‘A Celestial Map of the Sky’: An Interview with Tarik O’Regan

Tarik O’Regan is an award-winning composer, who has written for orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Leo Mercer spoke to him about the Hallé Orchestra’s world premiere of his new piece, ‘A Celestial Map of the Sky: 1515’, the relationship between music and text, and social media.

Do you get nervous before a premiere?

Some people get nervous at a premiere, because it’s out of your control. But I feel the pressure in rehearsals because that’s when you can change it, you have power at that point. I’ve worked with a lot of conductors, and there’s something incredible working with a conductor at the top of his game like Mark Elder — his demeanour of keeping calm, his time-management — it’s very calming. He has phenomenal ears – he was very sharp in rehearsal. He’s a great conductor for a composer. Maybe it’s a second sense — he worked on everything just before I was about to raise it my hand. Just before I was about to say “Bar 37”, I’d hear “Bar 37!”.

Can you tell me about ‘Celestial Map Of The Sky: 1515’?

This was a commission by the Hallé and Manchester Grammar School for their quincentenary. One of the problems with contemporary music — there are many problems! — but one is our obsession with premieres. We don’t like second performances. If you write a piece so specific to the commissioner, there’s no wonder it’ll never be performed again. So I started thinking as broadly as I could — through the influence of people like Tom Phillips and Alice Goodman, librettists who think in that way. Having visited the school, I started thinking about the year in which MGS was founded, which was a burgeoning humanist period. The school’s founding character is humanist, about embracing the diversity of tongues. It’s not about the sciences and religion; it’s about the four humanist arts.

I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and saw some Durer prints, which I noticed were from 1515, the school’s founding year. Up until that point, when people made maps of the stars, they’d often put allegorical or godly figures in the corners. But Durer puts four astronomers, real people. It’s the first time that that had happened. It’s hard to know what that means, except he’s putting human endeavour to understand as the framing idea of the universe, and not God. Humans look up at the stars, but in the prints, they’re in the corners, so they’re also looking down from the stars. That roughly fit with the charter of the school, but ultimately, it’s what we’re still doing today. Human endeavour is at the centre of everything.

This is one of the pieces in a recording of new orchestral works that the Halle will record this summer. The others are Latent Manifest, which I wrote for the Proms; Rai, a sort of percussion concerto for goblet drums; and a suite from Heart of Darkness.

There’s a very broad choice of texts that you’re setting, including Whitman, Hart Crane, and Hopkins. How did you choose these texts?

I acted as my own librettist: I read a lot and made notes of things. The Whitman poem was the glue — ‘I see the cities of the earth and make myself at random a part of them’ — that sense of looking down upon the cities, urban centres, where people are working, where people are thinking. And interspersed with that are the thoughts of people looking up. It’s a very simple concept.

What interested you in these words in particular?  

The Whitman I like because it’s a list of cities. People used to criticise Stravinsky because he didn’t set his words naturally, with common stresses. But I love that. It creates incredible rhythms. So with a list like that – ‘I am of London, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick etc’, I wanted to cut across the natural stress. Manchester gets about three times as long as London. It’s a little tip of the hat.

There’s a lot of Hopkins in there which is interesting, because he has such a strong music in his poems already. I thought that would make it tough for a composer.

A thing you’ve got to be honest about as a composer is that the minute you see a nice poem and you want to use it musically, you’re ruining it. In terms of the poet’s music, you’ve ruined it. Even if you’ve set it honestly, and you’ve imitated the exact stresses, you’ve ruined it the minute you attach pitch and rhythm. You have to let that part of it go. Still, the poem will always be the poem. I haven’t deleted it. It’s there in the world. The poet’s music exists in many ways, one of which is simply on the page, or reading it out loud, or hearing someone else read it. There’s an intrinsic poetry in the sequence of those words, laid out on the page. The minute you start messing around with musical notation, you’re adding a layer which changes it forever, in that context. It’s a bit like choreographers working with my music. I’ve written my piece, equivalent to the poem. It has a meaning, it has a pace. Now a choreographer comes along and interprets it in their own way by putting dance on top of it. It’s a new interpretative layer. But the original music is still there.

