Thoughts on the Colwall Requiem for Aleppo

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ColwallI didn’t go to the world premiere of Liz Johnson’s glorious new choral work intending to write about it. I just went to support the endeavours of a friend I hadn’t seen so much of since she moved out of Birmingham – it would be nice to see her, I admired her fundraising and awareness-raising efforts for refugees, and I knew the music would be beautiful.

It was beautiful, and also moving. I can’t remember the last time I actually dripped tears during a concert. And then she brought us back to a place of hope by the end of the piece so we were emotionally safe to head back into the real world.

There are two particular aspects to Liz’s compositional voice I’d like to reflect on here. The first is her distinctive and assured handling of dissonance. The music moves seamlessly along a continuum from very harmonic and euphonius to uncompromisingly dissonant whilst always sounding realistically like it belongs in the same musical world. Part of this I think comes from the way she’ll season the consonant passages with strategically placed diatonic clashes that provide poignancy in the moment, but also help to mediate between the different regions of her harmonic palette.

I don’t feel that description really does the music justice. You’ll just have to listen to some of her music to see what I mean.

I sometimes think I can hear echoes of a similar approach to dissonance in the music of Laura Mvula, and wonder if that’s entirely a coincidence. I have a hunch Liz might have taught Laura composition at one point, and I know that they knew each other even before Laura went to study in the department where Liz teaches. Their music is otherwise quite different – I may just be responding to a particular feature in both because I’m interested in managing dissonance.

The other thing I was struck by in the Requiem was the ways Liz distributed authority/control amongst the participants. Within the traditional top-down structure of the composer writing music, the conductor leading the performers, and the audience receiving it, she persistently opens up the roles into a more dialogic interaction.

At the level of composition: there were passages that had been created and were performed by a group of young musicians, and a section for chimes devised by primary-school children who also formed a children’s choir. At the level of direction, in addition to the primary role of Peter Johnson as conductor of the SATB choir, Liz led the children’s choir, and one of the young musicians directed the instrumental ensemble – which included not only the teenage musicians, but the professional viola soloist, Adam Römer.

The performing forces also showed this sense of distributed roles. It wasn’t just the integration of amateur and profession - itself perhaps rather typical of British choral concerts – but also the enrolling of the audience as singers at several points in the proceedings.

And in the musical textures, there were several places where both singers and instrumentalists were in control of the timing/pacing of their performance, and to an extent its content too. At a sonic level, these semi-improvised textures are about producing an intricate soundworld that would be too complex to notate exactly, but at a human level, it is wonderful to behold how they draw everyone into an active, collaborative awareness of each other.

Towards the end of the final movement, there was a moment when performers all round the church were present in the texture, and Peter stood absolutely still, listening. I love that feeling when the reins are loose in the conductors hands – he could (and did) pick them up any time the music needed some guidance, but until then time was suspended as we were awash with musical beauty that embodied both the individuality of every performer and their unanimity of intent.

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