For this #tenebraeunlocked edition of Nigel’s blog, he interviews the composer Judith Bingham. Her atmospheric and captivating piece The Drowned Lovers was written as a companion to Stanford’s The Bluebird, and features on our award-winning album Music of the Spheres. Popular with audiences worldwide, we were delighted to feature music from this album in our 2020 film of the same name in the Tenebrae Unlocked series, available to rent here.
Judith tells us more about the piece:
Where did your inspiration for this work come from?
I was on a summer holiday in the Allgäu Alps, in Bavaria, and we went swimming in a lake, high up in the mountains. It was very deep in the middle, and I got spooked, thinking that if I drowned, I might never be found. Afterwards, I remembered reading an old folk story – though I might have imagined this – of a woman drowning herself and her unfaithful lover, and I wrote a poem very much influenced by my own experience that day. It was only later on that I decided to use it in a reworking of the Stanford. I like the idea of the blue bird hovering over the still, calm lake, while underneath the lovers are drowning amongst the fishes and water weed.
When writing the piece did you have a specific soloist in mind?
Probably myself, it’s very much my range at that time.
Who wrote the lyrics for Drowned Lovers?
Yes, I wrote the poem while I was there, but I also wrote another poem about the experience: ‘Waterlilies,’ which I set for a collection called A Garland for Linda.
When working on the piece it is instantly noticeable that you don’t use a key signature in the score. What is your reasoning behind this?
I’ve never used key signatures, I think I try and avoid being obviously tonal, but more ambiguous in my harmony. I use a lot of jazz harmonies, but taken out of context. I think that if you tried to put a key signature in a piece, there would immediately be a lot of accidentals cancelling out the key! I do like a lot of doubt in harmony, such as you regularly find in Prokofiev, where the chords often don’t ring true.
Have you composed any other pieces that have such an integral connection to an existing work?
Yes, there are three other pieces that work like this one: that is, they only use the harmonies of the original piece. They are meant to show that famous choral pieces like The Bluebird, don’t have such predictable harmonies as you might think. But I have often referenced other composers works in my own music, and also the poems I write – I like to move around the words of an existing poem and create something new, I call it stolen verse. Part of The Drowned Lovers is stolen from the Mary Coleridge original of The Bluebird:
Cold and still
Cold and still
Blue in blue
Cold and still
What was the most enjoyable piece you’ve ever worked on and which was the most challenging and why?
There are enjoyable elements to being a composer, mostly in working with fine musicians (like Tenebrae of course!), which is such a privilege. But I wouldn’t ever call the process of composing enjoyable, except for the relief of finishing a piece. As I get older it seems to get harder, slower, more mystifying and ever more frustrating. And there are many challenging things about writing: being idiomatic for instruments you don’t play – some are much easier than others. Guitar and harp are both very hard I think, as a non-player, and writing 5 brass band pieces and 3 wind band pieces all involved a great deal of work to get the balance right. Perhaps the most challenging thing of all is to fulfil the brief of the commission, while maintaining the integrity and truthfulness of your idea.