Alison Willis - Re-imagining the Medieval
When I was a student I was a member of a medieval re-enactment society. Women were not encouraged to fight, nor did I particularly want to. Wielding large heavy reproduction swords didn’t seem to me to be compatible with being a pianist and organist! Whilst many of the shows centred around recreating historical battles there was also a significant element of ‘living history’, enacting the way people lived in as ‘authentic’ a way as possible. I would spend days at a time living in reconstructed Round Houses or medieval tents (on one memorable occasion at Colchester Zoo), cooking on fires, eating food that we understood to have been available at the time and singing songs and telling stories in the evenings. In many ways I found this didn’t differ very much from my twentieth-century existence. Vegetables and beer haven’t changed significantly in the last thousand or so years and music and storytelling still form our entertainment, albeit through Spotify, Netflix and box sets!
Fast forward twenty something years and I find these historical influences informing my compositions.
Much of my most recent output has been choral, frequently re-interpreting and receiving inspiration from medieval texts. I particularly enjoy the equation of ‘Mary as Rose’ which I am currently exploring in a set of short choral pieces, ‘Rosarium’. My three medieval carols (listen to ‘Those Things Three’ here) are also, as one might expect, based on medieval texts. They use a primarily modal language, but with the addition of twentieth-century cluster chords, maybe harking back to the false relations that colour the language of medieval music.
However the project that has immersed me most effectively in the Middle Ages is a commission from Bristol University for a new work based on the Old Hispanic Office, due to be premiered in a joint concert given by Bristol Cathedral Choir and the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford in May this year.
The Old Hispanic Office consists of an international group of musicologists and liturgical historians studying Iberia’s early-medieval Christian liturgy. Their focus is on the theological experience promoted by the liturgical texts of particular feasts and seasons, and on bringing these findings into dialogue with a growing understanding of the melodic language of the repertory. The chants are not pitch-specific: they give an indication of relative pitch (in neumes) but no specific notes. An integral part of the project is to unlock the musical content of these chants by communication with contemporary composers, both within and beyond Bristol’s Department of Music, encouraging them to explore compositional processes that evoke similar textual, musical and spiritual responses.
This has been an iterative process, with the composers suggesting new directions for the academic research. The composers act as a channel of communication between the scholarship demanded by the Old Hispanic material, and contemporary concert audiences and congregations.
My initial piece, ‘Gustate et Videte’ (listen here), is a response to the spiritual notion of becoming one with the angels through the repeated singing of an ‘Alleluia’, in this case taking the form of the Alleluiaticum within the Vespers liturgy. Following an excellent weekend in Bristol and Oxford with twenty composers from all over Europe, I was delighted to be commissioned to write a larger choral work exploring elements of Vespers. The final work consists of four movements, intended for performance as a complete piece but equally as four stand-alone pieces: a Vespertinus, a Sono, Preces and Responses, and the original Alleluiaticum (‘Gustate et Videte’). Each piece is developed from elements of the extant chant folios.
The Vespertinus, to the text ‘Quem Timebo’, would have been the opening music of the Vespers office, possibly processional and referring to the bringing of light. The Sono, which appears to have no direct descendant in our modern liturgy, would have been very melismatic—some manuscripts show up to two hundred notes per syllable! There are some Preces within the Old Hispanic liturgy but I have chosen to use the Anglican version, as part of the purpose of the Old Hispanic Office Project was to create music that can be used within contemporary worship. The Alleluiaticum would have been towards the end of the office and this type of chant has multiple alleluias added to the biblical text.
I am going to focus on the compositional process involved in creating the Sono, as it was this that I found most illuminating. I started with a section of text and notation from extant manuscript Folio 50, and using my somewhat limited understanding of the neumes created a number of melodic interpretations in contemporary notation. The particular section I worked with was an additional Alleluia melisma notated up the right hand side of the manuscript, presumably by a later scribe based on the conventions that had developed through repeated singing. What jumped out at me was that each musical phrase was repeated, suggesting very strongly to me as a composer that it would have been sung as call and response. This formed the basis of my setting, with the soprano voices divided and in canon throughout. All other parts become increasingly melismatic as the piece develops and by the final section there is full eight-part polyphony. What I found particularly interesting was that I effectively fast tracked several hundred years of polyphonic development, from monophonic chant to the Baroque via the two-part organum of the Notre Dame School and the great renaissance composers. I genuinely felt as if I was rediscovering polyphony, and experienced a real sense of connection with the composers who discovered it the first time round! It was a very logical progression. As W. H. Auden once said, ‘Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.’
Returning to my earlier musings about my experience of re-enactment and then considering the ongoing legacy and influence of our medieval poets and musicians on my own work, I have to conclude that through my re-imaginings I find we are not so different in many ways from our creative forbears. Perhaps the human condition and our response to it has not changed as much as we might think over the last millennium.
Alison is an award winning composer who studied composition with Alan Bullard (Colchester), Tony Gilbert (RNCM) and George Benjamin (RCM). Whilst at college she had SPNM supported performances by the London Sinfonietta (Purcell Rooms) and Gemini (Swinburne Hall). She is currently studying for a PhD in Composition with Paul Mealor. Recent works include: ‘Dawn. Brussels. October 12th 1915’, to be premiered by Selwyn College Choir with Onyx Brass in London in March 2017; ‘I Sing of a Maiden’, awarded the Nick Edwards prize by Gabriel Jackson and Patrick Russill in December 2016; ‘Paschalia’ due to be published as part of a feature on Alison's music in Choir and Organ Magazine spring 2017; and ‘JOURNEYS’, a piece reflecting the ongoing Refugee Crisis written in collaboration with Chiltern Youth Chamber Orchestra commissioned by Making Music’s ‘Adopt a Composer’ scheme 2015/16 (in association with PRS, SAM, BBC Radio 3).