Notes to the new government

Two Southampton composers, Ben Oliver and Michael Finnissy, were commissioned by the London Sinfonietta to produce new works for performance  after the national election.  Ben tells us about the project:

Last Saturday my new work, The National Loneliness, was performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of their Notes to the New Government PNotes page image 1200 x 800  hoperoject. In collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Sinfonietta had commissioned sixteen composers to write new songs about our hopes for society in light of a new administration.

My work was a collaboration with the fantastic poet Luke Wright, and featured Luke performing four poems alongside a small ensemble of violin, clarinet, ‘cello, piano, percussion and soprano. The aim of our note was to ask the government to address the disconnectedness felt by so many in society. Loneliness, isolation and community breakdown is not a price worth paying for individualistic economic prosperity; surely there is a more compassionate way for society to work?

I underscored the four spoken poems with music, which were then interspersed with three sung choruses. The poems provide snapshots in the lives of characters who are disconnected in some way: Jimmy, who works in a train signal box all day on his own; a teenager, Kai, who has just joined Twitter to fit in; a couple who never see each other because of their working hours; and an older lady named Sue who organises a fete for the council estate she lives on. The choruses, sung by the absolutely marvellous Juliet Fraser, banally call us to the so-called ‘national conversation’ as she sings ‘We’re all in this together… in leisure love and labour’.

Rehearsal of Ben's piece for the London Sinfonietta
Rehearsal of Ben’s piece for the London Sinfonietta

The added excitement for me was that I also conducted three works in the first set of the concert, including my piece and works by Emma-Ruth Richards and Jordan Hunt. This was a little bit of a surprise, as I was asked to do this the day before the gig since there was not quite enough rehearsal time to make the pieces work without conductor. I didn’t think I’d ever conduct the London Sinfonietta in the QEH; it was a terrific experience!

I was pretty pleased with how my piece came out. Although Luke is an excellent performer, it felt like a bit of a risk putting poetry alongside music in such a direct way. The response from the audience and performers was positive though; I can’t wait to hear the recording. My highlights from the second set were a new work by Michael Finnissy, Professor of Composition here at Southampton, about dumbing down; a quirky song by Gwyneth Herbert on kid’s education; and an arresting and challenging piece by Philip Venables. This last piece combined edited video footage of rants about the role of the state in our lives, by ‘anti-drag queen’ David Hoyle, with driving music played by the ensemble. It was difficult and subversive stuff but the piece I will remember in the years ahead!