Category Archives: Blog

A composite man – a composite piece?

“A conversation between two people who aren’t really listening to each other”

To find out the background to this piece, read Graham’s post about writing this poem –  Not knowing… (part 2). I pick up straight up where Graham stops – with the finished poem winging its way over to me.

When Graham sent me his first version of this poem, it was clear the two conversations needed to be two separate entities,  yet presented as one overall picture of the scene. I could already tell that the two characters- the (dead) coprolite digger and his wife – needed separate musical identities and songs, and had the idea that their singing should be entwined for the final stanza of the piece. Graham’s final presentation of the two monologues  – a modern composite of two conversations- furthered my original thoughts.

If the two characters are ignoring each other, they must therefore be talking about separate things – having two conversation which occasionally collide. As a result, I decided to write a separate song for each character which would begin as separate entities, but overlap more as the piece progressed, eventually being presented almost simultaneously.

The first voice is that of a dead coprolite digger- which Graham has based around the skeleton of a folk song. Wanting to work along similar lines, my setting of this is centred around a folk or work song.  It’s quite a simple melody, in three, catchy with a strong down beat. In contrast, the wife’s song is more lyrical, in a completely different tonality and has four beats in the bar.  Choosing the tonalities for the two different songs was tricky. I deliberately picked tonalities that suited each, but was mindful of making sure they’d have elements of both dissonance and harmony. The three in a bar folk song is in C minor, while the soprano’s melody drifts between E flat minor and E flat locrian. This combination creates plenty of room for dissonance, but yet space for moments of harmony too. Think of it as one vocalist singing Twinkle Twinkle (major) while the other sings Teddy Bear’s Picnic (minor) a few notes lower – and adds in some colourful extra accidentals!

Below is a rough diagram of how the voices are sliding over each other (and combining!) at the moment – at the stage where I’m tidying up the first draft of the piece. As you can see, for the first stanza the voices only momentarily overlap at the end of each phrase. The moments of overlap (or alternating phrases) increase in the second stanza, bar one line. They increase further as the piece progresses, until they’re almost completely entwined in stanza four – save for the last line, where each can be heard independently again – each saying their piece to end the conversation.

Of course, this method of creating a piece brings further questions with it. How do you ensure each part is heard fully (or do you abandon that entirely?). What time signature(s) and key signatures(s) do you use, and how do you ensure the vocalists maintain the original feel of their songs when they’re being pushed and pulled around a bit time and tempo wise? All good questions – all of which I need to answer as I finish drafting A composite man !

Everything Changes: book your writing workshop place now

Booking is now open for Graham’s Royston Arts Festival creative writing workshop: Everything Changes: a writing workshop exploring place and time. It will take place at Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 23 September 2017, 2- 4.30pm (£5, Book your place now. )

About the workshop: Whether you’re a beginner in creative writing or a more advanced writer looking for ideas, this half-day workshop will help you shape a setting for your story, blog or poem. Using historic photos from the Museum’s storeroom, it will provide an opportunity to discover how a sense of change and place can inspire your own writing.*

About the workshop leader: Graham Palmer is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) who has published three books with CUP. He is currently working on a historical biography and a sequence of poems which will form the basis of a new song-cycle, Cracked Voices, with local composer Jenni Pinnock.
*This workshop may also prove useful to those preparing for the Creative Writing element in the GCSE English exam.
Age 15+

Scales and arpeggios – not just for exams!

Scales are a staple of musical life. If you learn a musical instrument, you end up playing them (sometimes seemingly endlessly!) and learning how they work is an important chunk of musical theory.

Not all scales are created equal. Western music relies on equal temperament, where the octave is divided into 12 equal parts, or semitones. However, our perception of the musical world as a whole is based on just intonation and the harmonic series. As a result, rather than all sounding the same, scales in equal temperament each have a different feeling. I once did a survey to try and find out composer’s favourite scales, but ultimately it depends on the piece in question. For example, I find E major a bit too ‘major’, but E flat major more rounded, with D flat major being a favourite. Minor wise, I’m not a huge fan of A minor, but E minor or C minor I do like, and D minor feels very traditionally ‘minor’.

