Monday, 28 January 2013

40 to 20

I’ve been working on the Pepys Motet all day, from early in the morning, when Nathan got up to do his jury service, to about ten minutes ago when my eyes started to go a bit weird. Those who haven’t followed this blog from its conception may not know that it’s called the Pepys Motet, because I wanted to write an online diary which would track the progress of what remains the most ambitious and insane musical project I’ve ever attempted. At the beginning of 2010, exactly 350 years after Pepys started to write his diary, I began to write this blog, and at the same time, a 40-part motet based on passages from the diary.

The idea of the piece was that each of the 40 chosen singers would sing their own, unique line and just like Thomas Tallis’ famous Spem In Alium, there would be no doubling. It took me the best part of 9 months to write and the work was eventually recorded with eight choirs of five singers, representing a host of different musical styles from gospel through opera to folk. A number of choirs came from institutions associated with Pepys, including Magdalene College, Cambridge and the Navy; yes, we actually worked with five young officers from the Royal Navy! It was bonkers. I rehearsed them in Dartmouth in Devon after driving through the night in the worst storm imaginable.

The recording sessions were close to hell on earth. The work was desperately ambitious, some singers were hugely under-prepared and I nearly went mad on several occasions, behaving like a terrible Hitler character and going into complete meltdown at least twice. If you read this blog from September and October, 2010, you’ll start to get an indication of what was going on. The entire project nearly fell apart on several occasions. It’s the closest I’ve ever come in my career to throwing in the towel. We only managed to record 5 of the 6 movements and what we did record was patchy. There were moments where the piece feels epic and incredibly filmic, but other sequences where it doesn’t hang together quite as well as it could have done...

We performed three of the movements live in November 2010, at St Olave’s Church, the church where Pepys worshipped and is buried. The actual performance was the first time that all 40 singers had been in one space at the same time and the evening was a triumph. The Navy boys turned up in full uniform, the Magdalene college choir came in their gowns, and each of the choirs dressed appropriately for their voice type. The last movement was performed with the singers in a circle around the audience; surround sound. I look back on the night with a little sadness, however, as one of our 40 singers, Sam, a young counter-tenor from the early music choir, overdosed last year. Even if we’d wanted to get together to repeat the magical performance, we’d never be able to with its original cast.

It’s my ambition for this year to try and record the piece properly, and I want the Rebel Chorus to pick up the reins. So at the moment I’m condensing the piece from a 40-voice behemoth to a (only slightly) more manageable work for 20 soloists; a process which feels a bit like trying to bottle air! I’ll get there eventually...

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