We want to tell you a story

Judith Weir is one of our most brilliant and original composers. And in her new work Future Perfect, with the storyteller Vayu Naidu, she has found a way of improvising both music and text
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When composers want to tell a story, they usually write an opera. Ask Judith Weir, who has several to her credit, none of them conventional. Blond Eckbert (1994), for example, opens with a bird telling a story to a dog; while King Harald's Saga (1979) is a "grand opera in three acts" for solo soprano that lasts a mere ten minutes. As Weir herself says, "A lot of the pieces I've done with text I would describe as storytelling; in a way what I find most enjoyable is to suggest something big with something quite small."

When composers want to tell a story, they usually write an opera. Ask Judith Weir, who has several to her credit, none of them conventional. Blond Eckbert (1994), for example, opens with a bird telling a story to a dog; while King Harald's Saga (1979) is a "grand opera in three acts" for solo soprano that lasts a mere ten minutes. As Weir herself says, "A lot of the pieces I've done with text I would describe as storytelling; in a way what I find most enjoyable is to suggest something big with something quite small."

Given her interest in storytelling, it's no surprise that her newest work finds her collaborating with, not a librettist (Weir has usually been her own), but a bona fide storyteller. Future Perfect fuses Weir's music to a tale by the Indian storyteller Vayu Naidu, with whom she worked in 1997 on a piece entitled Parting Company. Their collaboration raises once again the age-old question: which comes first, music or words? Most composers would claim primacy for the music; Weir is more modest, no doubt more exact.

"We know each other's work, so there's a lot that doesn't have to be discussed, but it's fair to say that at the beginning, I asked Vayu to tell me a story, or at least to begin to tell me a story," she explains. "We have then worked on it section by section so that the piece has grown week by week. The musicians are very much part of that process. I bring some music that is written down, but people come up with all sorts of ideas from that; I think of myself as an editor, a record-keeper, perhaps."

The musicians working on the project are tabla player Sarvar Sabri, and four players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and they have to follow Naidu's story with unusual attention.

"My kind of storytelling is very improvised. I never script my work. Judith understands that, and wants that notion of working to be transposed to the musicians," Naidu says. "They are used to working from a set score: what happens if you let that piece of paper go? Obviously Judith has created what you could call a spine of music, just as I create the spine of the story in advance, but we wanted to be sure it flowed so that each played off the other."

It's a rare composer who submits their music to circumstances not defined by the score, but Weir is unfazed: "It would be pointless to tie Vayu to a script, because then we might as well have any actor reading it. It's built into the process that what she says is not too fixed, although it would rather throw us, if on any one night she suddenly started telling a different story."

Nevertheless, she is reluctant to define the result as improvised music: "I'm shy of the word 'improvisation.' For orchestral players, it conjures up the idea that they are going to have to become Ornette Coleman. Let's say that the players have many options, and depending on their decisions as to what seems right at any one point in the performance, they might follow one or another. The rehearsal process is about learning a repertoire of possibilities, but the idea is not that there is a random choice. The point of it is to tell the story clearly: it's not simply pulled out of a hat at the last moment."

Neither Weir nor Naidu sees this as an "East-meets-West" project. "The piece grew specifically out of Birmingham, and East met West a long time ago there; they know each other pretty well by now," says Weir. Adds Naidu: "Let's not say "This is from India, and this is from Europe. It's constantly shifting, so that one merges into the other. They are emotional landscapes that have no political boundaries."

In that context, its interesting that Naidu's story is set neither in Europe nor in India, but in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, a landscape that may be alien to her, but which she knows at first hand.

Her story involves Rekha (a woman of mixed Indian and English parentage), an abandoned mineshaft in the Rockies, a dinosaur's footprint and a mysterious sari left in the mine a century and a half ago. Even in Naidu's brief summary, the tale conjures up powerful images. When I ask her what Weir's music brings to her act of storytelling, she responds: "The interior landscapes. I can say 'We're in the Rockies', but Judith actually creates the experiences of what it means to be in that kind of monstrously profound vastness, a vastness which provides on the one hand, a sense of liberation, and on the other, a tremendous alienation."

Weir concurs: "Part of the whole role of the music is to give ... I won't even say atmosphere - rather, it's psychology plus scenery.

"It's a good story for that, because it sets a lot of big scenes. I found myself thinking, 'This would make a good opera': it has bigness, and that's good. And part of the fun is that we're using such small resources. Nothing much is happening visually perhaps, but something huge is happening in the imagination. That's important to me. In opera, the more that stage production becomes so highly polished... the less our imaginations are free."

It would be wrong to see Future Perfect as an opera manqué. Nevertheless, it returns us to that primal moment where what comes first is neither words nor music, but the story. As Weir suggests, all audiences have to bring is their imagination.

The Contemporary Music Network tour of 'Future Perfect' opens in Elvet Methodist Church, Durham, Friday 24 November (0191-384 7641); for full tour details call 020-7973 6493

Comments