As a result, finding the tonal centres and scales to use in a piece are a fundamental point for me. They have to work with the piece, its feeling, and with the performers in question too, as transposing to another key often feels rather wrong.

Major and minor scales are those focused on most in traditional music exams. Chromatic scales (using all 12 semitones in an octave, white and black notes) are practiced too, and some exams include pentatonic (five note- think Javanese gamelan!) and whole tone (dream sequence) scales too. For this piece I wanted something slightly more unusual than any of the above.

The blessing of the road-born child is a mother’s song to her child, born on the road. The tonality needed to be something not too major or minor, and with a bit of a twist. Instead of looking at the traditional majors and minors I headed to the modes – seven scales which all have different combinations of intervals, giving them distinct sounds (for more on modes, see here). Although I studied them extensively at university (we had to identify them by sound in pieces!) and I know they’re focused on in jazz exams, they’re a scale that’s less well known today outside of the jazz community – maybe due to their lack of inclusion in standard classical exams.

Playing with different modes, the instant solution was the phrygian mode. The minor second interval at the beginning means it’s not used as much as some of the other modes, but it felt just right for this. However, I wanted to have the major 7th at the top of the scale alongside the minor one. This left me with two scales to work with: The phrygian  dominant, and the double harmonic major.

The next task was to find where they fit best on the piano, if at all. This involved playing around with them on the piano, sketching out some ideas and seeing what felt right.  Graham and I had already discussed instrumentation for this piece and we knew we wanted to go with a clarinet and soprano duet, ignoring the piano completely. A bit of singing and improvising on both instruments playing with the scales cemented E being the tonic to begin with, rising to F towards the end.

It was a little later that I discovered the alternative names of the scales I’ve picked to centre the piece around. Both are  often referred to as gypsy or gipsy scales – phrygian dominant the Spanish gypsy scale, and the double harmonic major scale as gypsy major. Clearly they were meant to be!

Memory boxes – workshopped!

Educational workshops form a central part of the Cracked Voices project. We want to show what a fabulous and accessible medium art songs are, and what better way to do it than to support students in writing them?

On a hot Thursday morning, the Cracked Voices team descended upon Meridian School, Royston for an introductory workshop. The aim was simple: to come up with an entire song in one morning! We had a helping hand in that Graham had written a chorus-type text out, but other than that the material was to be created entirely on the day.

The session began with a quick discussion on Cracked Voices: the song cycle, what we’re doing, and how we wanted the students to be involved. Then the writers got to work on creating their own verses to include in the song – pairs of 10 syllable lines about the items they wanted to go into the memory box. In the meantime, the musicians had a brief theory blitz on art songs, text setting and analysis with Jenni before jumping into the composing!

Having decided on rough rhythms for the text, the musicians separated out to improvise ideas, before coming back together to piece the chorus together a line at a time.They then worked out some chords for each bar or phrase, and hey presto – a chorus was born! They also blitzed a quick melody line that might work with the verses.

After a quick break the writers joined the musician to share their work. They had created four stanzas of four lines each – finding the right ideas and fitting them into 10 syllable lines had proved a challenge, but one they had risen to. They had also made the decision to rejiggle the order of the choruses, meaning some last minute changes on the music side, alongside some quick improvisation on the rhythms of the verses. After rehearsing the song a few times through, making changes and edits as we went (suggested by musicians and writers alike) we recorded the final song.

 Overall, a highly successful morning, giving everyone a taster as to what the main project will entail, alongside a few fundamental techniques they could use. For the workshops in the autumn, the writers will work on their own (with plenty of support from Graham!) to create their own texts. It’ll then be down to the composers to set them to music, with the results either to be performed by the Cracked Voices performers alongside the main song cycle (in April 2018), or to be performed by themselves or maybe even the school choir!

Thanks to Jenny Warburton, Nick Smith and Meridian School for letting us run the workshop – we’re looking forward to the next one in October! Thanks also to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts for funding the workshops. Pictures used from the @MeridianPAD Twitter feed with permission.

ðereuelde | Therfield  

The riddle of the heath

 Royston Heath is a riddle.

