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27 July 2012

Insight: Blitz for orchestra, chorus and pre-recorded voices

'And I am, for once, very clear what the piece is "about": not, as you might imagine, World War II, but the whole ever-present and all-too-current business of children in harm's way.'

Andrew Ford Image: Andrew Ford  
© Jim Rolon

In 1960, a 3-year-old Andrew Ford was fascinated by the remains of bombed houses still standing in his home town of Liverpool. Twenty years earlier, Ford's parents' generation had its childhood marked forever by the roar of bombers, the shattering of glass and the sound of nightly explosions. These children from Liverpool, Hamburg and Berlin are at the heart of Ford's new work Blitz (2011) for orchestra, chorus and pre-recorded voices. The work will be premiered by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marko Letonja, on 18 August.

Composers have a great advantage over other creative artists in that we deal regularly in the abstract. In music, content and form are one. This is 'the condition', in Walter Pater's famous phrase, to which all other art 'constantly aspires'. But while it may be true that novelists and sculptors and filmmakers envy composers our ability to produce work that means not what it says, but what it is, sometimes composers wish we could be more like the others. So we write operas, film scores and incidental music, and we set words to music in an attempt to say something, just for a change, that isn't abstract. At the very least, perhaps, we provide catchy titles and elaborate program notes for our purely instrumental pieces that hint strongly at extra-musical agenda.

In my orchestral piece Blitz (2011), I have used extracts from interviews with elderly people recalling their childhood experiences during bombing raids on Liverpool, Hamburg and Berlin during the World War II, the voices woven through the orchestral music. And I am, for once, very clear what the piece is 'about': not, as you might imagine, World War II, but the whole ever-present and all-too-current business of children in harm's way. Since you can't interview children in present-day Ramallah or Tripoli or Homs or Damascus - and anyway it would seem obscenely exploitative to turn their voices into a piece of music - I intend the voices in my piece, recalling events that happened 70 years ago, to speak for all children who find themselves beneath falling bombs.

I was born in Liverpool 12 years after the end of the war, but I remember seeing bomb sites from the top of the double decker bus that took my mother and me into town. I suppose I must have been about three, so this was 1960, and yet I can clearly visualise half houses, still in the process of being demolished, with different patterned wallpaper upstairs and downstairs, the intervening ceiling long since gone. After London, the port of Liverpool endured the worst bombing of any city in the UK, and my parents' recollections of nightly raids became part of my own growing up: the night the window was blown in on top of the table under which my father and his brother were sleeping; the night the incendiary bomb came through the roof of my mother's house.

Bomb damage in Liverpool, 1942
Bomb damage in Liverpool, photographed in 1942. Queen Victoria's statue was left standing. Photo © Imperial War Museum, UK.

The older I got, the more difficult it became for me to imagine what those times must have been like. Of course you see it on the TV news every night, but that's happening in the Middle East and I've never been to the Middle East. The fact that bombs had dropped around my parents, night-in, night-out, for weeks during their childhood, seemed harder and harder to understand or even really believe. So I decided to record their stories and almost immediately saw how I might incorporate their voices in a piece of music. I think when I set poetry to music, the primary impulse is to share the poetry with others. This, really, was no different.

Besides my parents' stories, I also recorded the recollections of two of their friends (there is something inherently touching about childish impressions spoken by now elderly voices). As they told me of their understanding of what was going on ('They were the baddies, and we were the goodies') I began to realise that the piece would gain a new dimension if I included German voices too. Hamburg seemed the place to go - like Liverpool, a seaport - but I wasn't properly prepared for the difference in the scale of the bombing. I suspect like a lot of people, I simply hadn't appreciated what the fire-bombing of Hamburg had entailed. During the war (mostly in December 1940 and May 1941) more than 4,000 people died in Liverpool, but three nights of Allied bombing in July 1943 killed approximately 45,000 people in Hamburg. (This mismatch is the subject of quite a different essay, but I refer you to W.G. Sebald's masterly book On the Natural History of Destruction.)

In Hamburg, I met a wonderful woman who had lived in Barmbek, one of the neighbourhoods destroyed by the RAF in 1943. She lives there again today, though nothing remains of the place where she grew up and she knows no one from her childhood days. But as with the Liverpudlians, her memories are that much more poignant for being those of an eight-year-old, in this case emerging from the bunker after one of the raids, worried about what had happened to her caged canary. Her recollections, together with those of two Hobart residents (one from Hamburg, the other from Berlin), provided me with a powerful German perspective.

I had used edited speaking voices in pieces before, in particular the radiophonic work Elegy in a Country Graveyard (2007) and the chorus-and-percussion piece A Singing Quilt (2008), but placing them in an orchestral context was new and brought special challenges in terms of audibility. Much of the time, the orchestra must play very quietly in order to let the voices through. And there was also a logistical problem long associated with notated pieces that have a recorded component, namely how to show the voices in the score. The starting points of the voice tracks are always stipulated, the end points mostly, but in between, the relationship between voice and orchestra is less precise. And I wanted this tension between in the piece, the instruments playing exactly measured music while the voices um and ah and pause and stumble, behaving, indeed, like real people talking normally.

Although the impulse to compose the piece came, initially, from a desire to share the childhood stories of my parents and their friends in Liverpool and to juxtapose these with similar accounts from Germany, once I began the solid work of composition the music itself took over. Still, in several senses this music relates rather strongly to the stories being told.

