The Research of Others

Neil Tòmas Smith reflects on his process so far on his Adopt a Composer pairing with Thame Chamber Choir.

It’s always positive when research for a piece leads down some rather unexpected roads. Before writing for the Thame Chamber Choir, and the associated children’s choir TCC2, I would have thought myself rather unlikely to be delving into 13th Century liturgical chant, or the pronunciation of Middle English.  Yet, here I was, following the learned Dr James Cook of the University of Nottingham/Cambridge University round the library as he pulled hefty tomes from the shelves.

The piece for Thame takes inspiration from the Thame Hoard – a collection of rings that now resides in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. One is inscribed with ‘Memento Mei Domine’ (‘Remember me, O Lord’), and it was a chant involving this text for which James and I were hunting.  The intricacies of the liturgical year, its distinct calendars, the church modes and neumatic notation are all areas in which I possess the most scant knowledge, so it was great to have James on hand to help me get the chant down accurately so it can find its way into the finished piece.

I was similarly at sea in the wonderful world of Middle English pronunciation, which looks set to feature prominently in the piece for Thame.  All this is due to Dr Hollie Morgan of the University of Lincoln.  It was she who recommended to me the fantastic Pearl text, which speaks of the loss of a loved one, and their sinking like a pearl into the earth.  It dates from around the time the hoard was lost and perfectly captures in earth-laden imagery the themes of mortality that such finds raise.  Once I had heard Hollie read the poem, I realised how much of its character derived from its original language: I just had to use it!  Worryingly, the next poem I have my eye on is The Ruin, which was originally written in the (to my ear) far more alien Old English.  Another challenge awaits!

My encounters with these historical details in music and literature have relied on the enthusiasm, time and knowledge of my academic colleagues.  To them I will raise a glass over the festive period for bringing these past worlds far more vividly to my imagination and, one hopes, much improving my very contemporary work.