove designed and built model theatres in which his creative imagination was fuelled by ever more elaborate lighting and special effects, and that for the past eight years he's been music adviser to the Almeida Theatre ("advising Jonathan Kent to use his music"), underscoring the drama of every crisis to befall the likes of Medea, Hamlet, and currently Phedre. A pattern begins to emerge in which you see where this eminently practical, hands-on musician is coming from ...

On account of his love of singing ("other people's"), he initially served his apprenticeship as a repetiteur (a rehearsal pianist) for opera. He wanted better to understand these unique musicians whose instruments and bodies were one and the same. He imagined himself as a Mozart or a Rossini, tailoring music to very specific individuals.

His piano playing was, by all accounts, "orchestral". Which stood him in good stead when the City of Birmingham Touring Opera - a company dedicated to refreshing the parts opera doesn't normally reach - asked him to arrange a series of major works for small orchestra. All that time spent staring at the dots on the page, asking himself why they were there, what effect they were having, had suddenly paid off with interest.

"In substituting a chamber orchestra for a symphony orchestra, you're obviously aiming for the same effect; the same feeling. But you can't achieve that simply by taking instruments away. You have to put something else back ...."

His daring two (instead of four) evening adaptations of Wagner's Ring (or Ringlet as it was known at the time) put more back than anyone could have imagined possible. This was the Powerbook as opposed to the Desktop Ring. Faster, sleeker, but big on megabytes. Believing it was possible made it possible.

Dove chases possibilities like most people chase solutions. A conversation with him is nothing if not tangential. Even as he offers you an opinion, he is busily considering the alternatives, diving down yet another blind alley just for the hell of it. The point is, he says, you never quite know what you'll find there.

When Glyndebourne Opera asked him to get involved in local Community Opera projects, it was the "not knowing" which attracted him. The idea that a whole community could help compose and then sing its own story; that you could harness the energies of hundreds of people, whatever their musical skills, excited far more than it intimidated him.

So what if all that turned up on your first day were 25 grade five flautists, a corps of drums, an accordion band and a yodelling harmonica player (yes, really). That, says Dove, is liberating, idea-making; that is when the imagination really kicks in. And where it leads, you follow.

In Hastings, it was the ballroom at the end of the pier. In Ashford, a team of graffiti artists (some awaiting trial, some working off their community service) transformed the local sports centre to tell of the impact of Eurotunnel on their close-knit town. When French workmen finally broke through the tunnel wall, the accordion band came in very handy. Most recently, there was In Search of Angels - the building of Peterborough Cathedral, culminating in 600 amateur performers promenading to the local shopping mall where angels came down the escalators.

So never let it be said that Dove hasn't journeyed to arrive at his first full-length opera for a major house. It's called Flight and takes off from Glyndebourne next Thursday, courtesy of Glyndebourne Touring Opera (it lands in the main house next summer), in a production by Richard Jones. The libretto is by April de Angelis and took as its starting point the true story of a refugee living in Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Flight - the opera, the concept, the word - conjures up many associations for Dove: excitement, adventure, escape, dreams, an encounter with things foreign. The airport is the place where many stories meet. Everyday stories, but here they take on a magical and mythical aura.

And so the first music we hear reaches out to the blue beyond (sky music), an aspiring theme borne aloft on arpeggiated air currents, the natural sound of the harmonic series. It's a singing theme, just as Flight is a "singing" opera. Typically for Dove, it's led by its vocal lines, and they in turn by a songfulness which instantly betrays his love of the human voice. The effect, he says, is invariably much fuller and richer than can be accounted for by just the notes on the page. That's singers for you - their personality; their individuality; their "special" notes.

Melody is always there for Dove. Pulse is always there, too. The combination of both gives his music its imperative. It's little wonder his favourite composer is Igor Stravinsky. But melody prevails. Melody would seem to be the channel through which everything in Dove's music flows. In that, he is truly a child of the lyric stage.

When his musical personality comes into contact with a line of text, melody will out. He's drawn to melody that bears some relationship to the most natural kind of song - to folksong. Which means that it doesn't imply a continually shifting harmony. It is what it is. And there's more than a dash of musical comedy in his flights of vocal fancy. He likes Stephen Sondheim (don't we all). But he likes singers better than Sondheim does. And it shows.

"I suppose you could say that I'm drawn to drama but need to proceed in a lyric way. I love hearing other people's explosions of angst, neurosis and cosmic annihilation, but I can't do it myself. So I suppose I'm constantly searching for a lyric expression for dramatic situations."

So is everything Dove writes essentially theatrical? Is all his music driven by an extra-musical narrative of some kind? He pauses for thought. Another debate is brewing. My tape is running out. "I suppose you always want to avoid starting with a blank page. So a piece like my "Saxophone Quartet" began with a series of abstract musical ideas but only really began turning into a piece when I imagined a group of four friends reunited after a long absence and gradually settling upon one subject that all four wanted to talk about in some depth and collective harmony."

So the musical gamesmanship - which Dove enjoys - usually involves the free association of ideas. Dove's is freer than most. When BT commissioned him to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of British Orchestras, his fertile imagination took this course: British orchestras, celebration, bells, bell-ringing, "this ringing isle" (Handel's description of the British Isles because of its bell-ringing tradition), this sceptred isle, Prospero... And so there emerged a semi-pictorial, semi-aural image of a magical tintinnabulating island, seen at first from a distance but gradually drawing closer. The Ringing Isle took shape.

Benjamin Britten was once asked what he regarded as the main requirements for an opera composer. He replied: "The ability to write many different kinds of music." I guess we now know where that leaves Jonathan Dove.

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