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Way Out East: Nicola LeFanu

Composer Conversations (Pt. 1)

Nicola LeFanu © Michael Lynch

The first concert in our Way Out East series at The Coronet is a portrait of Nicola LeFanu. We’re playing a programme featuring two extended chamber works: The Same Day Dawns (1974) for soprano and ensemble, and Deva (1979) for ‘cello and ensemble, as well as Songs Without Words (2005) for clarinet and string trio. Corentin Chassard will feature in David Lumsdaine’s Blue Upon Blue (1992) for solo ‘cello; and we’re delighted to welcome the Ligeti Quartet, who will play Nicola’s second string quartet (1996), and the Passacaglia from String Quartet No. 6 (1950) by Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicola’s mother.


She kindly set aside some time to talk to Jon Hargreaves about various aspects of her work and career, and the milieu in which composers work nowadays. In the first part of our conversation, Nicola spoke about the influence of the literature and other aspects of other cultures on her work.

Dear Nicola, thank you for talking with us and working with us on our composer portrait.  


The Same Day Dawns sets fragments of text translated from languages ancient and modern – Tamil, Kannada, Akkadian and others; 'Deva' is a Sanskrit word, meaning 'good spirit'. In contrast, the later pieces in the programme have more classical-inspired titles. Is this just coincidence, or, looking back on your career so far, have you found yourself predisposed to explore particular topics during different periods?

I think I certainly have. For example, early in my career I was very interested in Russian Samizdat literature, which had to be published secretly – underground literature – and I made a music theatre piece called Anti-World that set Russian texts. While I was still at school I set some Akhmatova texts. Anti-World was performed in 1972 which was also the year I met David [Lumsdaine, Nicola’s husband; an established composer himself, also featured in our Portrait Concert] and for at least 10 years I was taken with exploring music from the East. David was already exploring Buddhism, and I had some knowledge of Asian art already, and then with David I was starting to explore music that was not from the West (to put it crudely), because it wasn’t just Asian music, it was also Indonesian music.

Pansori - a Korean musical storytelling tradition

Nicola with Donald Sur and Earl Kim in Boston, USA, 1997

Then in 1973-4 I had a couple of years in the States and I was studying with Earl Kim. Kim, as a Schoenberg pupil, taught in a very European way, but he was very Asian – culturally he was as Korean as can be!  And I met and made friends with a number of Korean people. I was great friends with the Korean composer Donald Sur, for example. So: I became quite involved with Korean culture. Most particularly, I think, because I heard performances of Pansori, which is a kind of Korean opera.


I think it’s no coincidence that there are these Asian texts in Same Day Dawns, and that Deva uses mantras as part of its compositional technique, and I think that’s because, like many other people in the 70s, I learned a particular meditation technique called ‘transcendental meditation’, but I was actually more interested in yoga. The TM was very useful, but it was a bit ‘American’! One could get back to the real thing much better through yoga. Yoga has continued to be important to me to the present day. 

Certainly the meditational experiences had an effect on Deva.  Probably the most important thing was that in the summer of 1979, in Durham, where there’s a wonderful museum of Oriental art, which I know quite well, there was a Festival – it was called the Festival of Oriental Music – and there were performers who came from the Far East, playing their own traditional instruments. It was absolutely wonderful, and I think I went to every single concert! That experience of live performance of Asian music was hugely important.

Regarding [my use of] traditional titles like ‘String quartet’ and so on: without a doubt, in the 60s and 70s there was a fashion for pieces to have titles that were meant to kind of lead the audience into the piece in some way, because the pieces were often very abstract - they were very much ‘pure music’. So then a title somehow was meant to assist the audience. Unless of course you were the sort of composer who would call the piece something like, I don’t know, ‘Operative number 1’ or ‘Square 200’ or something! That fashion faded, and if I was using a form with a long tradition, like a string quartet, it seemed to me much more to the point just to call it a string quartet, and give it a number.


