Jan Tait and the Bear – Emily Doolittle

September 28, 2016 in All Opportunities, Ensemble Thing, featured, guest blog by mwhiteside

Jan Tait and the Bear is a new, 50-minute chamber opera based on a 15th century folktale from Fetlar, one of the North Isles of Shetland. At that time, Shetland belonged to Norway, and Shetlanders were required to pay tax to the Norwegian king in the form of barley, sheep, and butter. Jan Tait is accused of cheating on his butter payment, argues with and kills the tax officer, and is taken to Norway to be sentenced to death by the king. After performing an act of humorously grotesque bravery, Tait is granted a last minute reprieve if he can rid Norway of a ferocious brown bear that has been wreaking havoc in the mountain villages. I won’t give away the ending here, but will say that butter features prominently throughout this tale!

Jan Tait and the Bear has its origins in 2010, when I went to Shetland for the first time. I was there looking for killer whales with some biologist friends, and also doing some of my own musical research. While there I met pianist and illustrator Meilo So, who lives on the isle of Yell and organizes the amateur chamber ensemble ffancytunes (the northernmost ensemble in the UK!) She asked if I would write a piece for them, and we decided a chamber opera about Jan Tait would be perfect for the circumstances. I was fascinated by the story’s ancient origins and timeless appeal, its rough, earthy humour, its blending of truth and fiction, and the way it can be interpreted on multiple levels. I adapted long-time Shetland resident Peter Guy’s theatrical version of the same story for the narrated portion of the libretto, and though I had never previously written song lyrics, soon discovered that I loved doing so. I made several research trips to Shetland, and asked numerous questions of the director of the Shetland Museum, Ian Tait (possibly a relation?), to make sure I had the details of life in medieval Shetland right. ffancytunes workshopped sections of the opera as I completed it, and gave an in-progress concert performance of Jan Tait and the Bear at the Sellafirth Community Centre in Yell in July, 2015: this was an enormous help in figuring out how I wanted to finish the piece, and how it might eventually be staged. Due to the transitory membership of ffancytunes, we decided that the staged version would be best performed by a professional ensemble, and I was so thrilled when Ensemble Thing agreed to give Jan Tait’s public premiere, with Alan McHugh (narrator), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano), and Brian McBride (baritone), directed by Stasi Schaeffer. Come to the CCA on Oct. 6 (8PM) or Oct. 8 (1PM) to follow the adventures of Jan Tait and the Bear!

Tickets: http://www.cca-glasgow.com/programme/ensemble-thing–jan-tait-and-the-bear

The development of Jan Tait and the Bear received funding from OPERA America’s Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Hinrichsen Foundation. My heartfelt gratitude to these organizations for believing in this project and making it possible!

 

 

John De Simone – Independence

July 30, 2015 in Ensemble Thing, featured, guest blog, John De Simone by newmusicscotland

John De Simone IndependenceIn 2014, the year of the independence referendum, I gratefully received funding from the Katherine McGillivray’s Get a Life Fund to enable me to spend time researching and working towards a substantial new work which was to be about my Scottish background and its influence on my music. Here are some thoughts on how and why Independence came to be.

Having been born and raised in south east England to a Scottish mother and Italian father I have always had a sense of not quite belonging to whichever place I lived in. Brought up in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, I was always well aware that I was not quite a true Englishman – “John Ravioli Desdemoney” was not a name of these isles.

Being brought up bi-culturally, with parents proud of their countries and traditions, I never felt like I understood what it meant to be English. This was compounded by my experiences as a student composer at the Guildhall in London, where I felt somewhere along the line I had missed out on making the right connections, and didn’t have the right story to fit in with the British classical music meta-narrative.

Eventually (after several years in The Netherlands – my experiences there would make another lengthy blog post) I made the decision to move to Scotland and to re-join my family, who had since moved there after my mother’s retirement. I felt in many ways that I fitted in here- so much about the Scottish or perhaps Glaswegian way of life resonated with me – the inherent egalitarianism, sense of social democracy and liberalism. Also, I had a family history here.

My Scottish family have been deeply involved in the nationalism movement since the 1920’s when my grandfather John MacCormick founded the National Party of Scotland, which he then merged with the Scottish Party in 1934 to create the Scottish National Party. My uncle Ian was an MP in the UK parliament from 1974 and my other uncle Neil was both MEP and Vice – President of the SNP.

Yet despite this, I felt like in my art form, contemporary music – I still did not quite belong. It can seem that classical music in Scotland is often an outpost of London, certainly a lot of decisions about what gets premiered up here gets made down there, or from composers who live and work there. Whether or not this is actually the case, or whether I am being paranoid is perhaps not the point – it was this perception that I wanted to explore and ask whether there is such a thing as a “Scottish Music” that can incorporate what I do.independance 2

With this question in mind and a desire to find out more about my Scottish family and their role in the independence movement- I set off on a period of writing and research that culminated in Independence.

The piece itself is an hour long multi-movement work with me talking in between the movements, providing context and a narrative to the unfolding musical events. I also incorporate speech from my Uncle Iain and a beautiful pipe tune written by my Great-Grandfather Donald MacCormick, “The lads that will return home, no more” which was premiered at the opening of the Glasgow Cenotaph in 1924.

It is performed by the wonderful Ensemble Thing, a group I have proudly been involved with for the last 11 years. They are all incredibly talented performers, who I have had the pleasure to get to know very well over the years and they have an innate understanding of how to play my music, which is such a gift for a composer.

And it was at the premiere of the piece at the 17th September in the old hairdressers on the eve of the referendum that the piece took on its own life and let me understand fully what independence meant for me. With the upsurge of community support and political debate, seeing such an engaged audience and ensemble, the festive spirit in town that night, and feeling I was part of something larger and in my own small way contributing to the debate- I realised that Independence for me was not about where you belong, but how you belong.

 

Independence is on at Summerhall during the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase – supported by Made in Scotland and the Hope Scott Trust. For more information and to book tickets if you’re interested click here



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