This strangely-shaped piece of wasteland stretches east to west over the OS Map like a sleek cat stalking a stray town-rat. On the ground it seems huge but, from its eager head to the tip of its tail, it measures just 21/2 miles. If you’re lucky enough to view it from the front seat of one of the biplanes that regularly buzz Royston from nearby Duxford, the heath looks tiny.

Perspective is everything.

Though the cat nuzzles up close to the town, a parish boundary means this is Therfield – not Royston – Heath. A century ago the Victoria County History (1912) proclaimed it the ‘recreation ground of the town’.

Look a little closer and you will discover something far more intriguing.

Not that that matters to most people who (like my friend Peggy) come out every day to walk their dogs, support the footballers or rugby team, fly kites with their kids, go jogging or toboggan down the hills, slicing through winter snow.

Bee Orchid, Therfield Heath (copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

Bee Orchid, Therfield Heath (copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

English Heritage says the Heath is ‘one of the best surviving prehistoric landscapes in the region’ and Natural England that this small plot of land nurtures ‘some of the richest chalk grassland in England’. It is the last tattered remnant of an open heath that bordered the ancient Icknield Way and was littered with hundreds of prehistoric burial mounds (now ploughed out), a borderland where the chalk hills rose up and, at Royston, confronted the low marsh of Bassingbourn Fen.

On his Great Map (1815), the geologist William Smith marked the Royston Downs as stretching from Newmarket to Dunstable, edged by the clays, gravels and sand of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.*

When so much historic and ecologically important heathland has vanished, how on earth has Therfield Heath survived?

To answer that riddle you must go back to the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. These incomers held everything they seized (including the former inhabitants) as common property and soon established vills across the country. Land was not ‘owned’ as we understand the word, but the householders were granted rights to use it. In return, they were expected to fulfil communal duties (house-building, service in the militia etc) and support the king’s court with food rent. Disputes were settled by custom or consensus at a moot (village meeting) and the village granted each householder a house, kitchen garden and strips to cultivate in the shared open fields.

At ðereuelde the open field was portioned into named ‘shots’ (from the Old English sciat, meaning a nook or corner) and these were divided further into strips. A huge and beautifully drawn map of the Therfield Common Field (1725) shows that many of these Anglo-Saxon shots survived for centuries and lists their intriguing names: Cats Holes, Claw Buck Shot, Chalky Dane Hill, Tumbelow Shot and over a hundred more. The map’s most noticeable feature is a very large splat of bright green paint, indicating the open grazing land that is now the Heath.

The idea of land ownership only developed over the next five hundred years as Anglo-Saxon kings passed their right of local food-rent to the new monasteries and abbeys which grew up with the conversion of the country by Christian missionaries. This accumulation of wealth did not go unnoticed by the Vikings and led to many bloody clashes, culminating in the eleventh century with an invasion from Scandinavia that put the Danish Cnut on the English throne.

One legend from those days centres on the humble Pasque flower, a purple gem that still flourishes on the Heath. The tale goes, it only thrives where Viking blood was spilt. True or not, in Therfield it was a Dane who first staked a claim to own the heath. The local reaction was predictable…

Much further north, on a island in the marshes at Ramsey, an abbey had been established. In the same year that the abbey church was completed (974) a terrible earthquake shook England, bringing down houses. The quake – or simple subsidence – weakened the building and within ten years major cracks appeared. After much soul-searching, the monks were forced to tear down the church’s central tower and rebuild it. Fortunately, the problem did not affect the church’s west tower which housed a light that guided people in across the marsh and the bells that signalled the changing Holy Hours and were believed to echo God’s voice.

The abbey’s monks lived their lives according to St Benedict’s strict rule which emphasised stability, conversion of manners, and obedience. Boys from respected families were taken in and educated there but it was difficult for some to adjust to the ways of the cloister. The Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis (The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle) records how one boy proved a particular challenge.

Gargoyle, Ramsey Abbey

Etheric was still young when sent to Ramsey and he and three playmates – Athelstan, Eadnoth and Oswald – soon fell foul of the abbey’s rules. One day they got it into their heads to sneak up the west tower. Who touched a bell rope first? When the bell rang out there was no way back. Egging each other on, the boys became more and more exuberant.

