Zen and the art of mak­ing mu­sic

Miriama Young’s first opera is a med­i­ta­tion on min­i­mal­ism, says Michael Tumelty

The Herald - Arts - - OPERA -

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.”

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