Jocelyn Pook interview: A concentration camp and a coronation

The composer is busy scoring our past, present and future, as Claudia Pritchard discovers

Jocelyn Pook finds music in unexpected places. The bright yellow bird carolling in a cage by the window of her north London home was handed to her by a neighbour, who found it on the front doorstep. Lemon Drop’s constant song (Pook says it is a budgerigar, but surely only a canary is this tuneful?) is an appropriate soundtrack for this most musical of homes, born of both serendipity and solid technique. That is also the formula for Pook, a composer and performer who has taken absolutely no notice of musical barriers in a career that bestrides a spell with pop group the Communards, an opera, theatre, including an Olivier for Saint Joan at the National, and film scores, notably for Stanley Kubrick’s swansong Eyes Wide Shut.

When we meet, she explains she has four projects on the go: they variously involve modern history and future events, literature and art, dance and song, and choral singing. Sitting in front of an array of screens and keyboards – at 54, she is of the generation that moves effortlessly between acoustic and digital composition – she laughs self-deprecatingly at the scale and imminence of the task ahead.

Amid the leads and cables is a little book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the collected poems and drawings of Jewish children from Terezin, the Nazis’ concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia, which was deceptively marketed to wealthy Jewish families, persecuted in their daily lives, as a spa-like refuge. Pook’s staged piece marking 70 years since the camp’s dismantlement, Drawing Life, recently premiered in London with more performances soon. It is inspired partly by this poignant volume and partly by reminiscences of survivors such as Zdenka Fantlova, author of detailed memoir The Tin Ring, and pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who died last month in London at the age of 110. To her surprise, Pook came across accounts of enthusiastic music-making and of unlimited laughter when the children, including Fantlova, were bundled up in their dormitory.

Featuring video projections by Pook’s artist husband Dragan Aleksic, and co-devised by dramaturg Emma Bernard, Drawing Life calls for an accordion, clarinet, violin and two cellos; each player also sings alongside two vocal soloists. It is not, says Pook, a song cycle; rather, songs are interwoven with the children’s words, those of their adult selves, and with the percussive, single-word orders of authority.

Next on the agenda is another commemorative project, one of three new English National Ballet pieces marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, being performed under the collective title Lest We Forget. Dust, which premieres at the Barbican this week, is a collaboration between Pook and Akram Khan, who is working with a classical ballet company for the first time, fusing contemporary movement with traditional technique. Pook and Khan have worked together successfully before, notably on DESH at Sadler’s Wells. Layered on this friendship are her family connections with the war: her grandfather survived, but a great-uncle died.

Pook’s score will feature the circular ditty “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here …”, which was sung by soldiers to the tune of “Old Lang Syne”. She was fascinated by its black humour, resignation and knowing wit, and will juxtapose the counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny with a fragile archive recording made in 1916 by Cpl Edward Dwyer, who was killed later that year.

Dust will consider women’s roles. “They found themselves useful as a workforce,” says Pook. “My friend’s East End mum ended up repairing aircraft in Inverness.” The music will, typically, include “found sounds”, and is evolving with the movement. “There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, the material was like working with clay, so rich and ready to form.”

The death of Pook’s great-uncle also partly underpins Anxiety Fanfare and Variations for Voices, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation for London’s new Anxiety Arts Festival in June. Her great-aunt was severely disturbed by the death in action of her brother and so Pook grew up with an awareness of mental illness. But the subject’s gravity is eased by its witty handling. Her vocalists include the outrageous cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat and instrumentalists come from the innovative Aurora Orchestra, with choirs from south London and Maudsley NHS. The impact, mental and physical, of singing in a choir is proven, and the current craze for choral singing is one which Pook applauds.

Not so, however, the hefty costs of studying music for today’s students and the ministerial preoccupation with vocational subjects. “I would never have gone to the Guildhall had I not had a grant.” And while her own daughter is engaged in music in many ways at her nearby primary school, Pook is concerned at how few musical opportunities there are for some children. “At my school they asked, ‘Who wants to play the violin?’ and I put my hand up,” she says simply. “If it is only the privileged few who have access to music and the arts, it’s a terrible thing.”

There is another glimpse into the future in new play Charles III at north London’s Almeida theatre, for which Pook is writing the score: also opening this week, it imagines the ascension of Prince Charles to the throne and reunites the dynamic team of writer Mike Bartlett and director Rupert Goold, who previously collaborated on the National Theatre hit Earthquakes in London.

With a cellist and an oboist who also sing, and with rousing choruses for the actors, the score will draw partly on medieval music: “There’s a sense of the past, and it is partly in Shakespearean verse, while very much set in a contemporary time.” So will we be hearing a preview of our future king’s coronation anthem, the next Zadok the Priest? “I’d better not give that away,” she says discreetly. “But do you know any coronation texts?”

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