The classically-titled works we are playing are from the ‘90s onwards, and you said that the fashion for these more descriptive and evocative titles was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Looking at your output, there are lots of operas between the ‘70s and the ‘90s. Do you think the operas in some way channelled extra-musical impulses?


No, I think the thing is that opera – well, any work with text really, is a hybrid – and opera is absolutely a hybrid work, and all through my life I’ve needed to have both kinds of music. Something like a string quartet, which is essentially abstract, or ‘pure music’, or however you want to express it – it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cultural context, but it nevertheless is ‘music about music’ –  where an opera is a hybrid work. I love to do both and I need to do both is what it comes down to, because they effect each other.


How, and at what stage of your compositional process(es), do you decide on titles for your works?


Late. The piece doesn’t usually have a title until part way through, or at the end. I think the title is something that becomes apparent during the composition. With Songs about words, four small pieces which are miniatures, and in different ways they have a lyric element, and so it seemed a very appropriate title.


Is it the opposite when you are working with a text, then? Does the title form a starting point?


Yes, with texts, the title comes first. If I know I’m going to write a work with text, and I don’t have a text, then I become very predatory and I read vast amounts of poetry! More often – certainly in the case of an opera – you start with the germ of an idea, and work with a librettist and so on. But sometimes, it’s a case of finding a poem and thinking ‘I’d love to set that’, and then looking for a context, or looking for a commission, or finding a singer who would like to do it. Other times there is a commission, and then it’s a hunt for a text. 

So, please could I ask you to go all the way back to 1974 – do you remember how you decided on the texts for The Same Day Dawns?


Well, I remember that David had a book of poetry, which were Tamil texts, and he set some of them in a work called My Sister’s Song (1974), and I loved those texts, and I took one or possibly two of the Tamil texts, and I wanted to make an anthology cycle. I didn’t want to set all those Tamil texts, but inspired by those two I then set about looking for texts that would go with them, that would complement them, that would conjure up the kind of world I wanted, which was a kind of dreamy kind of world. They’re not just love poems, they’re also songs of distance and longing.


So I was hunting really, until I found the ones I wanted, but it did start from that little book of Tamil texts, called, I think, ‘The Interior Landscape’. It was given to David by Annalibera Dallapiccola [daughter of the composer Luigi Dallapiccola]. She is a Professor of Southern Indian Art and culture. She gave it to David, saying that she thought he would like these texts, and that’s how we came by this book.


There’s a 2002 work called Mira Clar Tenebras which similarly sets multiple texts, though they’re not translated, are they?


No, they’re all in different languages, and unfamiliar ones, but because they are all European, we all often have a sense of what they’re about – their sound world. Again, because I decided I wanted an anthology of texts, then I decided to look for texts that were not modern French, but old French; not Spanish but Catalan; Latin, because Latin lies behind the Romance languages; not modern Italian but old Italian.  That’s what lies behind those texts, and it was great fun putting them together. One of the texts is a translation in Catalan of the opening and closing text of The Same Day Dawns.  I simply picked up that text that I had set all those years before and asked one of my Catalan friends to translate it for me.

The text fragments used in The Same Day Dawns

(Click to see larger image)

Thank you. Finally, Do you think your process [of finding and setting texts] has changed at all over the years?


I think the way I look for texts has stayed the same since I was a schoolgirl. I always read a lot, and I tend to read fast. I don’t keep a commonplace book as some composers do, but I do have a large library of poetry, and a range through it. I love reading new poetry. Sometimes you find something that you love and you can’t set it. I am very, very fond of Kathleen Jamie’s poetry, but she doesn’t like her work to be set. I think that’s partly because if it was going to be used, she would probably want it to be used by someone working in a Scottish tradition, and in a folk tradition. So, it’s not always that what you like you can set.

Click here to read part 2 of the conversation, or here to jump to part 3.

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