On Friday 15th February myself and the Alan Barnes Octet premiered our brand new collaboration, A Requiem, a brand new suite of music and poetry, commissioned by Grimsby Jazz Projects and supported with funding from Arts Council, England.
Having worked on the poems from the autumn of 2017 to a final tweak the day before the premiere, I was full of nervous excitement and anticipation – especially as I had not heard a note of the music and truly had no idea what to expect.
It was wonderful to be reunited with the full band again. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again and have so many happy memories of outstanding gigs on our previous Fish Tales tour. This is truly an all-star band and each musician brings his own particular signature, which becomes apparent during the solo sections.
As we got underway with the rehearsal it was soon clear to me that the music was extraordinary. Full of twists and turns with complex rhythms and nuances; the music felt like a journey through time and through the story of war across a century that I was also telling with the poems. The music was full of drama and intrigue and I found it incredibly moving and intense.
The rehearsal day was given an extra layer of excitement as Radio Humberside were broadcasting live from the Central Hall throughout the afternoon and several of us gave brief interviews in which we talked about the work and the project as a whole. Friends and colleagues also came in to give short interviews about the work they are doing in the cultural sector in the town and so the rehearsal had the feel of an event in its own right.
It was a long day and the work required considerable concentration from everyone. After only a short rest for tea, showtime approached and I really felt the nerves kick in. I now have a better understanding of my ‘gig-zone’ and my need to have some space to mentally and physically prepare for performance. It’s an odd place where in equal measure I do and do not want to perform, where nervous energy builds and I have to turn inwards in order to find the right mood for delivering outwards to an audience.
Before I started writing A Requiem I never thought that war would be a subject I would want to work with. I spent a great deal of my undergraduate degree studying the world wars and the literature of war of the twentieth century. But it was not an area I ever wrote about in my own creative writing so when this process began I was taken aback by how I was gripped by the subject and how urgent it felt for me to write and to read and to go back to some of the literature that had so absorbed me when I was younger.
And it was not just the literature of war and the nature of conflict and its impact that gripped me, it was also the processes and rituals of commemoration and the artistic expressions of remembrance that I wanted to explore. I heard in my head the words of the Libera Me of the Latin mass for the dead;
Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda
Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
I couldn’t quieten the words, words I had sung over years of on-off membership of various choirs. I had the sense that the words were telling me something and I had an obligation to listen.
Using the structure of the Requiem mass for the dead gave me a clear starting point and an over-arching theme to work with. Alan and Pat liked the concept and so we all worked towards the production of words and music that would culminate in a work to both honour the dead and call for peace. I didn’t want to write a religious piece and worked carefully to ensure that my words would acknowledge all the dead of the century past regardless of creed, colour, gender or nationality and see every victim of war as first and foremost, human.
The work proved challenging to perform on Friday night. It is emotionally charged, powerful and in places bleak and dark. The subject matter is solemn and serious and I felt that solemnity around me as I delivered my words amidst powerful, strong and stirring music. However, one of the central motifs of the work is light, lux aeterna. The light always returns, however dark it has been.
I am now looking forward to recording the work and publishing the poems. I am also excited about touring A Requiem later this year and taking it to audiences across the country.