In our latest blog, Richard Bratby talks to Charlotte Bray about the premiere of her new orchestral work
We’ve got some new music in the CBSO Library. Actually, it’s been here for a few weeks now, and we’ve been expecting it for a lot longer. Charlotte Bray’s new orchestral work Black Rainbow began with a chat on the terrace at the Royal Festival Hall in August 2011; and now, two and a half years later, here it is. The score has been sent to the conductor, the string parts have had bowings marked in by CBSO violinist David Gregory, and in a week or so the orchestral parts will be sorted into folders ready to go on the music stands when the CBSO Youth Orchestra begins rehearsals for its next concert. On Sunday 23rd February, at Symphony Hall, the CBSO Youth Orchestra under Jac van Steen will give Black Rainbow its world premiere.
Any world premiere is a special event, and in its nine years of existence, the CBSO Youth Orchestra has given three of them: Tansy Davies’ Streamlines (2007), Luke Bedford’s Più Mosso (2009) and Ben Foskett’s Leckey (2011). But Black Rainbow is the first work by a composer who might actually have been in the Youth Orchestra herself. When Charlotte began composing, in 2003 (just one year before the CBSO Youth Orchestra was established) she was a cello student at Birmingham Conservatoire. In 2009 she became BCMG’s Apprentice Composer-in Residence; she’s studied with Knussen, Lindberg and Turnage; there’s been an RPS Award, and a commission for the 2012 BBC Proms (At The Speed of Stillness). And now this twelve-minute Feeney Trust commission for the CBSO Youth Orchestra – only her second composition for full symphony orchestra – performed by musicians of the same age, and in the same city, as Charlotte was when she discovered her vocation.
Composers and commissioners don’t generally talk much. After an initial flurry of discussion and agreement, one party tends to leave the other to get on with the job at hand. Charlotte emailed me with the occasional question during the two years between commission and completion: what percussion could she use? (Anything she liked, but we’d prefer it if we didn’t have to hire a Stockhausen Gong). Would we mind if she wrote a part for contrabass clarinet? (Great idea – but let us just check if we can get hold of one first!). But when, at the end of last year, the piece was finally completed and the score arrived at CBSO Centre (a week ahead of schedule), I phoned her at the Liguria Study Centre in Italy to ask her about Black Rainbow for the latest edition of the CBSO’s thrice yearly publication, Music Stand.
RB: How did you begin writing Black Rainbow? What started the creative process?
CB: I began work at another artists’ retreat, the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, USA. I had lots of ideas left over from my last orchestra piece – my Proms commission, At The Speed of Silence – hanging around in my head, but I didn’t really feel they were really going anywhere, until one day, wandering the grounds at MacDowell, I came across this old amphitheatre in the woods. It all followed from that – straight away, I found my thoughts going in an entirely new direction. I imagined things happening in that amphitheatre – what, exactly, isn’t really important; it’s more the sense of theatre, of ritual. After that, the first movement came quickly. The amphitheatre is in a kind of clearing, perfectly framing a view of Mount Monadnock – a place of great spiritual significance to the Native Americans. The MacDowell Colony used to stage open-air plays there. That hasn’t been done for about 40 years now – but there was definitely something special about the place. Other artists felt the same energy- there was a visual artist there at the same time as me who actually created an installation. I had a very literal sort of working title for the piece – “Pagan Theatre Scenes” – though I knew at the back of my mind that it wouldn’t be the actual title.
So how did you come up with the actual title?
It’s a very nocturnal piece, quite dark in character: so I brainstormed a few ideas and came across the phenomenon of the black rainbow – sometimes called a “moonbow”. It’s a genuine atmospheric phenomenon; it occurs at places like Niagara Falls, wherever there is mist or spray. All the colours in the spectrum are actually present, but you can’t see them. All that is visible is a beautiful black or white halo; a “black rainbow”. There are pictures of it online.
You’ve studied with quite a lot of major composers; would you say that anyone in particular was an influence on your music?
I think my studies on the Britten-Pears course at Aldeburgh enabled me to meet a lot of people who’ve helped me; in particular Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen – their support helped me 100%. I still show my preliminary composition sketches to them! Recently I’ve been listening to the music of Kaija Saariaho – do you know her? She really inspires me; not just because I love her music but because she’s such a strong and creative person. She feels like a kind of role-model. But I’d definitely say that my compositions have been strongly influenced by the landscape in which I’ve written them – I’m usually inspired by landscape or poetry. Right now I’m in Italy, by the sea, and the piece I’m writing is very much about water. I defintely wouldn’t have written you the piece I did if I hadn’t spent time at MacDowell.
And, of course, Birmingham…
My studies in Birmingham were absolutely fantastic. I only started composing when I was at the Conservatoire; up to then I’d been studying cello. I studied composition first with Andrew Downes and then with Joe Cutler, and they were both wonderful. The pieces I’d played as a cellist hadn’t been particularly adventurous; Joe Cutler, in particular, encouraged me to listen more widely. Birmingham was just a perfect place to be, as a student composer. You’ve got the CBSO, you’ve got BCMG, and the city itself was perfect – not so large that you felt lost, but big enough to have all these opportunities. When I got to London, to study at the RCM, I realised that with so much going on, it was very hard to find your way around it, to get to know people. In Birmingham you could make connections and contacts, and get known by the musical community. It felt comfortable. Yes, definitely Birmingham!
Booking: Tickets cost just £20 all areas. £5 tickets available for students and young people aged 25 and under on proof of valid ID (a £2.50 transaction fee, plus £1 (optional) postage, will be charged by THSH Box Offices on all bookings except purchases made in person).
Don’t miss the pre-concert talk at 5.45pm with Charlotte Bray as she introduces her new work for the CBSO Youth Orchestra – interviewed by Simon Webb.