Now bell ringing is an art. Done wrongly it can cause all sorts of trouble and, at the height of ensuing cacophony, Etheric’s bell cracked. The boys were shocked, the monks furious. They wanted the culprit flogged but the Abbot held his hand, realising that Etheric and his friends were truly sorry and more good might come out of their penitence. He was proved right as all four went on to become pillars of the Church: Oswald became a monk and poet, Athelstan succeeded as abbot, and Eadnoth and Etheric became some of the most powerful clerics in England. As Bishop of Dorchester, Etheric commanded King Cnut’s ear and was to reward the abbey with untold riches, including the vill and lands of Therfield which were currently held by a Dane…

The Danish settler was not very comfortable in his possession. In fact, he was in fear of his life. There were bandits in the area and villagers had taken so badly to his ways that the Dane could not sleep unless four men were standing guard nearby. The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle tells how, one night, he overheard his guards plotting to kill him. If they could not hand him over to the bandits, they swore they would relieve the village of his abominable existence by sticking a knife in his bowels.

A later portrait of Cnut the Great.

That night the terrified settler crept away to the safety of his a friend’s nearby vill. Punishing the guards was not an option as the villagers would retaliate and it would be impossible for one man to evict a whole village. The Dane had no choice but to make his way to London to consult the king.

In the meantime, Etheric’s local agent (apparently based at Ashwell) got word to him about the trouble and Etheric, who was in London, persuaded both Cnut and the settler that the land was worthless while the villagers were in rebellion. The obvious face-saving solution would be for Etheric to buy the land (at a knock-down price) as a gift for the Abbey at Ramsey in recompense for a broken bell.

Therfield (and its heath) remained with the monks at Ramsey right up until the mid-sixteenth century when Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey and seized all its lands. The manor passed briefly to Katherine Howard as part of her marriage settlement but within thirteen months she had been beheaded and it reverted to the king. Two years later he exchanged it for lands held in Essex and Middlesex by the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s and for the next four hundred years the Church of England held Therfield in its possession.

Enclosure came to the open fields in the mid-nineteenth century but the green splurge on the 1725 map was retained as common grazing, the site of Royston town gatherings, celebrations, fairs and the occasional prize fight.

Racehorses on Therfield Heath (Copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

Racehorses on Therfield Heath (Copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

The management of the heath – with its various petty disputes – proved increasingly troublesome to the Church Commissioners who felt ownership should pass to a body more in tune with local needs. By the 1890s a body of trustees (or Conservators) made up of Royston rate-payers and wealthy local land-owners, who retained rights to graze their sheep, took control of the Greens of Therfield and its Heath. ‘The Award’ also enabled John Francis Fordham of Thrift Farm to exchange an isolated patch of land he owned in the centre of Therfield to create a playing field in return for which he got the part of the Heath between his farm and what is now the A505, lopping off part of the cat’s tail and substantially altering the boundaries of the ancient grazing land for the first and only time.

Students from Cambridge had briefly established a golf course on the Heath years earlier but it was not till 1892 that Royston Golf Club was formed. The Conservators now maintain the Heath using money earned from renting out large parts of it to the golf club and the horse-training gallops.

*Published in 1815, it was the first geological map of Britain and the subject of the bestseller The Map that Changed the World. An original hand-coloured map is on display at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge and a replica can be seen at the Natural History Museum, London.

Breaking through…

The migraine and the goddess 

At Ashwell in Hertfordshire some not-so-ancient concreted steps lead down to the village’s liquid heart. Here the springs bubble up onto gravel or trickle through cracks, draining off the chalk escarpment to the south. Apart from the steps, the scene has not much changed since Nathaniel Salmon described it in the History of Hertfordshire back in 1728:

“… the River Rhee…breaks out of a Rock in this Vill from many Springs, with such Force as to form a Stream, remarkable for being clear, and  so cold, that it gripes Horses not used to drink it. Around the Spring Head grow Ash Trees very kindly, which gave occasion to the Name.”

Officially, Ashwell Springs is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest but it has always been of interest to those of a more mystical nature. Coupled with the ash (a sacred tree that linked the waters of the lower world with our own world and the sky above), the springhead has fascinated us for millennia.