There is, for example, the music of the voices themselves. The recorded interviews were edited for content, but in the context of the piece I treated them as solo instruments. I was not interested in studying the voices in order to isolate little melodic cells à la Steve Reich, partly because the music would have sounded like Reich and partly because what really interests me, from a musical point of view, is the way people sound when they speak at length. I am fascinated by how they (subconsciously) control the music of their own voices, modifying pitch, dynamic, tempo and timbre. So while there certainly are vocal fragments in Blitz, they are never repeated and they are balanced by quite long speeches of a minute or more. In some cases, I composed instrumental commentaries on the speaking voices, such as the duet between my mother and a trombone that begins about five and a half minutes in.

As I composed the piece I became aware of an aesthetic paradox. Three years earlier, I had written my first, and so far only, Symphony (2008). It was for a similar sized orchestra (double wind, four horns), and, as the generic title suggests, the piece was very deliberately about nothing but itself, save an awareness of musical structure: it really is a symphony and contains at least trace elements of sonata form, scherzo, adagio, etc. But there are no musical quotes, no allusions and no fancy subtitle - nothing at all outside the Symphony's own frame of reference. I have sometimes said to people that it is about the closest thing to 'pure' Ford I've done, and certainly it's a work of which I remain very proud.

The Symphony contains (among many other things) passages of soft, high, whistling string harmonics and low rumbling basses, tuba and contrabassoon. I am hardly alone when it comes to enjoying playing with extremes of register. There are also sections that contain a fair few bangs and crashes from brass and percussion. And, as there have often been in my music, there are long drones at the beginning and end of the piece. The last four minutes of the piece, indeed, occur over a pedal D. I like both the tension and the balm that comes from pedal points.

Now you can find all these sorts of sounds in Blitz, too, but in the context of that title and those voices, they begin to take on meanings they never had in the Symphony. High whistling harmonics with attendant bangs and crashes become the sounds of air-raids; the steady drone, often so innocent - even reassuring - in pieces from the past 30 years, now conjures Lancaster bombers over Hamburg. And of course, as I began to notice these things, I began subtly to underline them. On the basis of youTube research, I discovered that the Lancaster bombers' drone seems to have been the C below middle C, so it became partly a matter of authenticity that the drone that emerges in the middle of my piece, as the last English is heard and before the first German voice speaks, should be that same C - played as a harmonic by the cellos and on the open string of the violas.

There are two important musical quotations in Blitz and the first of these also became caught up in my increasingly pictorial way of thinking. It is the opening bars of Bruch's Violin Concerto in G minor. While the quote itself is brief, transformations of that falling three-note melodic figure permeate the entire piece - in fact the theme is already being transformed before it is heard in its original form about two-and-a-half minutes from the start. And why the Bruch? Well from 1880 to 1883, the German composer was chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. But more importantly in terms of the piece, the slow-motion falling figure struck me as a useful musical symbol for dropping bombs.

The second quote, impossible to miss, is the great Lutheran chorale, Vom Himmel hoch which Bach used so memorably as the basis for his set of canonic variations. At the point in Blitz at which the English voices give way to German voices, I needed something momentous to happen, a climax to that droning C. At one level, I guess I was trying to find a musical equivalent of the firebombing of Hamburg. Of course, even supposing that this were possible, the resulting music would be too awful to listen to. But what, I wondered, if I were to produce a great peal of C major at this point, lighting up the musical sky, not with horror, but with something awful in the most literal sense, something full of awe? So there are three statements of Luther's great tune, played simultaneously at different speeds, combining in a kind of ecstatic cacophony and reinforced by clanging bells played by the three percussionists.

From the original idea, Blitz came about rather slowly. I knew it would be an orchestral piece, but I had no commission, and until I was sure that I could make the voices work, I decided not to pursue a commission. It was at the point when I had recorded three of the four English voices and was about to go to Hamburg to record the first German voice, that Simon Rogers from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra rang up about an unrelated matter. Simon asked why I was going to Hamburg, and so I told him about the piece. His enthusiasm for the idea led, in turn, to a commission from the orchestra (with assistance from the Sidney Myer Fund) and also the luxury of a workshop last year that allowed us all to assess how the first eight minutes of the piece sounded. I am very grateful to him and everyone else at the TSO for taking up the cause of the piece with such gusto. I am also indebted to my ABC colleague Leila Shunnar for helping me understand nuances of the German language, and I could never have edited the voices without Veronika Vincze at ABC Hobart. ('What are you doing down here?' asked a friend I bumped into in Davy Street. 'Cutting up my parents,' I replied.)

Blitz is dedicated to the people whose voices are heard during its course. In order of appearance: Ken and Pat Wilson, Alec and Marjorie Ford, Hansjuergen Enz, Ursula Ezimora and Edith Bauermeister.

AMC resources

Andrew Ford - AMC profile
Andrew Ford - Blitz for orchestra, chorus and pre-recorded voices
Andrew Ford - Symphony
Event details in the AMC Calendar: TSO & Blitz in Hobart on 18 August at 7:30pm
'Living in the country helps focus on the sounds in my head' - article by Andrew Ford on Resonate (10 June 2009)
'The Waltz Book revisited' - article by Andrew Ford on Resonate (5 October 2011)

Further links

Andrew Ford - homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and broadcaster, and has won awards in all three capacities, including the prestigious Paul Lowin Prize for his song cycle, Learning to Howl. His music has been played throughout Australia and in more than 40 countries around the world.


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