Setting music to words is a sensitive process: an issue I discussed recently with Scots composer Rory Boyle, who has just set a series of poems by Edinburgh-based poet Dilys Rose, Watching Over You, for mezzo soprano Karen Cargill and the Red Note Ensemble, which will be premiered in Glasgow and Edinburgh this week.
“Isn’t it funny,” says Boyle, a professor of composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS). “We take somebody else’s words, which exist on their own level, and do our own thing with them; which is, when you think about it, a bit arrogant. What really happens, of course, is that we respond to them; we use them in our own interpretive way.”
The difference here is that Boyle and Rose put this latest project together as a collaboration right from the outset. They’ve worked together successfully before, firstly when Boyle was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s composer laureate for schools, setting Rose’s texts for a choir of Edinburgh school children; then as the composer-librettist team for the opera Kaspar Hauser, performed five years ago by RCS students.
And it was on the back of Kaspar Hauser – a macabre story of a 16-year-old feral child who appeared one day in a German street, claiming to have spent his life imprisoned in a two-metre square cell, with only a toy horse for company – that Boyle asked Rose to work with him again. “She wrote the most beautiful, intimate libretto for that,” he recalls.
This new collection of songs arose out a conversation they both had with Red Note’s artistic director John Harris. “I was talking about how composers tend to take poetry and set it, and what right do they have to do that, because poetry by its own nature has its own rhythm of words; and Dilys was saying she was really interested in writing something specifically to be set to music.”
So far, so good. But Boyle had another piece of the jigsaw to put in place. Who would sing these songs? He had a particular voice in mind: that of Arbroath-born Karen Cargill, whose burgeoning career is currently on a massive high, with repeated invitations to the New York Met, and the recent success of her Carnegie Hall solo debut.
“I’d been talking to Karen for some time, asking if there would be any chance of writing something for her,” Boyle explains. “Hers is just the most fabulous voice; one that can fill the Met, and yet can equally have everybody on the edge of their seats by singing an unaccompanied folksong in the most magical pianissimo. Her schedule is so busy, but thankfully she found the time to say yes.”
It has taken two to three years to get to the point of this week’s performances, but the key breakthrough was clearly Rose’s poems, which are all about motherhood. “John’s a young father, I’m a father and grandfather, Karen’s a young mother, so the whole idea of a new life unfolding really appealed to us,” says Boyle.
The poems deal with the sequence of experience that every mother goes through: Intimation and The Days are Different Now focus on the lead-up to birth; Pools of Wonder addresses the birth itself; Baby Blues has a hint of the macabre; there’s a lullaby called Tomorrow When You Wake; and finally comes Everything, an expression of release as the mother starts to let the child go.
“It’s a very personal approach from Dilys,” Boyle believes. “I’m a grandfather, but I can’t have that extraordinary bond a mother has with a child. But I think I can respond to these words; everybody can. The whole piece is about humanity really. It’s about hopes and fears for a life.”
But as a composer, how did Boyle respond? “Obviously, when I’m setting them, I’m not setting them absolutely straight. I repeat things; I go back. I always said to Dilys, if there are any lines I particularly like, can I repoint them here and there? Partly for structural reasons, because although I’m taking somebody else’s words, for me the setting has to have a satisfying musical structure.”
The key thing for Boyle is finding an instinctive musical match. “The text will have a rhythm of its own, which will invoke a natural rhythmic response”, he says. But when it comes to notes on the page, it’s not so much tunes that come to him. “The words suggest shapes, not melodies. But there’s nothing angular in this piece. I’m always very careful when I write vocal music. There seems to have been an obsession with composers in recent years to write angularly for the voice. I don’t think it’s idiosyncratic for the voice to have to pick out awkward great jumps.”
In this instance, he also enjoyed the luxury of writing for one of the best mezzo sopranos around. Cargill made one request: to have, if possible, some unaccompanied moments. “Request granted”, says Boyle. “I’ve done that in the Lullaby”.
The real compositional freedom lay in the small accompanying ensemble – flute, cor anglais, clarinet, trumpet and string quartet – which enabled Boyle to pursue an issue that has long bothered him. “I’ve become very passionate about the cor anglais,” he says. “For me it doesn’t fit comfortably into an orchestra, other than when playing a solo. So it has a prominent place in this work, and it sits particularly well with Karen’s rich mezzo voice.”
Jean-Claude Picard, assistant conductor of the RSNO, directs Red Note in this week’s premieres. Boyle will be keeping away from rehearsals. “There has to be trust there, and I trust Karen and the musicians to put their slant on the music,” he says. In other words, he won’t be mollycoddling his baby.
Karen Cargill and the Red Note Ensemble perform Rory Boyle’s Watching Over You on 19 May at St Andrews-in-the-Square, Glasgow, and on 20 May at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, www.rednoteensemble.com