It was not so long ago that such springs and ponds were considered sacred and were even, on occasions, known to yield treasure (old votive offerings from long dead people to the water-giving spirit or god). Perhaps this is why the shallow dew pond (now vanished) which watered animals at the foot of nearby Therfield Heath was once known as the Golden Bog. No treasure survives there now, just a patch of dry nettles thriving on soil enriched with the manure and sediment from the pond’s bottom.

But mysteries are still unearthed. In 2002, some distance northwest of Ashwell’s wellhead near the bank of the Rhee, a metal-detectorist called Alan Meek was sweeping a field at Ashwell End when he came across an extraordinary cache of  metal objects that had been hidden in the ground over sixteen hundred years ago. It proved a spectacular rebirth as nearly thirty offerings to a previously-forgotten Celtic goddess appeared from the soil. Many were marked with the name Senuna and there was also a shattered silver figurine of the goddess herself.

There are various mother goddesses known to be associated with springs but little survives of Celtic Senuna. Many of the offerings from Ashwell End show her accompanied by an owl and armed with a spear and shield, suggesting that when the Romans invaded Britain they may have assimilated her into the cult of Minerva. At that time, as Julius Caesar noted in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the worship of Minerva (or her native equivalents) was prevalent in the Celtic continental heartland of Gaul. Minerva was the Roman goddess of water, healing, warfare, crafts and wisdom and was usually depicted with a sacred owl, a symbol of wisdom but also a harbinger of death.

This Roman goddess had a penchant for creative destruction which stemmed back to her strange birth. She had been born from the union of Jupiter (the sky-father who carried a thunderbolt) and a female titan. When the titaness fell pregnant the prospective father was not overjoyed because it had been prophesied that his own child would eventually overthrow him. His solution was to swallow his lover whole before she could give birth. Trapped inside Jupiter, the titaness set about forging weapons and armour for her soon-to-be-born daughter. The stress and the racket of his ex-lover’s new hobby gave Jupiter such a migraine that he persuaded Vulcan to split his head open with a hammer and, lo-and-behold, out of the cleft jumped Minerva, fully-grown and armed to the teeth. But Minerva was destined to become a goddess of wisdom as well as war, so she made things up with her father…but that’s another story.

There are displays on Senuna at both at the British Museum (Room 49) and at Ashwell Village Museum. Given the similarities in names, it has been argued that the lost British river Senua mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography (a geographical work written by an anonymous cleric in Ravenna in Italy around AD 700) may well be the Rhee. Certainly, Ashwell was known much further afield than it is now. One of the offerings of jewellery to Senuna found in 2002 bears the simple inscription,

“Servandus, son of the Spaniard, willingly fulfilled his vow to the goddess.”

So much is buried, hidden deep from us. Who was this Spaniard’s son whose name means to watch over, preserve or save? What was he doing in rural Hertfordshire? What was his vow and why had he made it?  History is full of such uncertainty. Trying to break through to some sort of understanding can cause us all sorts of headaches. Just ask Senuna-Minerva.

‘Those who wait’, the first song in Cracked Voices, will revolve around the relationship between Sevandus and Senuna.

Musical riddles

The second song in the cycle is Three Riddles – effectively three art songs in one. As each section has its own riddle attached, I felt it necessary to consider a separate musical riddle to attach to each section too.

As it happens, my musical past happens to include a few oddities that don’t crop up in your standard composer’s biography. One of those is that from 2010 to 2014 I did quite a bit of church bell ringing. This all came about because my husband is a ringer (and a good one at that!), and his tower needed learners for their trainee teachers to practice on. I was never particularly good, especially as I couldn’t attend practices regularly after my daughter was born, but I’ve always found method books fascinating. For those who are unaware of these, they are books full of lots of numbers and squiggly lines, such as this: 

A while ago while perusing ringing methods (as you do!) I stumbled across Royston Delight Major. Ringing methods have quite strict nomenclature – Royston is the name of the method, while Delight specifies the way the method is called and Major means eight bells are used. Eight bells you say? In a major scale? That seems like a perfect opportunity…

Keep your ears peeled for this appearing in a clarinet part sometime in March 2018! There’ll also be another bizarre reference in the third of the Three Riddles..

