Zen and the art of making music
Miriama Young’s first opera is a meditation on minimalism, says Michael Tumelty
Even in the pluralistic world that is classical music today, Miriama Young defies categorisation. She is an academic, lecturing in music at Aberdeen University. She is an old jazz hand, having played in that world (all the saxes). She is an arranger with her name attached t o t wo Thelonius Monk classics, Blue Monk and Brilliant Corners. She is a multi-genre composer, w ith her reper toire rang ing f rom chamber music, played by the Nash Ensemble, to an interactive sounddance score for a dancer with sensors attached to her body, to an electronic (and erotic) soundscape for Cathy Bowman’s poem 1000 Kisses.
She also writes pop songs, one of which, a very catchy number called Quicksand, was picked up recently by David Byrne, founder member of Talking Heads, and featured on the personally selected monthly playlist of his internet radio station, Radio David Byrne. In her pop persona, where she’s known as Miri, she has recorded an album of her own songs, Briney Deep, a rather elliptical affair with much of the music heftily swathed in reverberation.
And now, having already written extensively for the voice, Young is an opera composer, whose first opera, Zen Story – written for Scottish Opera’s Five:15 project to a libretto by author Alan Spence – opens tonight in Aberdeen in conjunction with the Word festival, of which her collaborator Spence is founder and artistic director.
In fact the collaboration between Spence, who is head of creative writing at Aberdeen University, and the 35year-old New Zealand-born composer, the first woman composer to feature in Five:15, predates the Scottish Opera commission.
“We had met socially, and Alan, who has a ver y strong interest in Zen Buddhism, approached me as he was interested in collaborating on something. He’d had this Zen parable in mind for a while, and saw opera as a perfect vehicle to convey it to a 21st-century audience. He wrote the initial libretto, made it his own, and got the ball rolling. So when the inv itation came, we presented ourselves to Scottish Opera as a duo.”
It’s a very simple story, and Young tells it beautifully. “It’s about a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant. She goes to the local monk for guidance. Her parents get wind of what’s been going on and demand to know who had done the deed. In a moment of frustration and despair, she blames the holy man. He takes a very Zen approach to the accusation, says, ‘So be it’, takes the baby and looks after it.
“The girl is so racked with guilt that eventually she admits it was some other guy who was passing though the village. At that point the parents go back to the monk, ask for forgiveness, and say, ‘It wasn’t you’.
“The monk says, ‘Is that so?’ and hands the baby back, leaving an ambiguity there. The story is a good one, and a very simple one in some ways.”
So what was the starting point for the music?
“If you’re trying to get right at the heart of Zen, I had this idea of how you might relay it in musical terms. It might have a stillness to it, and a kind of simplicity and calmness. I heard a sound world that would be restrained, pared back and rather minimal. And I also had this idea of ritual; of bells that would sound and hang in the air, evoking the East, though not in any literal way; perhaps just pointing to that world.”
The opera does not, I suggest to the composer, sound like a dramatic stage piece. “No. That’s its conceit: it’s going against what we might think of as opera. But part of the Scottish Opera mandate is to ask the question: what does opera in the 21st century sound like? So perhaps it’s a matter of looking at tradition, then doing something new as well.”
If it’s Zen-like, are we in for a static 15 minutes?
“There is drama within the piece; and there is a lot of tension. There are four characters, and there are all these points where the girl is dealing with her own vulnerability, her own feelings of guilt, how she’s going to tell her parents, and getting herself into all kinds of knots.
“Then there’s the father, who is angry most of the time: he reacts all the time; so there are points of conflict within the sense of stasis. And the music reflects this. It’s not just 15 minutes of meditation: the drama comes through an underlying rhythmic pulse, in which the role of the orchestra is fundamental.”
It is not, she assures me, “too wordy” an opera. “It’s fairly spare, and the Zen monk ju st o f f e rs p e a rls of wisdom while the parents run around in a state of turmoil. They are declamatory.”
And what of the musical language of the opera? “It’s in a minimalist way. It’s going to be accessible; it’s more of a tonal piece. Some of the harmonic writing derives as much from the pop and rock world as the classical world. And the melodic writing is almost more drawn from a pop world than operatic: it’s less florid, more straightforward. There are not a lot of melismatic passages, so the instruments have to do more work to push things forward.”
She draws no distinction between the conventional categorisation of musical genres and what a “classical” musician ought to be doing. She left New Zealand on a Fulbright scholarship to go to the US for one year. She stayed for seven, completing her PhD at Princeton in an ethos she found totally refreshing and stimulating. “A lot of my cohorts at Princeton were recording pop songs in the studio then going off to compose their pieces for classical orchestra. There wasn’t a distinction. That whole scene influenced me. You can draw on all these worlds.”
And she has been massively influenced by David Byrne, something of a hero to the composer. “Look at him. He’s had this whole pop career. Now he’s doing a sound installation, he has his internet radio station and he designs bicycle racks in New York. People are working as creative artists in their own right. I find it terribly exciting to be able to work between these worlds. I’ve always had an interest in vernacular music. And I find that one informs the other. As much as people might disparage the pop world, I find that working in that world informs my classical compositions.
“I also do electro-acoustic pieces that use text and voice; I put on shows myself, singing; and I work with poets, merging the spoken word with sound. When I was finishing my PhD in the States, I said OK, I can be an academic, I can be a composer – but can I write a three-minute pop song? It’s harder than you think. I love working across the divide. It’s all a continuum to me.”