What can we expect musically?

It’s a big piece, a big orchestra. I didn’t want to write down for the chorus, just because they’re young voices. I didn’t want to simplify. I remember, as a kid, you knew when you were being palmed off. They want to sit at the adults’ table. Ultimately, you want a piece that lives on, a proper piece of music which will not be programmed just because it’s considered a ‘piece for youth choir’.

The piece itself is very rhythmic. It uses the strings percussively, as opposed to with long, lyrical lines. There’s a lot of delicate orchestration, and vibrancy in the outer section, breaking right down to a string quartet in the middle. I wanted it to be a piece that’s immediate.

You’ve spoken in other interviews about how you have many influences that don’t make it to the surface of your music. What exactly is their influence, then?

Well, take Birtwistle. I think no one would look at my music and think: that guy’s into Harrison Birtwistle. I love Harrison Birtwistle’s music. What I find so compelling is his perception of broad scale, and macro- and micro-scale drama. No one does it better. I don’t know how, he’s just got a handle on pacing, and how you keep aware of where you are in a piece, without giving the game away. Whether it’s for stage or not, he’s just got it better on the macro-scale and in the micro-scale; he works with these gestures, subtle expansions of gesture, pulling them out and then compressing them… I find that to be hugely influential for the way that I write, working at two levels of pace — the broad scale — but also little lines that are expanded then compressed, like Janacek.

How did your opera ‘Heart of Darkness’ come about?

I’d been looking at chamber opera subjects. Tom Phillips had always thought it was a good idea; I wasn’t convinced until I saw Apocalypse Now Redux. When they released it, they mentioned that Orson Welles had wanted to make a film of Heart of Darkness, long before Citizen Kane. It was the first film he’d wanted to make. The packaging of the redux described a radio play Welles had done, which was 20 minutes long, and had stripped down 99% of the words. I tracked it down and listened to it.

Tom restricted himself to language from the novel, and Conrad’s diary at the time. What’s left is a composer’s dream, as many librettos don’t leave space. This one has very few complete lines — there are snippets of ideas, it doesn’t over-explain things. There’s no characterisation in the libretto: something happens and it’s left to the music to describe why this character’s there, why they sound like they do. The libretto assumes the music and design will explain what’s happening, where we are, how the characters flick between different places.

So what is the function of the words?

The words are really giving crucial elements of the plot through narrative. Tom’s libretto creates the sense that everyone in the theatre – musicians, singers, audience – are in Marlow’s mind, that the words are roughly in order, but not completely. What you get from the opera is not so much the story — they story is very simple: a man goes into Equatorial Africa to find a legendary ivory trader whose methods are very unseemly, finds him, and then the trader dies. It’s the fact that when he comes back, he meets the trader’s fiancée, who asks him what the trader’s last words were. We know them to be ‘the horror, the horror’, but he tells her ‘your name’. He lies. The focus point is why does the older Marlow let us know that he lied. It’s not a part of the plot, but he wants us to know, after everything that came before, that to tell the truth would be to open a door he doesn’t want to. The libretto is really good at raising that question, that’s our focus in the opera.

Have you worked with librettists producing original work?

Yes, I’ve just been working with Alice Goodman. She’s phenomenal. We’ve just created an oratorio-cantata about the Magna Carta. It’s all about ritual and poise. It’s quite abstract. On the one hand, it’s about the incredible ritual of medieval parchment making, which begins with the killing of a lamb, with sacrifice; on the other hand, it’s about the poise of language. It flits back and forth between the incredible ritual of medieval parchment making. It’s not about King John, or princes, etc. It’s about the idea of creating an important document. It focuses on the fact that for a long time the wording was about ‘any baron’ and then, later in the day, shifted to ‘any free man’. And the idea that making text is an act itself. ‘Texts are acts’ comes through several times. 