From ringing methods to some music theory (less odd). I’m a fan of theory, and I love going a bit mad over it with my students (though they don’t often share my enthusiasm!). To be brief: A fifth is the interval between a C and a G on the piano, and is the most consonant and pure interval other than an octave. The most common modulation (key change) is that of a fifth. If you move around the scale through fifths, it creates a closed circle and you arrive back where you started:

D – A – E  – B  – F# – C# – G#(Ab) – Eb – Bb – F – C – G – D

Often a piece will use a section of the circle of fifths, or modulate one way or the other. In my organ piece Circular Musings I modulated through the whole circle in one piece, in four/eight bar chunks. For the riddle, I wanted some accompaniment to juxtapose a section of text talking about footing being sound, trembling foundations and rebuilding. When you only take one or two steps along the circle of fifths, it can sound very strong, but to continue moving round it continuously can feel a little unsettling until the music pauses and grows some roots.

Here’s the bass line of the piano for this section of the piece, which starts on D and cycles round the fifths (well, in this case, inverted fifths!) until it arrives back at D:

As to what the right hand and baritone are up to at the time.. you’ll have to wait and see!

Not knowing… (Part 2)

When two heads are better than one

For a writer, there’s nothing scarier than a blank piece of paper or screen. It accuses you with its glare, ‘Think you can beat me, do you? Who are you kidding?’

That first scribble or tentative tap of the keys can be the most difficult. What if there’s nothing to say? Or, if there is, what if I just can’t say it?

Sometimes you just have to face your fear down. Sometimes you just have to write.

Get over it – it’s not life or death! What you write may not be any good – it almost certainly won’t correspond to the beautifully-crafted phrases in your head. Quite frankly, it will probably be rubbish. But as someone else said, you can always edit a bad page – you can’t edit a blank one.

I start with a scrap of information,  a gut feeling, much research and a few scribbled phrases. And lots and lots of walking. Mind-time: it’s one of the two things you can’t do without. (The other is a space to sit and write in.) The process is a messy one and can be infuriating. This is how one of the poems behind Cracked Voices nearly ended up in the bin, only to saved by some well-timed criticism…

A scrap of information
In the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge there’s the skeleton of a hippopotamus that was dug up at Barrington. (I know this because we chanced upon it there when my kids were small. I’d taken them into the museum to see the dinosaurs.) It was discovered during the Coprolite mining rush that swept across south Cambridgeshire in the 1860s and 70s. Both the hippo and the diggers are now largely forgotten.

A gut feeling
Apart from the obvious, there must be something deeper that linked this hippo to the fate of the men who mined the ground. These people needed their story digging up!

Much research
A search on Google threw up the works of Bernard O’Connor who has written extensively on the coprolite quarries (along the way rediscovering the words of a folksong written at the pits in the 1870s by one of the diggers), Royston Museum came up with a copy of Richard Grove’s book from 1976 and a search through the British Newspaper Archive came up with name upon name of men who had been killed digging out the fossils. It was shocking to read how so many men were crushed to death, quite literally buried alive. Further research in the censuses showed that it was not unknown – probably out of economic necessity – for the widow of a digger to marry one of his workmates. Louisa Seabourne at Bassingbourn thus became Louisa Sell and then Louisa Starr.

It was about this time that the Sedgwick Museum came back to me with some serendipitous news. The hippo was not a hippo at all. Bones from several hippos had been stuck together. This was a composite animal.

A few scribbled phrases
the ground demands its fill / a man of many parts / like the bones of the hippo they found in the pit, it’s a puzzle to know where each scrap of you fits

On a walk it came to me that this should be a two voice poem. One voice should be that of a dead coprolite digger (based around the skeleton of the folk-song) and the other that of his wife or lover. The fossiler would sing for all the dead diggers and give them a composite voice.

