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Creative: LOVESCAPES 5 – Josephine Stephenson on her new piece ‘tanka’




I was struck, in the photo of Thurstan’s I chose to set, by the careful superimposition at work. My original thoughts had been to write a wordless piece playing with a similar technique translated into music, with contrasting layers of sound waxing and waning in and out of focus and of each other. But I quickly decided to bring further meaning by introducing a text, and for this I called on my wonderful friend and collaborator Ben Osborn (Ben and I wrote an opera together last year). I gave him free rein, and Ben’s response to the photograph came in the form of a beautiful tanka-like poem describing the interaction of light and the shadows it creates throughout the day. Tanka is a form of classical Japanese poetry made up of five units (or five lines when romanised), and translates into “short song”. I had fun playing around with Ben’s words, realising that they could be effectively interchanged – which felt all the more appropriate when he admitted that the process of writing had involved a lot of swapping around!

The music reflects my interpretation of both Thurstan’s photo and Ben’s poem. It is slow, dreamlike and mysterious, and also somewhat bittersweet: a sound world inspired by the picture’s stark contrast between the warmth of the lovers’ embrace and the industrial backdrop against which it is set, two worlds made strangely yet beautifully at one by Thurstan. There is no narrative as such; instead the piece strives to be -like the photograph- a fixed moment in time, which expands as the words become confused. The voice is at the centre of the piece in its two outer sections, with the other instruments providing it with a setting and colouring the text, occasionally imitating and interacting with it. It becomes more instrumental in the short, textural and fragmented middle section. Finally, the beautiful parallelism between the cranes in the photo inspired a lot of the harmony’s movement. I can’t wait to hear The Hermes Experiment bring this little piece to life.

tanka will be premièred at Crypt on the Green on Saturday 20th June.