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Ancient Mariner: Not an Opera

16 May 2016

Three of our postgraduate composers have worked with Welsh artist Ivor Davies to create an immersive, sound-led performance which will premiere at National Museum Cardiff on 17 May. Find out more from the composers – Joseph Hillyard, Richard McReynolds, and Julia E. Howell – here…

Ancient Mariner: Not An Opera began as the idea of artist Ivor Davies to create a large-scale work responding to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s seminal poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and has evolved into a collaborative piece created by Mr. Davies, Cardiff University PhD composers Julia E. Howell, Richard McReynolds, and Joseph Hillyard, and cross-disciplinary artist Leona Jones.


The piece retains certain features of operatic format- theatrical use of space, gesture, sung parts, instrumental interludes, and immersion in a particular realm of thought, emotion, and story. Yet the work diverges from opera in significant ways. Rather than acting as libretto, the poem itself has received a more synesthetic treatment, with the music and sound exploring the imaginary domain of sounds, meanings, thoughts, and imagery beneath the words. The music and sound, by blending electronics and acoustic instruments, become detached from their sources and achieve a disembodied quality suitable for delving into the liminal space of the poem. With Mr. Davies acting as scribe, the performance suggests entering the mind of the poet, a reader of the poem, or indeed the hallucinatory experience of the Mariner himself.

Though the piece has been created through a fully collaborative process and each artist’s contribution has been colored by and blended with the others’, the materials proffered by each participant take different approaches to the poem and its themes.

Joseph Hillyard’s portion for vocal trio reflects the trance-like nature of the Mariner’s obsessive recitation. Joseph writes: ‘Using my own adaptation of the lyrics to Slint’s song ‘Good Morning Captain,’ itself based upon The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Storm Took Them All is a vocal trio that alludes to the fraught mental state of the mariner as he recounts his tale to his audience. This is achieved through slowly oscillating melodic lines, reminiscent of a ship in the doldrums that eventually swell to reflect a frenzied mind in a windless ocean.’

Meanwhile, Richard McReynolds has focused on experimenting with the particular qualities of the performance space- the National Museum Cardiff’s foyer. Richard describes the elements he has composed as follows: ‘My electronics are created by a generative program that I have written in order to create continuously changing gestures in an immersive atmosphere.  This generative process is mimicked by open scored brass and vocal pieces.

‘These give freedom to the performers to react to what is happening in the space at the same time as they are realising the composition. My vocal piece is also an opportunity to play with different physical gestures as a cueing device.  I see this as a way to play with the visual spectacle of performers being placed around the foyer.’

Leona Jones’ work has focused on the sonic and semiological affordances of the text itself. She writes: ‘In the Rime Coleridge, poet of Imagination, takes familiarities which reach out to everyone, and transforms them into a meandering, horrific, beautiful, bizarre journey where rationality has no power, a journey that readers ‘cannot chuse but hear’.  As outlined in Biographia Literaria , he understood imagination to be empowering in its transcendence of the confines of time and space.  I felt the strength of the words, the heightened intensity of storytelling in the hands/mouth of a master craftsperson, had to remain the central feature of my contribution.

‘The poem, incorporating  the oral musicality of ballads, demanded it.  Capturing the richness of Voice, the vividness of Word, however, was not enough.  The multiplicity of interpretations that can be placed on the poem demanded a more fluid approach; mixing and metamorphosis.  Recordings of voice and elemental sounds, themselves only parts of the flow of moments in time and space,  were made, and then rendered as recognisable/un/recognisable in my response to selected key episodes in the poem, leaving openings for listeners to re-create for themselves.’

Finally, Julia E. Howell’s components deal with the distortion, decay, and disguise of sounds, from waves to snatches of voices to instrumental echoes in dialogue with one another. Using spectral techniques, granular synthesis, and fragmentation of motifs, Julia aims to simulate the uncanny and disorienting ways sounds carry at sea as well as the otherworldly or surreal atmosphere of a seemingly hostile open-water landscape.

These differing strands are woven into a continuous piece which unfolds seamlessly, creating a synthesis of music, sound, text, voice, gesture, and use of space to conjure the spirit of the Mariner’s story.


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