As January 2022 brings the publication by Composers Edition of Susannah Self’s 4th Symphony The Island, the composer takes us on a journey through the story and compositional process of the work.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.Caliban: The Tempest: Shakespeare
I composed this 28’ work for full symphony orchestra 10 years ago when I was gifted an artist retreat on the island of Skyros by The Skyros Centre where I teach singing and perform my music every summer. The island stands alone in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It is off the beaten track with minimal tourism that you fly into a military base rather than a commercial airport. The main compound of the Skyros centre is situated in the pine wooded bay at Atsitsa. Here multi-varigated, volcanic rocks fold directly into the into the sea leaving only a few modest pebbled bays for quiet reflection. Caves which may only be approached from the sea by kayak are caked in green larva. It is easy to imagine a dragon or two being in residence.
The island feels wild with its infusion of aromatic sage and dominating strong winds. The cicadas pulsate intoxicating chants by day while at night the small brown copy’s owls hoot gentle calls and responses. These audio textures are punctuated with pentatonic goat bells, distant church bells and frisky donkey brays. Like Shakespeare’s island, Skyros is full sounds that give delight and hurt not. Never the less there is melancholy here too. The first time I visited, my father had just died suddenly, it was a bleak wake-up call. Also, the poet, Rupert Brooke is buried on the south end of the island after he died of sepsis en route to Gallipoli in the first World war. There are numerous tales of piracy and Archilles hid in Skyros dressed as a woman before he was discovered.
The island represents the very best of my compositional oeuvre before I returned to higher compositional research at Cambridge University (MPhil) and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (PhD). At the time of composing it, I was still very busy singing as a soloist in International opera houses. This occupation afforded me an uncommonly generous amount of time to compose. Looking back, I can see that with The Island I reached a lyrical /dramatic style that had found its individual voice. The kernels of this voice continue to infuse my composition which has since been influenced and empowered by techniques leant from my composition supervisors Joe Cutler, Elizabeth Kelly and Howard Skempton. The idea behind the work is to symbolically represent an artist’s life as an island in the sense that each of us is ultimately alone with our vocation. The artist is literally washed ashore in the opening storm which provides a metaphor for the necessary introspection that an artist finds him/herself confronted with. The symphony is not personal statement but universal to the issues of every artist’s inner journey. I very much hope it will be taken up by orchestras.