Susannah Self takes us on her personal journey as a symphonic composer and on the creative process behind her new work The Red Book.
The orchestra as a large canvas
“I am totally in love with orchestral music. During my singing career I performed in some of the world’s loveliest opera houses in mainland Europe with full orchestra. This became a powerful influencer. A peak experience was singing the mezzo solo in Mahler 3 at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Standing centre stage in front of the orchestra was intoxicating. No wonder then that as a composer I eagerly wanted to compose for full orchestra.
The opportunity was there for the taking since these years of European singing work blessed me with swathes of free time to compose. However these long solitary sojourns in cities such as Strasbourg, Ghent and Vienna also me feel very lonely and the intensity of overwhelming grief sometimes led me to an abyss.
My analyst supported me through these years with great friendliness, humour and a healthy dose of anarchy. Ultimately, though, it was because of our detailed discussions about music that I conceived of the idea of expressing all this emotion through music of a large scale worked through the canvas of an orchestra. Naively, fearlessly and hopefully over this course of 15 years I composed four symphonies.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: An unexpected composer of symphonies
Also during this period I attended advanced composition classes with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at Dartington Summer school. I was surprised to discover that he composed symphonies. I was well aware that composers of symphonic-type works of the 20th century had re-invented their musical idiom and employed dynamic titles such as Ligeti’s Atmosphères or Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Even Gubaidulina’s violin concerto Offertorium explores a vastly different relationship between violin and orchestra to traditional models. When pressed Max felt that using the term symphony as an overall definition was valid in a similar way to writers using the term ‘novel’. I can understand though the reasons for dropping the term symphony because as composers we may feel confined by the straightjacket of traditional expectations. The vast body of 20th century symphonic works rarely conform to convention so in a sense the field remains open.
However, Max believed that using the term symphony as an overall definition was valid. After all ‘novel’ is used as a generic term to encapsulate many forms of the written word so why not in a similar way use symphony?
Stepping up to the covid crisis as a composer
For the last eight years I focussed on composing operas as part of my practice- based academic research. But now with the current restraint on live performances (performances of my opera Artemisia and my commission FAST for Spitalfields Festival are postponed), I feel inspired to release and re-visit the symphonic canvas that I so passionately engaged with during my singing years.
On a personal level I feel the need during this period to explore the dark forces that drive mankind to ignore the value to all of creating a fairer society and dealing with climate change. Now unexpectedly with a totally free summer I have started sketches for The Red Book or in effect a 5th symphony. The unexpected ignition for this project began a few weeks ago when the poet and psychologist Graham Mummery bought the CD of my 2nd symphony Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Since my latest private passion has been exploring the concept of active imagination in Jung’s recently released magnum opus The Red Book I decided to use this subject as a starting point.
Placing my work within the field of symphonic composition
Firstly I want to contextualise how I am influenced in my orchestral composition by the composers that have gone before and in particular Bruckner. The sheer vastness and complexity of emotional range in his symphonies reveals a vulnerable autobiography of nuanced eddies of hope and despair. Reflected is not only his personal life but a thread that connects his experience to all of us. Languishing beneath the sensibility of intricate Viennesy counterpoint festers an overwhelming, unresolvable anguish. It is these difficulties that speak to our deepest humanity.
On the titling of contemporary symphonic works
I already mentioned the fashionable titling of today’s orchestral compositions to avoid using the term ‘symphony’. This shift is also reflected by changes in subject matter which tend to focus on external landscapes or event.
However in line with the ideas of symphonists I find myself drawn to reflect internal soulful landscapes through the medium of music. My predilection may be fuelled by composing opera which is the king of high drama, especially the expression of dark thoughts or as Jung would say, the bringing up of the shadow.
Commissioning: The final frontier?
Now I can almost hear you suggesting that to compose a symphony is a pretty unrealistic activity, unless there is a commission or a performance involved.
Instead what if a work requires to exist in its own right?
At the time I began my symphonic quest I was well paid by opera houses as a singer so like Ives I was at liberty to take a risk. Fortunately getting my music played happened sooner than I expected as the middle movement of my 1st symphony Hokusai Says made it to the finals of a composing competition organised by Annegret Lang in Vienna. As a result South Wind at Clear Dawn was performed and recorded with soprano Eileen Hulse. The text was sourced from the Hui Ming Ching (book of Consciousness and Life) by Liu Hua-yang.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
The success of South Wind at Clear Dawn led on to composing my 2nd
symphony Memories, Dreams, Reflections which is also recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic, an orchestra that, amazingly, Mahler once conducted. Through it I explore the deep emotions that Jung encountered when he split with Freud over the efficacy of their psychoanalytic theories.
Shortly afterwards Jung had a heart attack which resulted in a near death out-of-body experience which he describes in the chapter Visions in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. This evocative event provided the back bone for the symphony which is furnished with text from Jung and one of his deep influencers, the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu. The poet and psychotherapist Graham Mummery recently commented on listening to the symphony:
The Lao Tzu parts remind me of Mahler’s versions of Li Po in “Das Lied”, though you’ve both done something of your own there. And the ending of Jung’s finding “this life is a segment of existence” has to end in something different to Mahler’s “Ewig… ewig….” and yet still make the listener make his/her own leap, which you succeed in facilitating in the work.
The Red Book
My intended new work The Red Book is again inspired by Jung, this time via
his extraordinary cosmic writings which were only released by his estate in 2009. The giant facsimile is a wonder of publishing.
Lament of the Dead
Held within The Red Book are Jung’s deepest musings which are beautifully written out in neat calligraphy. The impact of these series of transforming images is sometimes so mind-blowing as to make me feel dizzy. This is a book which is not to be opened lightly as at its core is a radical idea that suggests that for mankind to really thrive psychically we need to engage with the whole history and culture of the dead.
An Internal Conversation
The concepts behind Jung’s momentous tome are discussed with a great deal of insight in a series of conversations between the famous American Psychologist James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani who collated The Red Book.
Hilman’s concept of facing up to human sociological difficulties rather than personal pathologies resonates with what I see as the key issue of our current pandemic and World environmental crisis.
Segmentation and Focus
For my 5th Symphony I will source material from the Liber Secundus of The Red Book which in particular expresses Jung’s soul-searching through the imagery of an egg. Subjects in this section include:
FloodThis was the night on which all dams broke” Jung: The Red Book, p.299
Descent into Hell in The Future
Murder of The Hero
The Red One
The Castle in The Forest
The Opening of The Egg
Eight years have passed since I last composed for full orchestra so to prepare for re-entry I am undertaking a series pf provisional compositional exercises to generate mood-scapes and textures.
I want to impregnate the compositional process with 5 using quintuplets and distorted cycles of fifths. It is fascinating how this number appears in nature such as in this exquisite patterned figure on a sand dollar which a friend gave me that she found on a beach in California.
Exploring entrepreneurial methods to manifest the new symphony
As a composer I feel it is sometimes necessary for a composer to follow their own creativity – there is no better time for this than now.
If this project interests you you can also support it by buying one of my paintings in The Red Book series”.