Lit crit has never sounded so good

August 11, 2006

Olga Wojtas meets the composer of an opera inspired by conversations with arts academics.

Seminars on legal history and literary criticism might not seem the most obvious source of inspiration for writing an opera, but The Assassin Tree , which has its premiere this month at the Edinburgh International Festival, was written during composer Stuart MacRae's year-long fellowship at Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. MacRae, like other fellows, had a private office in the IASH's attractive 18th-century premises and took part in weekly lunch discussions and work-in-progress seminars.

"I've always been of the opinion that if you're going to try to do something creative, you need to fuel the fire to come up with new ideas," he says. "It seemed to me like a really nice opportunity to broaden my horizons."

He first came to public attention in 1996 at the age of 19 when he was a Durham University music student. An orchestral piece he wrote for the Lloyds Bank Young Composers' Workshop was performed by the BBC Philharmonic. After a year studying composition at the Guildhall School of Music, he was contemplating playing jazz piano to support himself when he was appointed composer-in-association at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The Assassin Tree is a co-commission between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Opera House and will have its London premiere in September.

The IASH was founded almost 40 years ago to promote interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences. It took a radical step three years ago when it joined forces with the Edinburgh Festival to appoint an annual creative fellow who would produce a commissioned work.

MacRae is the first musician to be an IASH fellow, and Susan Manning, the IASH director, admits: "I was initially a little apprehensive that the institute might not have the right facilities or be the best environment for a composer working on his first opera."

But MacRae immediately fitted in and found the scholarly environment inspired him as he worked in his office overlooking the Pentland Hills. "People were so enthusiastic about their subject that they were happy to explain things at even my basic level," he says. "I don't know the process by which these ideas turn into something musical, but I don't think that you can change your pattern of thinking about anything without influencing your pattern of thinking about everything. Every little revelation or adjustment you have in the course of a conversation, or a year of conversations, will have an effect on the way that one's mind works."

Manning describes him as "a wonderful friendly presence" and says MacRae's work-in-progress seminar produced one of the best and liveliest discussions of the year. "I think I prepared more for it than for any other talk I've ever given," MacRae says. "Some questions related to other operas that people knew, others were much deeper questions about the self-reflexivity of the work. I had to ask what that meant, because I'd never heard of it."

It was explained that this was whether the audience was supposed to take the opera at face value, believing the story it told, or whether the work examined the operatic form and challenged it. "In the case of my own opera, I would say the former. I felt I had to learn the art form before I started to tamper with it too much," MacRae says.

Given opera's elitist image, did he feel he had to pitch the work a certain way to attract an audience? "In all honesty, it's really the concern of the person who commissioned it to worry about that. Somebody asked me if I wanted to write an opera and I said I'd love to, it's that simple. I didn't think about who it was for. It's not up to the artist to try to make what they're doing something that as many people as possible will like, because that way you only get the bland lowest common denominator."

Opera may be elitist in terms of quality but not in terms of exclusivity, he says, since tickets for football matches and rock concerts are more expensive. He speculates that some people simply dislike its social conventions of sitting still, concentrating and not disturbing others.

"Just say you don't like listening to people singing rather than saying it's elitist or snobbish. It's intrinsically inclusive, with beautiful scenery, sometimes really great acting, interesting music, amazing singers, occasionally silly but always quite fascinating plots. I can't think of an art form that does as much for the audience."

The Assassin Tree , with a libretto by Simon Armitage, is based on the account in Sir James George Frazer's Golden Bough of the goddess Diana's sanctuary at Nemi. "The priesthood was determined by murder: it was always an escaped slave who won his freedom by defeating the previous 'King of the Wood' in armed combat. You're being freed from slavery into another kind of slavery, because there's no way out except death," MacRae says. "It's that burden of guilt and fear that interested us. Not only do you have the guilt of continually having to commit murder to maintain your position; you know that, at some point, inevitably the same fate will befall you."

After Armitage came up with a libretto, MacRae began work, setting himself an initial target of completing one minute 20 seconds a week, which rose to two minutes. "Most people I tell that to find it quite funny, because they can't imagine it would be so organised. I wouldn't steadily produce a certain amount and no more - I might have one day where I produced well over a minute, and then three days where I didn't have any ideas and was stuck. It was an average to aim for," he says.

There are four singers and 15 players. MacRae was advised that many venues for chamber orchestras could hold only 12 players and he could maximise future performances by cutting the number. "In the end, I couldn't do without any of these instruments. I just had to go with my instinct. It was difficult enough to keep it down to 15," he says. "I kept on hearing huge string and brass sections and having to tone it down."

There is no secret to understanding music, he insists, nor is it necessary to have any musical knowledge. "I think that when people say 'I don't understand it', they're really saying 'I'm not really sure I like it, but maybe I feel slightly inferior because other people seem to like it'.

They're just not understanding that it's a matter of their own taste."

But he firmly believes it is crucial to study classical music within a music degree. He stresses he has no direct knowledge of current teaching but says friends working in higher education report that new entrants know much less than they did a decade ago.

Classical music was not part of his own school curriculum, he says, and he had to take the initiative to learn about the canon himself. But he hears little about students today being similarly motivated.

"I think most departments are now teaching pop music much more than they did before. I couldn't say it's dumbing down because that would be a value judgment on pop music and, while my own tastes lie elsewhere it wouldn't be right for me to say it's not worthy of being studied," he says.

"I find it hard to imagine that traditional musicological methods would yield much of interest from pop songs, which tend to follow the same patterns, but I think perhaps they study it from a sociological point of view. It's probably, so I'm told, part of this anti-elitist idea - 'let's teach the kids about the music they're interested in rather than the music we're interested in' - which is fair enough. But surely education is about fostering an interest in things that people wouldn't otherwise know about?"

The Assassin Tree has its world premiere on August 25.

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