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25 May 2022 Comments Off on Richard Whalley and Poet John McAuliffe on their Monodrama ‘Erysichthon’s Forest’ and Songs of Sustainability Views: 196 CE News

Richard Whalley and Poet John McAuliffe on their Monodrama ‘Erysichthon’s Forest’ and Songs of Sustainability

On Friday 17th June, at Hallé St. Peters, Manchester there will be the premiere of Erysichthon’s Forest a melodrama based on the Greek myth of Erysichthon, composed by Richard Whalley with a libretto by John McAuliffe and performed by Louise Wayman (soprano), Simon Grange (bass), Petr Prause (cello) and Richard Whalley (piano). Music from the melodrama will ultimately form part of a chamber opera telling the story of Erysichthon, to be performed in collaboration with Manchester Opera Project.

A project has been built around this entitled ‘Songs of Sustainability’, through which four composers have been selected to set poems that engage with the beauty and vulnerability of nature chosen by John McAuliffe. The composers are Amy Crankshaw, Simon Davies, Finn McLean and Jasmine Simons, and the poets are Rebecca Hurst, Frances Leviston, Chad Campbell and Vona Groarke.

Richard Whalley and John McAuliffe talk to Composers Edition Dan Goren about their work together.

Dan Goren: Tell me about the Greek myth of Erysichthon and why you want to address it in your music.

Richard Whalley

Richard Whalley: The story of Erysichthon pulls no punches. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Erysichthon cuts down every tree in the sacred grove of Ceres, and the wood nymphs who live there demand revenge. On hearing about this, Ceres bids Hunger to visit Erysichthon and inflict his body with everlasting hunger: a hunger so severe that the more he eats the hungrier he will get. Nothing can satiate this hunger, despite Erysichthon ultimately selling all his worldly goods to buy food to consume. In desperation, he finally sells his daughter, Mestra, who discovers at this point a talent for shapeshifting, a skill that Erysichthon determines to use to trick traders who think they are buying a slave to give him money. But still the hunger won’t go away. If you take this story to its logical conclusion, there is only one possible ending, which is indeed what happens: Erysichthon’s hunger is such that the only relief is for him to consume himself, until nothing is left. Not only is this story so strong and powerful in itself, but I am attracted by the resonances with today’s concerns over destruction of ecosystems and the climate crisis, and so on: if mankind cannot change its exploitation of the earth’s resources, will we end up consuming all we have, until life becomes unliveable?

Dan: What attracted you to working on Erysichthon and how have you gone about collaborating as librettist with Richard?

John McAuliffe

John McAuliffe: A poet like Ovid has been inspiring readers, and writers, for 2000 years, and one reason for that is the way that his poems seem to be refreshed by new contexts. This poem comes from his Metamorphosis, a sequence which is bound together by transformations: I was very taken by the way it charts a man’s devastation of a landscape, and its transformation, but just as much by the fate of his daughter Mestra, who is herself a shapeshifter, a gift which her father then abuses for his own immediate ends. She is not Greta Thunberg, and Erysichthon is not some tech titan turned prepper, but… It feels anyway very timely. Working on it with Richard has opened up the text for me in very different ways: his approach to the text and to its dramatic arc are very sensitive to questions of motivation and to clarifying our focus. I feel like he has a very good idea of the poem’s power, and how best we can bring that into view in what we are doing together. It’s also been revelatory and re-assuring to see the care and thought with which he has worked out solutions to setting different kinds of line and how repetition can be set off and used to good effect in this form.

Dan: You’re perhaps better known for your instrumental writing, what do you draw on to compose dramatic work for voice?

Richard: Many of my works, especially over the last few years, have environmental concerns: I am attracted to nature to find solace and inspiration to compose, and am fascinated by its endless patterns and processes, and the beauty and complexity of those attributes. I want my music to be like that, endlessly complex and beautiful. Indeed, within my personal life, music and nature are probably the two things that I am most drawn to, to escape daily concerns and feel better: food for the soul.

Dan: The 17 June concert also presents works by four younger composers setting poems that you’ve selected. Tell me about those poems.

John: I selected poems by two recent graduates of the Centre for New Writing’s PhD programme, Rebecca Hurst (already an experienced librettist) and Chad Campbell: their poems create a sonic pattern of their own, they use repetition and they dramatize their speakers with both clarity and mystery. I liked the idea of setting the composers a challenge, of thinking about a poem’s music even as they counterpoint it with their own inventions. The other two poems are by colleagues here, Frances Leviston and Vona Groarke, whose poems, I think, the same poised sense of their own music and, something I discussed with the composers as a challenge, a layered sense of words’ and phrases’ resonance. I’m looking forward very much to hearing how they will respond to these poems.

Dan: What can the audience expect to hear from these four composers?

Richard: I was amazed that we got applications to compose pieces from all around the world, and it’s great to see how much the theme behind the event clearly resonates with the four selected composers, and how they each bring something special and unique to the table. One of the selected composers, Simon Davies, is not only a composer but a clinical scientist working on kidneys – and I’m delighted to see that he shares my fascination with patterns in his setting of Frances Leviston’s ‘Pyramid’. And of the others, Jasmine Simons’ really gets a sense of foreboding in her setting of ‘Wind in Trees’ by Vona Groake, Finn McLean achieves a deceptively still calm in his setting of Chad Campbell’s ‘Stones and Sweeper’, and Amy Crankshaw’s setting of ‘Walking Dwelling Thinking’ (things I do a lot of myself, incidentally!) by Rebecca Hurst is just magical.

The other thing to say is that the other performers in the concert (besides me on the piano), Petr Prause on cello, Louise Wayman, soprano and Simon Grange, bass are just fantastic musicians, so I’m really looking forward to working with them, and seeing it all come together.

Dan: The concert is part of a day of exchange between researchers in the sciences and the arts from the University of Manchester about sustainability. What are you hoping to come out of this (besides a wonderful concert!)

John: I’d like to be able to bring my work into conversation with the work of brilliant scientists and social scientists here at the university, and I’d like to see how our work’s imagination of time and change (in a 2,000-year-old story) holds its value for newer stories about the future, and about what we can learn from the trees and environments around us.

Dan: Your own work, Erysichthon’s Forest is not only a melodrama in its own right, but part of an ongoing creative process to develop a chamber opera for Manchester Opera Project. What are you envisaging for that?

Richard: You’re right about that – indeed the conversation between John, myself and Emily Howard of Manchester Opera Project about writing a chamber opera based on the story of Erysichthon started over three years ago, before the pandemic. I did some preliminary compositional work on the chamber opera early in 2020 before events made it impossible to find any time to continue. This event in June is step one of turning a dream into reality, and John and I want to bring other potential collaborators into the conversation, with a view to finding further resonances with research that may feed into the opera, and perhaps bringing it into a wider collaborative research project of which the opera may become a part. The difficulty about operas is that they take a lot of time and resources to put together… but collaborating with others does seem potentially the most exciting route towards making that actually happen. I should also mention that of course John and I are very grateful to the University of Manchester for funding the event on 17 June. Whatever happens, we should end up with a really high quality video of the concert, and interviews with practitioners, so even people who can’t actually make it to the event itself should still be able to experience the music for themselves afterwards.


This concert comes at the end of a day of exchange between researchers in the sciences and the arts from the University of Manchester about sustainability:

Songs of Sustainability – A day of music, poetry, and discussion

Friday 17 June
Hallé St Peter’s 
Manchester 
M4 6BF

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