Ruthless Jabiru presents Bushra El-Turk’s hard-hitting opera Silk Moth alongside works by Liza Lim and Cassandra Miller at the Arcola Theatre in London’s East End, August 9-11. Composers Edition’s Dan Goren caught up with the pioneering musical director Kelly Lovelady to find out more.
Dan Goren: Tell me how you’ve come to be producing this first fully-staged production of Silk Moth and what drew you to it.
Kelly Lovelady: I had been wanting to programme something of Bushra’s for years so when I had the chance to dream up some new programme ideas I went through her works list with a fine comb. The instrumentation of Silk Moth for a single vocalist and mixed ensemble of four Western and Middle Eastern instrumentalists struck me as an immediately manageable scale for a self-produced chamber orchestra like Ruthless Jabiru but also still warranted a conductor: important for a conductor-led initiative!
I was equally drawn to the libretto of Silk Moth which interrogates the line between embedded cultural traditions like honour-based abuse and more mainstream ideas of domestic violence. For me as an artistic director it’s a no-brainer that if we are going to be promoting a public-facing creative work over the course of several months, that platform should ultimately be mobilised to educate and inspire our networks to a deeper understanding of social issues that would benefit from that exposure. This is my vision for Ruthless Jabiru: alongside a programming approach which then illuminates these issues through sonic associations and sometimes literal text in the performances themselves. As an issue-based piece Silk Moth had enormous potential for collaboration with activists and campaigners so was a great fit for my group.
DG: I’m intrigued by the programming of this Grimeborn production in which Silk Moth is framed by two ensemble works: Liza Lim The Heart’s Ear and Cassandra Miller Bel Canto in one continuous performance. What connects these three works for you?
KL: Both Liza and Cassandra’s works are conceptually related to deep listening; described by Rumi as listening “with the heart’s ear”. This state is exactly where I’m always trying to bring the ear of the audience in my programming: to abandon the cognitive and just accept sound at face value for its sonic and felt properties and the realworld associations that invites.
Liza Lim The Heart’s Ear which will preface Silk Moth is a work similarly rooted in Arabic Islamic music and the unique qualities of the Arabic ney. Where Bushra’s composition uses the actual ney within the ensemble, Liza conjures its sound through a blend of ponticello strings with low flute and clarinet in such a way that the rich nasal colour of the instrument is really heard. The piece is a meditation on a fragment of Sufi melody which she likens to Rumi’s poetic idea of “birdsong beginning inside the egg”: a concept which I know has been inspirational to our design team for this production as a precursor to ideas of nesting, fragility and inherited custom explored more directly in the opera proper.
Cassandra Miller Bel Canto is a piece which teases a huge amount of emotion from a single melodic cell; coincidentally a very similar gesture to the final wrenching music of Silk Moth’s Mother. For me it is possible to find a real flow between these pieces and I hope I will be able to illuminate that connection for our audiences. Bushra’s opera runs to around 30 minutes so the addition of a postlude is an opportunity to further intensify the weight of the issues developed through a controlled reflection. Bel Canto has a feeling of suspended time: it is the sound and sentiment of a woman stuck in a web so a logical complement in a lot of ways. The piece has had many different realisations since its premiere in 2010 and with Cassandra’s blessing ours will be one more new iteration of this masterpiece!
DG: So it’s set to be an absorbing performance! One involving a great deal of commitment from the whole team. Ruthless Jabiru has a rather special mission and character, tell me about it.
KL: Yes Ruthless Jabiru has turned out to be a pretty unique operation. It’s not unusual for a conductor to setup their own ensemble to reflect their values but I guess I have a lot of things I want to communicate through this medium! I would like to think we exist on many levels and can be different things for different people.
The group is made up entirely of professional Australian musicians based in the UK: this is the common ground we start from but really just another layer. I was initially inspired by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who commission a lot of extraordinarily good string orchestra music which then sits dormant a long time waiting for its second performance. We have since played quite a lot from that body of repertoire but always with a view to including Australian composition in a global vision of New music. Being here in London it is really important that our primary relevance is to this local community.
I also have strong feelings about the social power and purpose of Art music. You don’t need a theory degree to be open to acoustic science: sound affects us in a kinesthetic way and different registers, volumes, harmonies, timbres, textures feel very different in the body of the listener. In the temporal realm music can also bring a chemical rush for some people in the right space. As a programmer I want to mobilise all these physical sensations and convert them into compassion where I think compassion is most due. One way I like to do this is by focussing a programme around a central work that has a direct, implied or sonic link to topical issues and using that focus as an opportunity to learn from experts and campaigners in the relevant field. It’s important that we defer to specialists for the fullest picture around an issue as it seems like a lot of division is born of simplification and reduction; audiences are complex and intelligent and I really want to embrace that in the Information Age!
For me this programming model brings the currency we are always striving for in the classical music sector; obviously alongside composer advocacy, female empowerment, diverse representation and sustainability which are all integrated into our ongoing process.
DG: It takes a lot of drive and determination to run a contemporary music ensemble. Who and what have been the the key inspirations behind your creative musical life?
KL: It’s bizarre to me that it’s a radical act to prioritise the music of our own time: there’s a great interview with Patricia Kopatchinskaja that I reread every few months where she talks about exactly this. We really need to normalise the “risk” associated with contemporary programming in the mainstream orchestral context. There is New music available to us in every fathomable style so the myth that recent composition is always New Complexity or Total Serialism is a cliche we can teach our audiences to move beyond. There is extraordinary beauty in orchestral colour and texture if we can lead our guests to really hear without feeling they need familiarity or tonality as a crutch. It’s our job to trigger their imagination through sound. It’s one thing to know and appease your audience but for me, great programming is the real educator. The arts are here to open our minds and that should exist on a continuum.
Nicholas Kenyon’s Rattle biography is a fantastic resource that has serendipitously appeared before me over the years in used bookstores and charity shops around the world. It lists all Simon’s programmes from the CBSO years and you can see his bold and brilliant approach to curation is unchanged. I would love to sit down and talk with him about programming sometime in person. Other heroes are Vlad Jurowski and Ilan Volkov: I think they are aware by now that this is the case! It has been a huge honour to work with both in recent years. My biggest inspiration is probably boldness: in all its forms. A friend once described music to me as finding the softness within yourself but I would go one step further to say we have to find that softness and then shout it loud.
DG: Shout it loud indeed! It sounds like this production will be very special indeed – I wish you and the whole team the very the best with it.