om aim saraswatiyeh namah om

This was probably the thing I’ve been most proud of in my life.

At the end of almost a year’s work on these two pieces for the Spitalfields Festival, the last three days have been wonderfully terrifying.

After a clerical cock-up meant that the 4 singers only got their scores (for these 2 complex pieces) the day before the main rehearsal, it looked like everything was going to dissolve into a mess.

That compounded by the indefatigable Daniel Halford (our technical guru) coming down with foodpoisoning the day before our big rehearsal should have been the kiss of double death.

Weirdly, I never really doubted it would be less than excellent.

I’ve been moving in a deft and illuminated gait these last few days. Nothing really phased me and the fact that we managed to magic up another 4 hour rehearsal from somewhere (it being a miracle that all 8 people were free at 12 hours notice) seemed perfectly correct.

When I walked into Wiltons on Saturday morning and Daniel (having slept for 5 minutes that night) was showing the video I’ve been working on for 2 months on four beautiful drapes hanging from the ceiling, I knew that it was all going to be fine.

All the hiccups that day – missed cues, technical problems, musical collapses, stumbles – never shook my secret knowledge: it would all be fine.

When I was a schoolboy I used to act all the time. Dozens of school plays and then the same at university. I never ever had stage-fright. The opposite, I felt swept up in wave of magic when the house lights when down and the stage lights faded up.

Doing TV – especially live TV – fills me with a bowel shaking terror. Less than it did, but still there. But when, after all the preparations were done, I stepped up onto that fantastic stage in Wiltons with the audience sitting there, I felt any nerves evaporate and a gust of calm sweep up me.

Tazul’s piece was first and this was the one I had most worries about. Tazul never deviated once from his confidence in the piece – uncompromisingly modern, 25 minutes of broken words, transformed from the seed pali text into trills and shudders, long notes and slides. And the minute I started speaking the text and had the audience sit in silence listening for the nada sound, the music made complete sense. It was like a huge extended chant but splintered into a thousand planes.

When Ed started weaving his bass over the drone it was magical and each time I spoke, a different texture was teased out and frozen in time by Daniel’s electronics.

Earlier in the day, in the gap between the rehearsal and the performance, George Corbett who stepped in at the 11th hour when we realised that it would be impossible to sing these pieces without a conductor was sitting in the green room and we began talking about the piece.

He kindly said how much he’d liked the serious tone of the texts – which was exactly what I wanted. Not be flippant and ironic and British – but actually talk about some stuff that I thought was important. And interestingly, he picked up on my little lapse of faith earlier in the week.

During the first rehearsal on Thursday, I’d changed the text of the climactic bit of the piece.

After a massive, ear-splitting climax from the singers, there’s a sudden silence and I tell the story of a sound man friend of mine who survived the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand. It ends with the line: “He told me afterwards that he had 2 thoughts in quick succession. First: I almost died and then: I’m going to die anyway.” In this first rehearsal I thought I’d lighten the piece by changing that last line to: ‘I almost died and then: Damn, I left my book on the beach’.

The following morning I decided that the first version was better. But George perceptively picked up on that wobble and his approval of my first choice filled me with a fierce pride in the seriousness of the piece. Too often, British people shy away from anything serious or genuine and I was determined not to do this.

The dead silence in the hall during the performance and the almost mystic concentration we all felt performing seemed to validate the seriousness. I talk a lot in the text about the Buddhist term, ‘samadhi’, as a sort of white hole, drawing everything into its stillness and – oddly – that’s exactly what I felt on stage.

Nothing could go wrong, I couldn’t say anything wrong, the music would not go wrong, the video would not fail. We were in the flow. And the startled delight on the four singers faces when we came off stage said this too: ‘my god, we did it all perfectly. it sounded great. it worked.’

The joy of collaboration is that there is no sense of selfishness – everything you do is for the project.

Jeremy was particularly fine to collaborate with – we had endless hour long phonecalls between London and Cambridge, trying out stuff down the phone, reading in text, getting Sibelius to play out bits of score. And wherever a problem arose, I felt confident that if I didn’t have an idea, he would.

His piece was exquisitely beautiful and very dramatic. He has a wonderful gift for writing for voices and for stage.

Almost a year ago we met to talk about out piece and decided that birds, babies and the deaf would feature and that’s exactly what happened. It was an organic process and lots of things morphed along the way but the piece was in three movements as we originally envisioned and worked by juxtoposing ideas, images and sounds, rather than moving like a narrative.

When this project was first floated by Rolf Hind, he was talking about a monodrama – and I immediately got stuck on the idea of spoken word and music. They seemed antithetical to me: we listen to words for information and music for beauty. Put them together and you get a sort of perceptual dissonance. So we wanted to make a container that allowed the music to exist alongside the words. I wasn’t going to be a poet – the texts were all rather conversational or borrowed from the discourse of science – and the words had to touch on the whole problematic nature of words compared to the direct experience of – say – music, or watching birds, or being a baby.

