Interview with Jonathan Reekie (2000)
Jonathan Reekie is Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Productions. He was associated with Param Vir’s music for many years and instrumental in presenting the British premiere of his opera double bill at Almeida Opera in 1996 and commissioning his third opera ION.
Jonathan Reekie: I know that you spent a lot of time thinking about what your new chamber opera might be, and I remember you coming to me after some time saying that you had found the perfect subject and that was Ion by Euripides. Why did it strike such a chord?
Param Vir: I’ve known Euripides’s work for some time, but only in 1995 did I become very interested in exploring it a as composer. I found David Lan’s translation and I thought this would make a very beautiful opera. The reason I felt this was because Ion encompasses something quite extraordinary: it has a quality of love and a quality of wisdom or compassion that has seemed to me like an incredible heart beating right through the work. It has many other treasures — the character of Ion himself, who questions all forms of authority and has a deeply felt response to situations. I found his intensity and clarity of mind fascinating. But there is another thing. Pain. Creusa comes to Delphi in great pain. Ion too is in anguish – for he has never known the love of a family or a home to call his own. The healing of this pain, and the gaining of self knowledge, are liberating for both characters, and liberating for us, the audience, who share their pain. The resolution and joy that flows through near the end of the story is what drew me to it so deeply.
There are other things about the play that are really intangible. There was something about the relationship between energy and colour, which must sound when I speak about it in this way like an abstraction, but it isn’t of course because colour and energy aren’t abstract things. I immediately felt the presence of colour when I read the play and also when I first began working on the opera. The first colour I thought about was yellow, which eventually transformed into gold and gold then became a really important colour. The other colours that manifest themselves in the work are cobalt blue, white and a particular quality of red colour.
JR: I think the chart of the opera that you made early on, as you then saw it, is a very powerful and relevant document, making the link between your music and colour in very strong terms. To my ears and eyes, this link is profound — it’s certainly something I remember from your double-bill of operas.
PV: There have been other composers deeply affected by colour — Messiaen is an example. I am interested in qualities of colour embodied in the chakra spectrum of energy (part of the subtle human energy system). We now know that we respond to certain colours because they have a very specific resonance with our energy structure, and different colours have very different therapeutic or healing or energizing properties.
JR: As does music . . .
PV: Indeed. So colour becomes essential in the work and in the way I think about orchestration — not that I could point out any specific colours in the orchestration as such, but definitely there is a very strong relation to colour in this work. More than in other works of mine the colours of gold and cobalt blue have appeared as important energising motives, and I know that this is pointing me in the direction of the next opera I am going to write: Awakening.
JR: That’s the one on the theme of Buddhism?
PV: That’s the work about the essential life of the Buddha.
JR: Apart from colour, if indeed it is possible to separate the creative elements of your work, what else has influenced the shape of Ion?
PV: Early on, as I started on Ion, I encountered the work of the sculptor Anish Kapoor. The sheer radiance of his conception, the simplicity and the archetypal quality of his work made a very profound impression upon me, and I have been in constant contact with his art–looking at pictures, since I can’t own the objects — and the colour, shape and vibration have been a very profound influence. I asked myself, is there a way of writing music that could have the same quality or the same effect? I suppose I am interested in work that is free of specific cultural resonances.
JR: You wanted to get away from India, didn’t you?
PV: I have no interest in any kind of nationalistic agenda. I’m neither an Indian composer nor a British composer. These categories don’t actually mean anything at all to me.
JR: That’s right, but you were in danger of being pidgin-holed given your first two operas’ Indian subject matter. I remember you mentioning this to me at one stage.
PV: To put it positively, I’m also interested in the culture of the whole world, and in the mythologies of parts of the world other than the one I was born into. My previous work before Ion drew its subject from Denmark in the Second World War. Euripides struck a chord because I have always been interested in Greek thought and culture. The very first thing I encountered, when I was seventeen, were the dialogues of Plato. Now that was a privilege!
JR: Ion stands out in Euripides’s output, though, doesn’t it? It’s not what one would think of as a typical Euripides work.
PV: That’s right, it’s unlike any of his other work, and it makes me wonder what all the lost works must have been like, all those many works burnt in the library of Alexandria.
JR: If one takes your double-bill as your first opera, what’s it like writing your second? It’s something not many living composers get to do. It strikes me that writing an opera is an extraordinarily committed act, something that requires great energy, great time, and huge inner resources, and in a sense when you do it for the first time you don’t really know what you are doing, you just get on and you do it. But when you do it the second time, you are all too aware of what is involved; so I wonder how that affects your approach to it?
PV: Well, I was aware I wanted to go further with this work. It is a much larger work, and needed other resources. I was also keen to extend my sound world – who isn’t? In a sense, there has been a steady progression from Snatched where I consciously chose not to use thematic or leitmotivic processes. Those sorts of techniques began to emerge in Broken Strings. In Ion, it is very clear that there are many essential leitmotives at work. Some of them have been present unconsciously, and some of them are embodied in specific choices of chords, chord patterns and harmonic fields. I think that my recent work has been enriched by my interaction with the wonderful composers Jonathan Harvey and Randolph Coleman, with both of whom I have worked recently. The other big change with Ion is that I have been able to work on different parts of the opera simultaneously, instead of through-composing it, as I used to do. But perhaps I’m just a better composer today!
JR: How would you describe your collaboration with David Lan?
PV: I found his text quite magnificent to work with. His use of language is fresh and original and it carries very strong images, too a very distinctive feeling for rhythm.
JR: Does that limit your own rhythm? Does it dictate a strong rhythmic structure to you, musically, or can you use it to your own ends?
PV: I’m sure if some other composer were to take the same libretto, he or she would come up with a completely different rhythmic conception. I think the main thing about the libretto is that there is a large palette of rhythmic qualities. David’s myriad word-textures and forms gave me the greatest joy when I was writing vocal lines–these were the things I sketched out before I sketched anything else — I wrote out the arias and large tracts of recitative.
JR: How do you think your music has changed since your double-bill?
PV: I hope it is richer, in feeling, harmonically and texturally. It’s very hard for me to stand back from it now, but that is how it seems to me. In a sense I have to say that all music is formed from energy and from feeling, and whenever there was a moment that I couldn’t get inside the subject, it was invariably because I couldn’t find its energy, or was not clear within myself where the energy for the idea lay. All creative work come from this energy, which is why I’m very far removed from writing, or being able to write, pastiche because I’ve always thought that pastiche means that one wasn’t being true to one’s energy at all. To write Ion one was required to make a journey through Euripides’s characters through heart, body and mind, and locate every strand of feeling, textually and musically, in one’s body. But don’t all opera composers do that?