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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lancaster

Music of a Thousand Breaths

Music of A Thousand Breaths is unique in my output: it occupies a very special place.

The performance took place almost exactly one month before ago, and I have waited so long before I sit down to write about it simply because I wanted to write about it in the past and until now it has still felt very music a part of my present.

I first visited the church at Pickering quite by chance in the summer of 2016 and I was completely taken aback by the extent, the impact and the beauty of its medieval wall paintings. In earlier times all churches would have been filled with similar images but the vast majority were destroyed following the English reformation. According to Pevsner, Pickering church contains one of the most complete sets surviving in the UK today and they span the complete nave of the church on both sides. These paintings were whitewashed over but rediscovered in the 19th century and carefully preserved since then. These are not the frescoes of renaissance Florence; they are in many ways crude and simplistic, northern and plain-speaking yet strangely poignant and expressive. Why do I find them so powerful? There are several reasons, but the most important one involves the re-telling and re-reading of familiar stories across many hundreds of years. The paintings were made to convey narratives of sacred stories to a largely illiterate congregation of ordinary people; these were not paintings for cathedrals, galleries or palaces. The artists spoke directly and with utter conviction, and today their presence is still felt through the plaintive images. Moreover, because the paintings communicate so directly, we are aware of becoming a part of that group of people who have gazed up at the pictures and read the stories: the paintings connect us with artists (their audiences, their beliefs, their lives, their narratives) who lived some 600 years before us.

Some of the devices the artists used to convey these narratives may seem surprisingly modern to us: Salome and John the Baptist we are clearly at a feast, but in order to document his death there are a number of Johns included in a single scene (depicted both with and without head!) and also several iterations of Salome. The painters wanted to show the unfolding of the whole narrative with all its aspects in a single image, so they employed a sort of archaic cubism in order reduce time to a single moment. The story of St Catherine is told almost like a strip cartoon, with events in her life presented in successive miniature tableaux. Much of the subject matter is quite dark, portraying martyrdoms and grisly deaths, but also strength and beauty.

From the moment I sat eyes on the ‘frescoes’ I wanted to respond in music, to create a work which made real these visions from the past, and which could be performed in the church amongst the paintings. The site-specificity was important since my music was to contribute to the re-telling of the stories, just the latest in very many readings of these images. The first obstacle was that there were no words associated with the paintings. (In a previous work on a similar theme, Apocalypse, for unaccompanied soloists and chorus, the music had been inspired by medieval stained glass in the ‘Prick of Conscience’ window at All Saints Church in York, where each panel of the window includes a line of text from a surviving medieval poem: words for a composer to set to music.) In the absence of medieval text I invited poet and novelist Abi Curtis to visit the church and provide new poems for each of the images: a further re-telling of the tales. Abi responded enthusiastically and, in the church, with the paintings, composed a cycle of ten exquisitely crafted poems which precisely capturing the darkness, the drama and the restraint of the images. They add a further dimension to work which is already rich and deep – and Abi’s words provided the title for the performance.

As a test I wrote the music for St Edmund almost immediately and it was performed by soprano Amie Robertson and a small ensemble at the NCEM in May 2017. But to stage a performance of the complete work in Pickering would be expensive and without the prospect of a performance I returned to other composition projects in the autumn of that year.

In December 2017 York St John University invited staff to bid for funding for research projects. Collaborative ventures were encouraged and the bid which Abi and I submitted was successful. The church too was a willing collaborator and a performance date agreed; work resumed apace on the composition and I worked to bring together a group of performers. As the music emerged it became clear that I needed a group of singers (who could work as soloists or ensemble) and a small instrumental group, which turned out to be a brass quartet of flugelhorn and three trombones. My initial plan was to compose a vocal piece for each of the paintings, setting Abi Curtis’ poems, and every sung piece would be associated with its own instrumental commentary. I originally envisaged that a short setting of the mass (dating from the time of the paintings) would also be interspersed amongst the new music, but ultimately we decided to only use one example of renaissance music in the sequence: Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus. To complete the musical sequence I invited friend and fellow composer David Power to provide eight short electronic soundscapes. David and I had previously collaborated on the ‘Vestiges’ project – a series of multi disciplinary art installations in medieval churches – so I was confident that his music would combine organically with my own. It was important to me that there was a tonal connection between successive pieces to ensure continuity, so the order of pieces was fixed and I gave David Power the pitch structure he needed to follow.

I also sought a dancer/choreographer for two elements within the sequence: clearly Salome should be represented by dance, but I decided also to represent Mary in dance because – although she appears in two tableaux in the church (and is believed to have been represented in one of the few ‘missing’ paintings) - Abi had chosen not to provide words for her.

The performance took place in the church at Pickering on 23rd July 2018. It followed the sequence of paintings in the order they were (presumably) intended to be read, from the depiction of St George and the dragon on the wall opposite the porch in the north-west corner of the nave, along the north wall towards the rood screen then across to the opposite side (St Catherine) and back to the wall above the porch. To use the whole space in musical terms, the brass players often played from opposite corners of the audience and David Power’s electronic music was broadcast from the rear of the nave. The singers performed from the platform in front of the screen but also employed used the transepts when required to sing de lontano. The dancer, Lydia Hennessy, worked primarily on the platform but also used the long central aisle.

Together we had realised exactly the performance I had imagined when I first encountered the paintings two years earlier, and must commend all of the performers for buying into my vision of what the piece could be.

What next? The performance was recorded and I am currently working with videographer Shelly Mantovani to produce a film based around the performance, not just a simple concert recording but something which brings together the music and painting as closely as possible. I am also hoping to create a film of the paintings alone which could be used to illustrate future performances of the music so that it can be performed in venues other than Pickering Church itself, although to hear my music performed amongst these supremely evocative paintings which have survived the ravages of time will remain a powerful memory.



Gabriella Noble (soprano)

Lauren Macleod (Mezzo soprano)

Sarah Lucy Penny (mezzo soprano)

Jacob Ewens (tenor)

Stuart O'Hara (bass)

Carolyn Ramsbottom (flugel)

Anna Marshall (trombone)

Lauren Ingham (trombone)

Murphy McCaleb (bass trombone)

Lydia Hennessy (dance)

Emily Rowan (lighting)

Lynette Quek (sound recording)

Shelly Mantovani (video)

Words by Abi Curtis

Music by David Lancaster

Electronic Soundscapes by David Power

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