How did that come about?

We chatted and talked and one day, I got all these ideas in the post and they were just brilliant. When you start from scratch with a librettist, it’s like that. They generate the first batch of ideas, you react, they hone it in a bit more, and finally you end up with something.

Alice hadn’t written a libretto since John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, and before then, only Nixon in China. The thing that’s in common to all three is that, yes there’s a story, but it’s framed in a broader context. Framing the hijacking of the Achille Lauro with the foundation of Israel is not dissimilar from framing this legalistic idea that we have with the much broader idea of how did the very parchment came about.

Do you aim at ‘being now’ in your music? 

Very unfairly, composers are always told to defend the relevance of their work. Probably more than any other field, it’s classical music where they tell you that it’s ‘at the cutting edge’. And it just isn’t. Cutting edge is probably some secretive room that we don’t even know exists in Silicon Valley, or some outpost at Google where they’ve made some way to levitate or something. To me this projects an insecurity of the entire field. I don’t think it’s relevant. I don’t think we need to be worried about what we’re doing in the here and now. The thing about concert music is that it’s not commercially driven. It’s a variety of music that is commissioned. Nobody commissions rock and pop songs. The rock and pop world is extremely hard, and there are brilliant people working in it. It’s not a commissioned world. It’s not one where a bunch of people get together and commission someone to write a song, bring it to life, and then see what happens with it. It’s a much more visceral way of writing. You feel like you want to write. You write it.

Classical musical has never worked that way. That’s not to say that there’s no financial influence. It’s just that the way the revenue streams work is very different. It has a big effect on the way we think about what we do. With music that isn’t immediately driven by people buying it there is, whether people admit or not, an influence of legacy and longevity. Somehow you’ve picked this weird profession, in the hope that what you produce might outlast you in some way.

This affects a lot of things. The new production of Heart of Darkness in San Francisco next month makes use of a lot of digital mapping. Digital mapping projection has been around for a long time in the rock and pop world, but it’s only now coming to the classical world. These things aren’t cheap to develop, and unless you’re going to get a return, you’re not going to develop that technology. The way that a lot of things go into the pop world can actually be used, given more time, in much more interesting ways. I absolutely loved the Robert le Page Ring cycle at the Met, which used digital mapping in a very complex way. I saw it twice.

I don’t worry about whether something is in or out of trend. I’ve been writing music full-time for 6-7 years, and I’ve seen pieces come in and out of favour. There are always different tastes, moving at different speeds. That’s one area that is the same in pop and rock. And you can’t pre-empt it. One of the pieces of mine that has been performed a lot is called The Ecstasies Above, and that’s for that for 3 choirs and string quartet, and is excruciatingly hard. If I’d have gone to a publisher and told them about it, they’d have thought I was mad. And then I’ve written pieces that were sure-fire hits, and have been played once. You can’t second guess what people want to do.

You seem pretty active on social media. Does that change you in such a way that affects what you’re producing?

For me, no. Facebook has changed dramatically. I used to be on quite a lot for personal use, but now I use it more as a professional site. Facebook has taken over people’s websites. It’s become commercial, albeit with a personal touch. I would even not call it ‘social’ media any more. Twitter, though, is a concise, personal, way of connecting with people. I like the fact these devices are in your hand. I find that very compelling. There’s something that you’re reading on your hand that I’m typing on mine, there’s a physicality to it. It reminds me of Raymond Carver, talking about why he liked writing short stories. He said he liked the fact it takes a sitting to write one, and a sitting to read one. That connection was important to him: it might take him a day but he will sit down and write it, and the person who reads it will sit down for half an hour. That connection was strong. And you get that from Twitter. 

And these are old technologies. Facebook is now dull.

Were you on the original Facebook?!


L. Mercer

Tarik O’Regan is still on Facebook, and you can like his page here. He is also on Twitter @tarikoregan, and his website can be found here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook


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