New York Polyphony and John Tavener, “O Pia Virgo”

In 1990 I didn’t consider myself to be a proper composer. I sometimes dreamed that I would one day be able to have my works performed by groups other than my own, but I was also pretty realistic about my music. It didn’t appear to speak in the same language as my Irish contemporary music colleagues. In fact, it was pretty much ignored, being seen as too tonal and accessible. Yet even at that early stage I was acutely aware that I was doing something quite different to other composers. Not better, just different. I couldn’t work out whether it was sheer stubbornness or just lack of flexibility that kept me exploring the same ideas over and over – modality, melodic structure, cascading rhythms and drones. That year remains with me as a very important one. I submitted a piece called “Dirgidh bhar Sleagha Sealga” to the Séan O Riada Memorial Trophy competition in choral composition at that year’s Cork Choral Festival. I won, very unexpectedly, as the work was unlike anything else being written in the contemporary Irish music field and I had assumed that the adjudicators were my peers. I was wrong. One of them  was none other than John Tavener.

Being brash and young I sought him out as he wandered around Cork, surrounded by an entourage. I asked him if he had any comment to make on the work. Any feedback, good or bad, would be massively valuable. He was silent. He mused, he pondered. Then he said one word – “primordial” and walked on. Its amazing how one word can colour your views of what you do so profoundly. It literally means “existing at or from the beginning of time”, something I would have said about much of his own output.

I had begun to feel that some of what I write wasn’t written by me at all. I often didn’t know why all the bits ended up together on the page, and I could always clearly tell when I was, and am, forcing them together rather than letting them flow naturally into structures and forms. While I still explore the same ideas, I have learned to take it slower – put less ideas on the page and develop what I do put down further. Which brings me to “O Pia Virgo”.

In 2013 I reconnected with the group New York Polyphony. I’d managed to miss their one concert in Dublin many years ago and had been so disgusted with myself that I vowed that I would take the first opportunity to properly introduce myself. I was pretty familiar with their performances of the sublime motets of composer Andrew Smith but there is no substitute for hearing performers live. When I contacted them I was rather flattered that I appeared to be pushing an open door and we decided to make something happen, so I began work on a new motet for them in November last.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.New York Polyphony [photo copyright Chris Owyoung]

New York Polyphony have a visceral sound capable of intense virtuosity. It is a very dark, masculine timbre, trained vastly but also very unaffected. This gives them a powerful and rich tone which instantly appeals. Its unsurprising that their last disc Times Go By Turns has just been nominated for a Grammy Award. While time was very tight it was just enough to create something that is simple but, hopefully, sympathetic to what this great group of singers do so naturally. Sometimes it is very hard to let go of something that I compose, but I know that this one is in safe hands.

I never met John Tavener again, and now never will. He was a unique composer, a special artist and he uttered the right word into the ear of a young man who just needed something at that moment. So, I dedicate this piece to him. When he hears the song of the angels, it won’t be an altogether unfamiliar sound.

“O Pia Virgo” will be premiered at the SWACDA conference in Little Rock by NYP on March 19th 2014.

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4 thoughts on “New York Polyphony and John Tavener, “O Pia Virgo”

  1. Happy New Year to you, Michael. I’ve been following your blogs for a time now and just want to say thank you for sharing your own thoughts and even personal struggles with your music career. I’m currently an elementary music teacher, but am becoming more and more frustrated at the future of public school music teaching- at least here where I live. Although, I love teaching children and general music lessons, the choral programs in the elementary level are so “crammed”into the school day, (some even during recess), that I lost my joy for teaching the choral part of my job, and have my schedule set up in a way that I am the second teacher at 2 schools and can avoid teaching it. However, in the past few years, I’ve recently become more familiar with the classical education method. I’m so impressed with it, and foresee a change in my teaching career in the near future which will hopefully aid in recovering that joy again. Your blogs have been a valuable resource to me, both in enlightening me to what other avenues of choral music, and your own personal journey of transitioning Anuna and yourself from music commercialism to more pure choral performance. Thanks again.

  2. Great to inspire :-) Thank you for being so honest and open in such a public forum. We all strive for better things – I am sure you will realise your ambitions Alan. Life is a transition.

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