Composing Drifting Dragons

Drifting Dragons outside M&S. Photo: Oliver.john Works

Drifting Dragons outside M&S. Photo: Oliver.john Works

It was a daunting prospect. Write an opera? I had written a considerable amount of instrumental music and songs for theatre before but never an opera. This would be something new.

Those who have been following the Drifting Dragons journey will know that it began life around a year ago. Joanna Turner, Artistic Director of Baseless Fabric, wanted to create a promenade opera about the lives of Londoners. She was looking for a composer and I nervously but eagerly raised my hand across cyberspace. Before long we had agreed to work together and were interviewing local people in Merton (Baseless Fabric’s home borough) about their views on opera, as well as finding out about their lives and memories, which would ultimately feed into the story of Drifting Dragons. The theme for the opera soon established itself as friendship and how over time it can be rocked by setbacks and challenges. I set to work writing the libretto and music for a short work-in-progress performance at the Wimbledon Theatre at the end of January 2016.

Drifting Dragons in M&S, Colliers Wood. Photo: Oliver.john Works

Drifting Dragons in M&S, Colliers Wood. Photo: Oliver.john Works

I wanted to compose music that was tonal and tuneful while hopefully sounding fresh and somewhat unpredictable. I wanted people walking past during our eventual street performances to prick up their ears and stay to hear more. I wanted it to be influenced by a range of styles – folk music, film music, even video game music. For this initial work-in-progress performance I wrote an opening scene for two friends, Jason and Sadie, in which they reminiscence and catch up over coffee, along with an aria for each of them exploring their inner thoughts. As is usual in opera, I decided to alternate recitative (speech-like passages) with more melodic and structured arias.

I needed to choose two instruments to accompany the singers – instruments that could be played easily while walking. No piano then. Acoustic guitar seemed like a sensible choice and, after some deliberation, I settled upon violin to complete the duo. As a guitarist myself, I wanted to avoid always reaching for the usual chord shapes, and so I took the decision to write the guitar part using a non-standard tuning – DADGAD to be precise – a tuning often favoured by folk musicians. This led me to be more creative in my harmonic choices and offers some lovely open, resonant harmonies unavailable in standard tuning.

Thankfully the work-in-progress performance went down well and we were encouraged to complete the opera. We evaluated what we’d created so far and held more community interviews to develop the rest of the piece. I was happy with how it was sounding compositionally and so made relatively few changes to what I had already written. I expanded the work to around 50 minutes in length with the additional of a new character, Dan (Sadie’s boyfriend), and an aria for him along with several new scenes featuring combinations of the three characters.

Drifting Dragons at Wyevale Garden Centre

Drifting Dragons at Wyevale Garden Centre

I find it hard to describe the compositional style I ended up employing for the opera. My main influence in operatic terms would be John Adams, but I am also deeply drawn to modern folk artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom. I think you can hear elements of all three in Drifting Dragons. There’s probably a smidgen of Steve Reich in there too now I think about it.

It’s been such a joy to work with Baseless Fabric and have the opportunity to compose a new opera. I’ve learnt so much during the process. Hearing the full piece take shape in the rehearsal room with our fantastic singers (Felicity Buckland, Louis Hurst and Nicholas Morton) and violinist (Julia Stone) has been hugely exciting. I hope the people who discover it in their local streets find it exciting too.

(Head Photo Credit: Oliver.john Works)

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    Composing Drifting Dragons

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