10 Questions: Vincent O'Sullivan

20 February 2014 / 10 Questions

The upcoming Requiem for the Fallen is a choral/instrumental work featuring a stunningly beautiful libretto by NZ’s Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan. His collaboration with composer Ross Harris is not a new one: they have worked together on seven previous projects. Here we ask Vincent about their creative partnership – one that continues to spark and fizz with new ideas.

1. You have an established working relationship with the composer Ross Harris. How far back does this go?

This is the eighth collaboration Ross and I have worked on, so you might say that by now we get on pretty amicably together, and always with a sense of excitement when we begin on something new.

2. Tell us about how the creative partnership works.

We agree almost immediately when we hit on some historical event or personality or situation that we feel offers a challenge or a fresh direction for Ross musically, and for me as a writer. There is often something close to accidental in this.

3. What are some examples of this?

The first time we worked together, when we were still attached to Victoria University, came about when in chatting about anything but music or writing, we found we were both fascinated by the personality of Rasputin, and the fine line, as we saw it, between the genuine and the fraudulent. So rather out of the blue, we began to play with the possibility of trying to do something together, which became the opera Black Ice. We like to think it did some original things, once you get over the rather crazy hope that an opera by two New Zealanders about an iconic Russian figure was ever likely to get to the stage. Although with the centenary of the dark monk’s murder only a few years away, we haven’t quite lost that hope.

4. What was the first piece you and Ross worked on together?

Our first performed collaboration was not so far from what remains a strong current interest. This was the group of eight songs that were taken into Ross’s Second Symphony with a marvellously resonant first performance by the Auckland Philharmonia. The songs are set in France during the First World War, and based on the love story that led to a New Zealand soldier’s execution for desertion.

5. You obviously have a strong interest in the Great War. Tell us more about your other collaborative works that explore this theme.

We share a deep interest in that war (WW1), so it was a natural terrain for us to turn to again in Brass Poppies, an opera on Malone and the Wellington Regiment, set in both Gallipoli and the Aro Valley, and with women performers – both singers and dancers – on stage throughout the performance, a rare enough feature of a drama set in wartime. It seems likely this will be performed in 2016.

More recently we’ve worked on Notes from the Front, a song cycle relating to the remarkable Dunedin mathematician Alexander Aitken, who managed to smuggle his violin not only through the Gallipoli campaign but also through Northern France. The cycle, for tenor, piano, and violin, will have its first performance in August.

6. What is it that keeps you and Ross working together do you think?

I think what draws us back to working together is that we like to take on something rather different from what we’ve done before, and that we find the business of collaboration so congenial. It helps of course that I so admire Ross’s music, his ability to move from high dramatic colour to stillness and poignancy. Songs about the astronomer Beatrice Tinsley gave us the chance to write about science, and If Blood be the Price, for brass band and choir, took the Waihi Strike of 1912, and the compelling if rather outdated motifs of optimistic socialism. Then the commission to write a Requiem for the centenary of the First World War was something that at once appealed to us.

7. Tell us about writing words for music in partnership with a composer such as Ross compared with working on your own poetry?

The actual business of working together is fairly straightforward. Although I’m seriously interested in music, I don’t have any musical training, so Ross has been rather a patient instructor as well as collaborator. But we find we have a fairly direct rapport in how we imagine a work might proceed. Of course writing for music is a very different matter from writing poems for the page, even down to which letters of the alphabet to avoid. (A pity that ‘s’ is one of the most common consonant we have.) And you have to be direct in a way that isn’t necessary in poetry at large.

There isn’t time to go back to a line when you’re listening to it sung, or to read over a stanza to catch its sense. Music is there for you once, and what isn’t taken in at that immediate hearing you simply miss out on (even allowing for sur-titles.) And although I usually keep a formal metrical structure, and often rhyme to reinforce it, in the lines I write for Ross – ‘you don’t play tennis without a net’ as Robert Frost said – I realise of course that musically there may be the need to point the lines, and my own metre even, in different ways.

The lines of a poem are an end product, as it were, in themselves. In a song, they become the raw material that has still to be shaped by what the music imposes or requires in all aspects apart from sense. The possibilities of sound in the spoken word become something quite other, with a different aesthetic register, once the composer stakes his claim to them.

As I say to Ross, if we were actors, I’d be the straight man, he the one who has to reconfigure the lines I feed him so that they’re bigger, refined, more emotionally compelling.

8. Tell us what drew you both to the form and structure of the Requiem mass for Requiem for the Fallen?

I say in my programme note for For the Fallen, ‘To write a new Requiem is to join a long and venerable tradition.’ It is of course an obvious and inviting form for channelling a commemoration of such an historic event. But the challenge of working within a pre-ordained and dramatic form also carries a particular satisfaction in finding a way to respect traditional expectations, but without the feeling that one is stifled by them. There was also the fact that Ross and I greatly dislike such detestable phrases as ‘the sweet red wine of youth,’ or the easy shallowness of ‘For King and Country.’

9. There’s huge interest in WW1 commemorative themes around the world at the moment. How do you deal with the spectre of war glorification overshadowing these sorts of works?

There is nothing like cliché to dishonour the dead. As a requiem follows through the inevitable traditional stages of the Mass, the Gradual and the Sanctus and so on, we wanted both to recognize the powerful impact of the form itself, but also to carry our conviction that what men die for is a far cry from flag-waving and rhetoric – it is for the people they come from, the street they live in, those who matter to them most. And they don’t die as an army, as a fighting unit, but one by one by one. That is what I wanted to make the driving force of the words Ross set. And of course the structure of a Requiem in itself imposes a sense of dignity as well as of mourning.

10. What message do you hope the requiem will convey to its audiences?

What we want the Requiem to convey, with the grand and austere pattern of the form we are working in, is ‘This is the story of one man, over and over again, until that one man is the same as the innumerable dead.’ The grand public words of the traditional Latin plays against, as it were, as well as with the small details of an individual who was once at home where we are now. ‘Paradise’ becomes synonymous with that.

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