A solo symphony in many voices
A Conversation with the composer Philip Venables
Philip, your chamber opera 4.48 Psychosis is having its first performance in German in Dresden after scoring a huge success in 2016 at its premiere in London as a Royal Opera House commission. Your first chamber opera is based on the last play by the British dramatist Sarah Kane, regarded as one of the outstanding authors of the 1990s, who took her own life at the age of 28. What made you choose her text?
I’ve known Sarah Kane’s plays and other writings for a long time, but when I started out on the work I didn’t immediately think of using an existing text. I was completely free in my choice of subject and set out to find a suitable author for a joint project. I read (play) texts for a whole year, went frequently to the theatre and met with writers, but somehow it didn’t all come together. Then I saw Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a student performance and realized that this text actually has almost everything I was imagining. The texts moved me deeply, and I found their clarity and directness highly theatrical. I met Sarah Kane’s brother Simon, told him my ideas, and he agreed to a musical setting. In the course of several conversations with him and friends of Sarah, I gathered a deep impression of the author and her plays.
What makes this text special and predestined for a music-theatre composition?
I wanted to make this text into an opera because it’s very formal and abstract, without a concrete plot or specification of speakers and characters. That gave me the greatest possible freedom for composing, for creating different musical and dramatic layers. Kane’s four preceding plays were also very powerful, but they all have – even if often in rudimentary form – definite characters, and I didn’t want that. In 4.48 Psychosis there are 24 scenes which all function like little tableaux without a precise indication of speaker. It was very exciting to examine the various types of texts and styles of internal and external dialogues, fragments of memory, poetic impressions, medical chart entries, streams of thoughts, even test results and lists of medications. I was immediately inspired by this variety and the musicality of the text. There are so many spaces and possibilities open for dramatic composition apart from character, place and time.
In Sarah Kane’s original there are many concrete references to the mental illness of depression, from which she herself also suffered. How extensively did the biographical aspect of medication lists, psychological test evaluations etc. influence your work?
That didn’t play such a big role. I didn’t want to write a piece about her illness in particular. It’s meant to speak to everyone – although the condition of illness and the clock time 4.48, when Sarah Kane apparently experienced her moments of greatest clarity and productivity, are already there in the title and surely contributed to her remarkable language, choice of subject and capacity for concrete expression.
Are psychotic breakdowns “typical” subjects for an opera?
Of course. Opera history is full of them! Especially female opera characters are constantly experiencing these states. For example, severe emotional reactions – the perception of hopeless situations, insanity or even suicide – are often reactions to external pressure – and they touch the audience directly. They are often part of a larger behavioural pattern, but in 4.48 Psychosis, these states of mind are the main focus and, as it were, the only “plot”. I didn’t want to write a piece about patriarchy, so there are only women on the stage. At the premiere in London in 2016, we even attempted to have the orchestra consist only of women, but that didn’t quite work. There are two solo percussion parts in my piece, which are like mirror images of the women onstage. Ideally these should be played by two women. The number of the singers came about from the realization that three (the number of performers in the premiere of the play) were too few, and I could imagine a kind of dramatic polyphony with six different, distinctly audible voices. My piece doesn’t deal with gender roles even though Kane herself does that in her text. To have a man onstage as well would be too realistic and too definite a constellation for me. In the same vein, I also really wanted to play with the fuzzy border between imagination and reality, what goes on inside versus outside of one’s head.
What were the practical considerations in composing and structuring the 24 scenes?
After occupying myself intensively for nine months exclusively with the text, researching plays from the 1990s and their subjects, and having conversations with Simon Kane and female friends of Sarah Kane, I got down to writing. I’d lived with the text for almost a year – without composing anything – and developed a kind of intuition of where I was heading. By the time I began working on the composition, I had already developed almost all of the ideas and the dramaturgical aspects had become clear. Along with questions of atmosphere, I was sometimes dealing with purely practical problems like how to accommodate the incredible amount of text. I could never have managed it with a linear treatment in a composition of 90 minutes, so I worked with different layers of texts which often overlap or complete one another, for example by using recorded spoken and live sung text. And that in turn led to the development of substantive new ideas like the form of the recorded news (to the Self) or portions of memory that are carried through right to the end. I didn’t simply compose in sequence but instead gathered together within one working process scenes having a similar atmosphere or orientation, like the psychological number test. Except for the final scene – it actually was the last to be created. I had the feeling that I could compose it only after everything else had been said.
Is this process of multi-layering your usual way of working?
Actually I’m always interested most of all in different forms of text and their relation to music. Sarah Kane already indicated the layers of her text in their graphic layout on the page. In 4.48 Psychosis she worked with a total of 14 different quantities of text indentation. This multi-layering was also to be the basic structure of my composition – I wanted to take over the polyphony of the text into the music. I also brought in other musical elements, such as fragments from J.S. Bach and lift music, or Muzak. There are also stretches of dialogue that are neither spoken nor sung but can be heard coming from the two female percussionists and read as text projections.
How are these additional musical and formal elements integrated into your composition?
All the scenes in the piece have a basic atmosphere in my dramaturgical concept, a defining emotion, and I’ve tried to find a special expression for each of them. As regards incorporating Bach, I was inspired by a scene from the Austrian-Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s opera Begehren (Desire) in setting a scene from Kane’s text concerning the presence or absence of God. I wanted to write a scene with a religious vision, and the Agnus Dei from Bach’s B minor Mass seemed to me the right musical complement to my composition. A further musical element intended to produce the exact opposite of great nearness or devotion is the employment of Muzak, the notorious background or lift music. You can find it in many of my works. Its loose rhythm, lightness and casualness fly in the face of everything serious and deep. I introduce Muzak into 4.48 Psychosis in order to create distance between, for example, the profound and moving content of the words and banal situations such as sitting in a waiting room. Sarah Kane, in another scene, wrote something about love, about great intimacy and despair over not being able to reach the beloved object. I wanted to make a love song out of her text, a kind of love song that immediately speaks to us before additional musical levels nearly “drown” the melody’s harmony. It then becomes almost inaudible. Besides these elements I also use noises and single notes to create the atmosphere for a particular situation, and in this way I move through the piece as music drama.
The Semperoper commissioned you to adapt your opera to Durs Grünbein’s German version of the play. Every language is unique in ductus and expression. Was it difficult to adapt your composition to another language?
The adaptation to German was a challenge, of course, because the syllabication and word stresses are different. But it worked well. In many places I asked native speakers about the stresses and was thus able to adapt the work bit by bit. It’s important to me that the audience understand my piece directly and that what is heard can immediately make an impact. It’s often complicated in opera because the words aren’t always understandable, but that’s another reason why I frequently mix in passages of spoken text to facilitate direct communication.
The interview was conducted by Juliane Schunke for the program note of 4.48 Psychose. Published with kind permission of Semperoper Dresden.
Photo: Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah