Information about the artwork that inspired the making of this film, two details of which are pictured here, can be found on my Continuum page on this website.
The music Come, Stay
I received an award of funding from the Arts Council of Wales for the music in this film which had originally been planned as part of a proposed installation but which, as my work evolved, became part of the conflict work which I have been doing for some time both within my exhibition folio and in the course of my PhD studies.
The recording of Come, Stay sees professional singers perform my music for the first time, the piece itself having started life some years before as a simple cadence written a couple of years after my father’s death in December 1991. It was a time in my life when, for some mysterious reason, composing music came much more readily to me than the visual arts that had been part of my life for as long as I could remember. My father had been medically retired from his service in the RAF during WW2 when he contracted the devastating illness, ulcerative colitis. This disease was and still is incurable and, struck down at the peak of health while just in his early twenties, my father bore the burden of this illness every day of his life until he died aged sixty-nine years, twenty-nine years later than the doctors had predicted his life to last. Grief affects us in different and sometimes surprising ways and it took some time for me to get used to the idea that, in death, my father was out of the pain he had borne for so long; the daily awareness of his suffering was gradually being replaced by the realisation that this suffering was at an end and the life that his soul now lived – I believe in life after death – was one where all that suffering was no more.
I and members of my family had kept vigil, often by my father’s side, many times as he went through crisis after crisis that his illness inflicted on him and the music was born out of my own experience and also from contemplation on Christ’s watching in the Garden of Gethsemane before he went through the agony of the Cross. As I empathised with the pain of my father’s suffering, I turned to Christ and his torment in the Garden which I felt reached out to me and beyond myself, in loving support to all those keeping vigil by the side of one they loved.
So the chorus that repeats during the music was the first part to be written,
Come, stay and watch the night with me,
by my side, keep me company;
stay, and watch the night with me.
This concept of keeping vigil is not confined to accompanying those undergoing illness of the body or mind but can involve people in many situations, such as those who await news of loved ones missing from home or who are serving in the Armed Forces abroad and the music moves through pain and desolation, love and loss, ultimately, to the hope that is life’s salvation.
In the 1990s, I had made a serious return to music, receiving lessons in theory and piano, with the intention of studying for a diploma. At this time, however, I started to suffer more acutely from the chronic illness which affects my muscles, my piano playing was reduced to intermittent bouts and, unable to practise an instrument, my music studies came to a trembling halt. The melodies in my head remained largely unwritten and even my choral singing, which I enjoyed so much, suffered due to the gradually worsening muscle weakness. The work that I was doing in visual art, however, often led me to singing my cadences in my head and I realised that Come, stay was echoing so much within that I had to find a way to bring it to some sort of fruition. This then led to the collaboration with my son, professional musician Edward Harrisson.
Development of a theme
By this time, I had been living in Wales for some years, taking part in exhibitions in Wales and beyond and obtaining my MA at Aberystwyth University. This degree had initiated another development in my artwork, that of moving off the wall to construct installations and bring sound in as an integral part of the work exhibited.
This is an overall view of my first installation The Invitation photographed on exhibition in The Cloisters Gallery, St Davids Cathedral, St Davids, Pembrokeshire.
This installation formed my exhibition during my MA and, inspired by scripture and the spirit, it took as its theme meditations on Christ and the Apostles presented as abstract portraits in a Last Supper Setting, with freestanding panels representing Mary of Magdala and Mary, Mother of God.
This installation has its own music which plays on a loop while on exhibition and there is an accompanying book, pictured above.
This image shows myself by another of my installations Silent Polyphonies during set-up in the Willow Gallery, Oswestry. Again, there is music and also poetry presented with this work.
More information about these installations and another on the theme of He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven will follow shortly.
As indicated above, I was now introducing sound, mostly in the form of music, to interplay with my visual pieces. Musical phrases would often come to me together with words, poetry, sometimes in the form of songs, being another activity that I had carried out from my earliest years and Come, stay was just such a piece. My initial idea had been to construct an installation based around this theme of suffering and vigil with the visual work done in response to the cadences within the music. It was suggested to me that I should apply for funding from the Arts Council of Wales to develop this concept, beginning with the music and I was thrilled when news of the award of funding came through.
The music which had haunted me for so long could now move beyond its simple cadence and accompanying verse and I knew that my son, Ed, with his professional training – he has a Masters Degree in Music from Birmingham Conservatoire – and his excellent ear for harmony, was the ideal person to do this. We work well together and he started to build rich sounds from my original melody line. I had heard Ed sing with The Beorma Ensemble, a group of singers who had met while studying at the Conservatoire, when they performed a concert of music in the style of Russian Orthodox singing in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. I was very moved by the depth of feeling and musical harmony in their sound and I felt that the rich chords that characterise this musical style were what I wanted for Come, stay.
Pictured here are members of this flexible group, The Beorma Ensemble, who perform a wide range of differing repertoire, with founder bass oktavist Lewis Jones (seated second from the left) and Ed standing by the door.
To create the music in partnership with the visual elements, I felt it was not necessary to maintain the orthodox format in the full ‘Russian’ chords throughout, so Ed and I talked over how we could push and pull the musical forms to create interest and contrast without breaking away too much from the overall feeling of the piece.
I believe in the interrelatedness of artistic creativity whether in stitched mark, word or musical note, so for me, it was natural to construct the soundscape of the music using the colour of passages which involve the fullness of the whole body of the choir singing, interpolated with phrases using just two or three voices in word or simply sounding the musical chord.
At this stage, I had written three verses for the piece which extended the situation set up by the theme through words. The musical language of discords emphasised and extended further particular passages and in order to accomplish my objectives of a reciprocal relationship between the aural and visual elements, Ed wrote subtle discords into the verse that is sung by full choir.
It is also important to me that weight is given to both male and female elements within a work and I feel that, in this instance, the interweaving of male and female gives the piece both musical and emotional integrity. I discussed with Ed how the tenor and soprano voices could interact with one another in a duet sequence and we duly decided on a section of duet with Ed singing tenor along with soprano, Penelope Appleyard with, at another juncture, Penelope’s voice drifting above the male harmonies.
Recording the music
In visual terms, my piece Requiem, les Fleurs du Mal was a finished work and Continuum was under way but it was not as yet connected to the music which, with the funding from the Arts Council of Wales, I now arranged to record with the singers in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. Ed here had the dual roles of solo tenor and director of the musicians and it was a great pleasure for me to meet the singers and to work with them.
Pictured are members of the Beorma Ensemble with soprano Penelope Appleyard, Ed and myself.
The singers began with rehearsals in the cathedral’s crypt before going up into the nave for the recording itself. This proved to be a very interesting experience and entertaining in its own way through dealing with sudden wailing of vehicle sirens, loud traffic rumbles and people entering the cathedral by way of an obtrusively squeaky door! However, the atmosphere of the cathedral environment and acoustics in the building supplied just what was needed for the work and I am very grateful to the cathedral authorities for permitting the recording to take place in their beautiful building.
Once microphones were in place and all was ready, the singers of the Beorma Ensemble translated the harmonies of the music into a rich, full vocal sound, while Penelope’s clear soprano drifted across and blended with the deeper tones of the male voices. The duet by Ed and Penelope, together with the sections sung by full choir, allows for a sharing of emphasis between the parts which gives colour and contrast within the overall shape and feel of the music.
Ed singing and conducting, St. Chad’s Cathedral
It was both very interesting and extremely rewarding to work with Ed and the other professional musicians and I am thrilled at the outcome of this collaboration. Sound engineers were also part of the recording team and they afterwards worked on editing the result. Both Ed and myself were present during the final editing session and I found this to be extremely valuable in furthering my understanding of the recording and editing processes.
The singers during the recording session in the cathedral.
While Come, stay was a piece of recorded music, still intended to have its own accompanying installation, Continuum was progressing as an artwork and I was starting out on the beginning of my part-time PhD in Fine Art at Aberystwyth University.
Come, stay and Continuum