You may have heard that we’re big fans of Benjamin Britten here at the Scottish Ensemble – so much so we’ve dedicated our whole 2012-13 season to focusing on the composer ahead of his centenary in 2013. Taking inspiration from Britten’s unconventional style, we’ve commissioned video artist Netia Jones to create some brand new visuals to be performed live alongside our performances of Les Illuminations
in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness from 22 – 25 October 2012
Several of your previous projects have involved using Britten’s music. Why do you think the composer’s music lends itself so well to the addition of visuals?
Almost more than any other composer, Britten’s vocal music is wonderful to work with in this way. There is an innate theatricality to Britten’s treatment of written texts, and an instinctive understanding of any particular line or phrase, while also leaving precise meaning open to interpretation, which corresponds with how I might treat the visual element. My work with projection and film design is created to be performed live, along with the instrumentalists and singers, so that it is completely integrated into the listening experience, and in Britten these expressive, and narrative musical gestures offer up great opportunities to enhance this relationship between what you are hearing and what you are seeing.
What appeals to you about creating a piece to be performed alongside Les Illuminations?
Les Illuminations, along with Nocturne, has always been one of my favourite pieces. It is
hard to conjure up two more apparently dissimilar figures than Arthur Rimbaud and Benjamin Britten, and the combination throws up something very unique. There is the interesting parallel of Rimbaud having spent time ‘exiled’ in London, and drawing on English words and tropes, and Benjamin Britten also living as an outsider in the United States. There is the element of freedom and escape from social strictures and restrictions that Britten was beginning to engage with, although Rimbaud’s version of ‘épater les bourgeois’ [to shock the bourgeois] is a more extreme kind of ‘écraser les bourgeois’ [to crush the bourgeois] that makes even WH Auden look staid, and there is Rimbaud’s extraordinary, mesmeric prose, that seems to have lit up something in the composer.
There’s a lot of visual imagery in the text of Les Illuminations, do you follow this literally when creating your visuals, or are you more led by the music?
The poet John Ashbery has described Les Illuminations as “a disordered collection of magic lantern slides”, which is a wonderful concept. Highly visual, and also with an extraodinarily dense text, this collection of prose poems are also very theatrical, and draw on many theatrical allusions and images. Britten is faithful to the essence of the imagery of each poem – the sea/ocean, golden threads, walking – while allowing the multiplicity of meaning, the many-layered effect of Rimbaud’s poetry. “Illuminations” can mean coloured plates, fireworks, enlightenment, lighting up, and myriad other other interpretations, so here too I am hoping to keep the meaning open, while allowing for some visual representation.
The text too is integral – I am including all of the translations to the poems, which in some of the songs contain a great number of words. Again, rather than interpret and understand every single line, sometimes the best way to respond to Rimbaud is to allow the whole thing to make its impact. It is nice to be able to introduce the translation so that these extraordinary words can also be fully integrated into the performance of the songs, in a musical way, rather than in programme notes or surtitles.
You perform your visuals live with the musical performance, how does this works in practice? Are there particular challenges involved in working this way?
On any given project I create a film or video design which is made to be performed live, so it does not exist at all other than in the moment I am playing it. In order to be able to perform it live I have to know the piece incredibly well without using the score, and my own work also just as fluently, as there is nothing written down. This is because I follow the performers, so that the visual material is as fluid and spontaneous as the live performance. By the time of the performance the challenges are always technical – because it is so risky and tricky working with technology, which is always fallible, rather than musical, because by then I will know the piece very, very well.
What do you think that audiences gain from experiencing visuals alongside the music? What might people expect from the concert?
In creating a projection design for a live concert my ideal is that the audience are enabled to listen better. Where the visual world can capture something of the essence of a piece, and can be completely integrated so that what you are seeing corresponds in many layers to what you are hearing – not as a computer might achieve nor even as a ‘son et lumière’ but rather as an integral, meaningful part of the presentation – the listener can become even more fully immersed in the performance. Visuals are a theatrical tool, they can create atmosphere, relay direct or subliminal information, focus the attention, and here, especially, impart a text. Working with a group as fantastic as the Scottish Ensemble is extremely exciting, and I would hope to match their excellence and virtuosity with a visual world that is not intrusive, but beautiful, and somehow true to both Rimbaud and Britten.
Have there been any particular challenges that you’ve encountered working on this project?
The greatest challenge in this piece is the density of the poetry. I decided very early on to include all of the text in the video design because I feel that it is a wonderful way of delivering the translation. In some of the pieces it will not be possible to read it all, but in the same way, it is not possible to hear it all either – it is the incremental effect of Rimbaud’s expressive imagery. I am looking at very early experimental photography, particularly the use of double and triple exposure, where there are two or three images overlapping in one image, which also reflects on the idea of the disordered collection of magic lantern slides, and also the artists who were a part of the symbolist movement of which Rimbaud was a part, thinking particularly about a quote from the painter Odilon Redon;
“My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”
Have a listen of our recording of Les Illuminations with tenor Toby Spence
For full booking details visit our website