Some of the works of art that I love most have never been finished. There is something in their incompleteness that is deeply satisfying. When I was Inter-railing I chanced upon Michelangelo’s unfinished slaves in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. They are breath-taking as they struggle to free themselves from the blocks of marble. Drafting is just like that. You take an idea – a plan often only sketched out in your head – and then you start tapping away at it, incorporating the imperfections into something that may end up far better or, in most cases, far worse than what you originally had in your head. But gradually something emerges…

Michelangelo's prisoners or slaves

Image courtesy of

The novelist Tim Winton (two-times Booker Prize nominee and four times winner of the Miles Franklin Award) refuses to type, claiming typed drafts look too much like the finished thing and fool you into thinking you’re done when you’re not. Instead he writes the old fashioned way in order to slow himself down enough for the idealised words in his head to translate into real words on the page, not with a pen but with a pencil. The marks a pencil makes are more tentative, easier to cross out or erase. I do both interchangeably…tending towards the computer as the final few drafts emerge…and one of the things I have learned, is not to be too precious. Just look at the drafts of Wilfred Owen’s poems, with Siegfried Sassoon’s scribbled alterations. Sometimes the writer is too close to the original. Sometimes two heads are better than one.

Wilfred Owen

My initial plan for this poem was to echo the form of the original folk-song (which has a young man thumbing his nose at his previous employer) but also make it a conversation between two people who aren’t really listening to each other…a sort of delayed call and response. Once I had it nearly finished, I shared a draft with my nearest and dearest as I had niggling doubts – it was not quite there. My son was to the point, ‘The first bit feels a bit like a middle class parody of a folk song!’ He was right. Despite being only slightly altered from the original nineteenth century song, it didn’t feel authentic. I went back and rewrote it (still not right) and then sent it winging through the ether to Jenni. ‘I know it’s a duet,’ she replied. ‘One thought that immediately popped into my head was to make the male and female parts work together, so the last two stanzas could be repeated together – what do you think?’ I looked again. Whether she knew it or not she had hit the nail squarely on the head. It was not just the last two stanzas that needed to work together…it was the complete thing. By cutting up the two monologues and pasting them together it became a dialogue with some unusual linking. Instead of a parody it had become a modern composite and somehow, along the way, the blank paper had spawned a poem. Job done.


Not knowing… (Part 1)

The cat, the witch and other myths…

Curiosity killed the cat.

If you believe some blogs, the cat was first killed at the turn of the 20th century. Wikipedia claims that the saying first appeared in print in 1873 but a brief search of the British Newspaper Archive reveals it was in common usage in Ireland well before that.

So what does that prove? Not a lot. Just that you shouldn’t take things you read at face value (not even this)…and that’s the most important thing any would-be researcher can learn.

A lot of what we take for granted about the past is – well – alternative facts. It’s not so much fake news as misremembered myths. Just as in the children’s game of Chinese Whispers, the history that gets passed on subtly alters with each retelling. By the time we finally hear the story it has little resemblance to the one that was first told but that doesn’t make it essentially untrue.

Take the Royston witches. As far as I know, they didn’t have a black cat, nor did they boil up animals in a large cauldron or fly through the air. Since I rediscovered them for Creative Royston in 2014, this however has become the dominant picture people have of them, largely due to an image created for an art trail at the time.

Royston witches

Royston witches

Let’s return to the whisper I first heard in 2014. I had not set out to search for witches. I was looking for something else entirely when I came across a reference to Royston in a book. That book (Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618) reprints part of a pamphlet from 1606 called The most cruell and bloody murther committed by an Inkeeper’s Wife… A copy of the original pamphlet is held at the British Library in Euston and anyone can access the original there (for anyone interested, it’s also transcribed here). Like so many other cheap chapbooks, it was not printed to provide an accurate report of recent happenings but rather to ensure they were sensationalised in a way that would confirm the readers’ prejudices, increase sales and make the publisher and street-sellers a fast buck.

After dealing with the Hatfield murderers, the pamphlet goes on to tell another story – that of Joan Harrison and her daughter, two women from Royston who were executed for witchcraft that August. Or does it?