There’s a moment in the middle of the piece where Jeremy has composed this simple choral setting of the snippet of Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’ I picked out, and Ildiko, our soprano, soars higher and higher above it. In the background projected onto the bare wall of the theatre there are flocking of swooping, soaring, flocking starlings against an evening sky. It’s breathtaking and is the most perfect illustration of that idea of wordless delight we could think of.

When it was all over and we’d belted up the stairs to the green room, gasping with relief and suprise that everything had gone right, I felt filled up to the gills with pleasure. I didn’t care what anyone else felt, any of the audience, any of the festival organisers, the press, whoever. I felt lit up from within.

It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my life.

Thank you so much to Jeremy, Tazul, Rolf, Abigail, Daniel, Idilko, Julian, Ed, Fran and George for allowing it to happen.


  1. Kelly

    June 11, 2007 at 4:33 am

    I’m rather pleased with myself for looking at the third set of still frames and wondering if they were d/Deaf before reading below to see that they, indeed, were. (Especially since I don’t sign what I presume they were – British Sign – but do ASL.)

    Is there any chance any of this will be available to view online, for those of us unfortunate enough to be on the other side of the pond?

  2. Hg

    June 11, 2007 at 11:57 am

    “Damn, I left my book on the beach” would have been so self-subvertingly wrong. I’m glad you went with your instinct. I’m getting increasingly tired with the way that kind of low-budget irony pervades British art (especially music).

    Let’s have seriousness – I’m comfortable with either joy or nihilism – but not this awful don’t-mean-it-really shrug of the shoulders that that essentially signifies “I’m not sure why I bothered creating this in the first place.”

    Rant over. It was such a great evening. I think the first piece was my favourite (if such a choice is worth anything), but having said that, there were numerous moments of spectacular beauty in the second. You’re right to be proud.

  3. Hydragenic

    June 11, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    The Space Behind Words…

    On Saturday evening, Rachel, Jean and I (along with Rachel’s lovely friends H & R) met up for a beer……

  4. St

    June 12, 2007 at 5:49 am

    I have read each text two times and I sit back and try to
    imagine what the music sounded like as you read the text.
    I have to admit one of the main reasons I read your work
    is your ability to put emotion, feeling and your
    thoughts in written words. It allows me to look at myself
    and my surroundings and look for the good and to challenge
    me to become a better person.
    I will probably even read the text a couple more times
    because you say so much with so few words. After reading
    these compositions you have every right to be proud, it
    is like the birth of a child from conception to the
    realization that you was able to share and work with other
    people and be able to bring it too life.

  5. maps, songs and babies « Music by Jeremy Thurlow

    June 13, 2007 at 12:42 am

    […] Alistair has written in his blog about what it felt like better than I can, and there’s also a very sympathetic review from Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph, who seems to have grasped exactly what it was that we were trying to do. It must be said that a great deal of dedicated work went into making it happen, and I’d like to thank all those involved: especially the four singers (named in the previous post below), the conductor George Corbett, the electro-acoustic wizard Daniel Halford, who took several decades off his life expectancy by working 29/7 in the two weeks running up to the show, and Alistair – all of whom gave zinging performances. And many thanks too for essential behind-the-scenes work from those at spnm and Wilton’s. […]

  6. Paul

    June 22, 2007 at 1:56 am

    Alistair, it’s so good to have you back on BBCAmerica’s “Cash.” I got awfully tired of switching-off that woman in the pink coat.

    Your devotion to meditation strikes a responsive chord with me. As a theatre director and working actor I live a frantic life. I read The spirit of your blogs make me envious.

    Is there any way I can be in contact outside of these comment spaces? Please advise,

  7. Tim

    June 25, 2007 at 4:54 am

    Alistair reminds me the John character in the new HBO
    series”John From Cincinnati”. There have only been 2
    episodes so far, but John appears to “take in negative
    energy and return it as positive energy”. I’m paraphrasing
    ]the actor who plays that character. Anyway, if you get HBO,
    check it out. Tim

  8. Do Buddhists Watch Telly? » Seven Days in one evening

    April 29, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    […] done the video for a classical music project last year – I’m keenly aware of the problems of words and […]

  9. Hershel Lieu

    March 12, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    You know, I have to tell you, I truly savour this website and the informative insight. I find it to be energizing and very enlightening. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyhow, I felt it was about time I posted a comment on Do Buddhists Watch Telly? » om aim saraswatiyeh namah om – I just wanted to say that you did a nice job on this. Cheers mate!

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