A conversation with Tansy Davies
Last week saw the world premiere and subsequent BBC Proms performance of Re-greening, fruit of a collaboration between two of the most exciting talents on the British music scene. One is the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the other composer Tansy Davies.
The NYO staked its claim as the world's finest youth orchestra not just in the quality of their playing, but in navigating a complex score without a conductor, sharing cueing duties across the 160-strong ensemble. Davies creates a complex but crystalline polyphony into which is embedded ancient material such as the mediaeval song Sumer is Icumen In, sung by the orchestra themselves.
Saturday's Proms performance, including a brief interview with the composer, is available on the BBC website via the button below.
The day before she left for the premiere in Aldeburgh, I caught up with Tansy in a break between teaching sessions at the annual summer school run byCoMA – Contemporary Music for All, an organisation she has a long association with.
We are soon on a conversational journey through a whole ecosystem of interconnected concepts, from shamanism to the theatricality of birdsong. “Lately I’ve been haunted by Carlos Castañeda and his descriptions of shamanic practices.” She explained how this entails a developing a deep understanding of the Earth and traditional knowledge of such things as medicinal plants. This, in turn, demands a deep respect for plants and animals and the land, born of a long initiation described in great detail in Castañeda's writing.
Art helps us to connect with nature in a way that we don’t have words for
“I need to spend time in open spaces,” she emphasises, “my most vivid childhood memories are about the natural environment.” She grew up in rural Kent, “waking up every morning to birdsong and the light streaming through my attic bedroom window. I could see these really tall trees that formed a kind of amphitheatre. Every morning in spring I took in this theatrical dawn chorus - hearing it like it was an orchestra.”
“So you were also becoming a musician by then, too; thinking in theatrical or orchestral terms?”
“Yes, I suppose it was my early teens, and I was getting used to listening deeply into sound, listening with perspective.”
Now that she is working with a new generation of young musicians, does any of this longing for the countryside translate into Re-greening, the National Youth Orchestra commission that had its premiere last Thursday in Aldeburgh?
"At the moment the musical landscape in my head is very forest-like", she says.
"I loved the poetic ideas that the NYO came to me with: it had to be about the essence of Spring and youthfulness in the wider context of the cycle of life and death. Part of my inspiration was the orchestra itself - a large body of people and sound that is organised in both horizontal and vertical layers. The music is organised similarly. I also found inspiration in a shamanic wheel of the year; a system with an ancient, nature-based mythology.
I'm trying to give the listener a 3D experience
It seemed a long way from Tansy's most recent work, the highly acclaimed opera Between Worlds. I assumed working on a monumental piece set in New York's Twin Towers during 9/11 must have affected her in some way.
"Profoundly. I was entering a dark world, in terms of subject matter, and it caused me to reflect on my own dark side. I felt like I was becoming the opera. I dreamed about it every night. Every few days I had to do something different, but I really had to tear myself away. I'd watch a film, but it couldn't be a film involving people. I found the only thing I could watch was David Attenborough programmes.
"I was very affected by extreme situations in those programmes - penguins enduring months at 50 degrees below zero in order to bring up their young; or antelopes spending hours in 50 degree heat, hoping to attract a mate.
"Re-Greening is about the interconnectedness of nature, human nature and the cosmos. It's about our inner space and the space outside us. I'm trying to give the listener a 3D experence in a way."
After the first rehearsal Sarah Alexander, the National Youth Orchestra's Chief Executive recognised that Re-greening was a kind of epilogue to Between Worlds. "You're re-greening the Earth after 9/11." She told the composer.
This is an expanded version of a conversation that first appeared here on 6 August.