It’s several years, now, since the Glasgow-based Scottish Ensemble, the UK’s only professional string orchestra, began to explore what it could learn about music, and about reaching out to new audiences, through working with those involved in other art-forms. So far, their partners in a series of successful projects have included the visual artist Toby Paterson, The Swedish contemporary dance company Andersson Dance, and Scottish Album of the Year winner Anna Meredith, who joined them last year in creating an acclaimed new variation on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Now, though, the Ensemble is turning to theatre, in a new collaboration with the Glasgow-based international company Vanishing Point, and their artistic director Matthew Lenton, famous for creating lyrical and intensely visual theatre. Vanishing Point’s recent work includes Tomorrow, a vision of ageing set in a retirement home, and the wonderful 2014 Ivor Cutler tribute The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler; and last year they were given the rare accolade of presenting a double bill at the Edinburgh International Festival, featuring Lenton’s 2009 masterpiece Interiors, and their 2016 show The Destroyed Room.
“We had been impressed by The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler, and particularly by the way the company worked with live music in that show,” says the Scottish Ensemble’s chief executive Fraser Anderson. “So we were really keen to discuss working together, not least because Scottish Ensemble’s approach, in which musicians are encouraged to be active creative partners, seemed to be in line with Matt’s visionary devised way of working.”
When they first discussed the project, though, neither Vanishing Point nor the Ensemble anticipated that the composer to emerge as the focus of their project would be Arvo Pärt, the great Estonian “holy minimalist” whose music, like Vivaldi’s, has become a ubiquitous soundtrack to the life and art of a certain generation. In the end, though, it was the sheer popularity of some of Pärt’s music that attracted Lenton.
“I wanted to answer the question, why this music? And why now?,” he says. “I read a piece in the New Yorker about Pärt’s work Tabula Rasa, and about how this piece had played a key role in bringing some kind of peace to young men dying of Aids in New York in the 1980s. That fascinated me, and I wanted to explore exactly what it was about this piece that carried so much meaning at that moment, and continues to attract so many people today.”
The two companies began their working process with several days of discussion earlier this year, when the whole 12-strong ensemble sat down with Lenton, his creative team, and two performers – including Pauline Goldsmith, who will appear in the final production – to generate ideas about Pärt’s music, and how it works.
“This was a tremendously interesting process for us, in many ways,” says the Scottish Ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Morton. “For one thing, in this process, it’s very difficult to plan ahead. Those of us who work in classical music are used to planning our schedules years ahead, and once we have arranged a concert, and the programme for it, we can imagine pretty much exactly what it will be like. Whereas with this process, we simply have no idea how it will turn out, and won’t have until very close to the opening performance.
“And the other thing is that as hard-working professional musicians, for whom every moment of rehearsal time is precious, we very rarely have a chance to discuss the meaning of a work over several days, particularly with people who are approaching it from a different creative point of view. So it was fascinating to have that time to discuss what Pärt’s music means to us, and exactly how it conveys that meaning.”
What emerged from that workshop week was a sense both that Pärt’s music contains the “two voices” mentioned in his famous video interview with Björk – she calls them Pinocchio and the Cricket, he calls them sin and forgiveness – and that it has a musical logic which can, and often does, continue beyond the physical sound that the instruments involved are able to produce. These are both powerful metaphors for the recurring human sense that there is a world beyond the purely rational and physical, in which something of ourselves might live on after death; and Lenton has spent the last few months working intensively with Goldsmith and the other actor involved, Sarah Short, to generate a story that reflects on those themes.
“I like the kind of art that you can dream onto,” says Lenton, “art that leaves plenty of spaces and silence for yourself and your thoughts – just as Arvo Pärt does in his music. So we’re not trying to provide a definitive interpretation here, and we’re certainly not using the music as background to the drama; this will be a full performance of Tabula Rasa by the Ensemble, interwoven with elements of theatre that we hope will help people explore its impact.”
Morton agrees: “There is something about Arvo Pärt’s music that is about the individual and the world, and about ultimately feeling very small in a vast universe. It’s a reaction against the modernist idea that we were somehow masters of the universe; and it has a tremendous, powerful humility about it.
“But in talking about its meaning, that’s about as far as I would go. What I hope is that this show, in performance, will enable us to explore much further; and deepen our understanding in ways that we couldn’t imagine without the presence of other artists from other art-forms, helping us to experience it anew, and – we hope – to make it new, for the audience.” ■
*Tabula Rasa previews at Platform, Glasgow, 3-4 November; then at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-11 November; Eden Court, Inverness, 16 November; and Tramway, Glasgow, 22-24 November.