The chapbook is full of accusations and intriguing detail but gets the basic facts wrong. Its writer may not even have been in Hertford for the Assizes but possibly only heard the story second hand. If you trawl through the court records held at the National Archive in Kew you can go back to that first whisper. In the indictments for the Hertford Summer Sessions (NA, ASSI 35/48/2)* the Royston women are named as Alice Stokes and Christiana Stokes, not mother and daughter but both spinsters (possibly sisters). So how much else in the pamphlet is actually accurate? And why were Alice and Christina suddenly singled out in 1606?

witchesKing James of Scotland had come to the English throne only three years earlier. On his journey south he had stopped in Royston and taken note of the good hunting to be had on the extensive heathlands. This was a man who was fascinated with witchcraft, who had previously written a book on it called Daemonologie. This was the year of Shakespeare’s new play Macbeth – where witches haunt the heath – and, apart from hunting, James himself also participated in a number of witch-trials. The king had recently established a bachelor pad in Royston, so what could be more politic for the locals than to furnish him with two women to hang?

Of course, this is all pure speculation as no contemporary account has been found to support or refute it. That’s the problem with history. It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat. Sometimes you think you’ve got it and then you find out you haven’t!

Are you still curious? Is that cat still breathing?  Why don’t you do your own digging and try to prove me wrong?

And while you’re doing so, don’t forget these five key questions:

  • How reliable is this account? Was it written by an eye-witness? Was it written at the time? Did the author really understand what they were writing about?
  • Why was it written? Was it just to make money or to curry favour? Was it meant to persuade people of something?
  • Who was it written for? Was it for public consumption? Was it intended to be read at all?
  • What was the context? How does it fit in with what was happening at the time? Do the words still mean the same thing?
  • Can you find anything that backs it up? Do other primary sources support your interpretation?

All very curious…


*Transcribed in Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of the 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit AD 1559-1736 (1929) edited by C. L’Estrange Ewen, p.197

Word painting – the musical Easter egg!

Computer programmes and video games often include Easter eggs – little intentional secrets, inside messages or secrets to be found by the users and players. I’ve always thought of word painting (in the musical sense!) somewhat in the same way.


When related to text, word painting is all about the use of highly descriptive words to invoke images into the reader’s mind. Musical word painting is the equivalent using notes – Grove Music defines it as “The use of musical gesture(s) in a work with an actual or implied text to reflect, often pictorially, the literal or figurative meaning of a word or phrase”. It can be found across the musical spectrum, though commonly in Renaissance and Baroque music, art songs (aha!) and folk music such as madrigals. Sometimes a motif representing a mood – e.g. grief – may be the basis a whole piece revolves around, and in others it can be a fleeting gesture supporting the text.


Some musicians, composers and musicologists shy away from word painting, thinking of it as a bit childish and simplistic. However, I personally think of it more as human nature. Think of a sentence with the word “falling” in it. Say it out loud a few times. Does your intonation rise or fall on that word? It seems to me it falls the majority of the time when I say it – or am I just word painting with my speech too? (I’ve always waxed lyrical about how musical speech is!).


I like adding in moments of word painting. I particularly like a phrase where you have a melody established (and potentially expected), and then it varies just slightly because of some decorative word painting. Sometimes listeners pick up on it and sometimes not, but performers (and musicologists!) do. I adore musical analysis, and that side of me loves finding a bit of surreptitious word painting in a piece – so it’s only natural I include some in my own music!


Here are a handful of word painting moments from Cracked Voices art songs (so far!). It’s only a brief selection of four – how many more will there be by the time the cycle is complete? All snippets below are taken from the vocal lines.


From The devil and the draper – a bit of hopping to begin the chorus! The melody hops up a third then another third, with bouncy staccatos in a rather quirky, bouncy time signature (7 8 being a personal favourite).


From Three riddles (no.2) – A falling tree.


From Those who wait – shards are spiky staccatos (may turn into staccatissimos, or accented staccatos in the final version) to demonstrate their sharpness. The intervals between the words -voke, you, with and shards are all diminished fourths – a dissonant interval, uncomfortable to sing and commonly referred to as the devil’s interval.


The final excerpt is also from Three riddles (no.2) – an earthquake rocking the baritone’s line. Rock this place begins the rocking motion in triplets, followed a couple of bars later by a continuation of the rocking (yet downwards) motion. 



Musical Easter eggs anyone?