Cecilia McDowall, the composer of Everyday Wonders: The Girl From Aleppo – the centerpiece of our upcoming concert, Us, Together – was kind enough to answer questions from Mike Horanski, artistic director of the Vienna Choral Society. The interview (lightly edited for clarity) is a revealing look into McDowall’s creative process, exploring new music, and what it takes to tell someone’s story in music.
MIKE HORANSKI: What was your first experience with choral music and when did you know you wanted to become a composer?
CECILIA MCDOWALL: I was born in London, England, a great place in which to grow up with its rich and exciting cultural life, always so much going on. My mother was a linguist, teaching French and Russian. She loved the theatre so my brother and I went often to concerts and saw many new productions of operas, plays, and ballets. My father was a professional flautist and was principal flute at the Royal Opera House in London in the 1950s. As a soloist he performed with most of the leading UK orchestras and also ran two chamber music ensembles; our house was always full of the sound of rehearsing musicians. He employed many performers who then went on to become very well known in the UK.
The school I was at had a close alliance with Westminster Abbey, which was just round the corner, and so although I was not a chorister as such, our school took part in many services and big choral events with David Willcocks who was Director of Music at King’s, Cambridge. It was a wonderful building in which to sing, with its gloomy cloisters and dark shadowy corners, and meant we worked our way through many of the liturgical standards, singing in the organ loft there.
Composing was always my first love, my first real interest. I studied music at university which reinforced the direction I wanted to pursue. I had plans to write music early on but at that stage being a composer didn’t seem a realistic way of earning a living. I put these ideas on hold and after university I taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School (a specialist school for highly talented young performers) and at Trinity College of Music, London, up until my son was born. Singing in choirs, amateur and professional, has been a way of life, too, and I’m sure has informed the way in which I write for the voice.
I’ve always had a special feeling about the voice and about singing whether as a listener or doing it myself. It’s such a personal instrument, the voice, and I feel that it should be treated carefully. It’s not like writing for other instruments – I think – and I feel it’s important to think of the writing in a linear way as well as vertically and by not giving awkward leaps, difficult to pitch.
I’m never sure if I achieve this, but I’d like to feel I’m writing from a singer’s perspective so that when I write I’m writing from the inside, thinking about how the vocal line lies on the voice. I often place notes in the texture for singers to find theirs.
So I came late to composing. My children were well into their teens and I was in my forties when I realized I couldn’t leave things much later if I wanted to pursue a career in composing otherwise that would be it! With hindsight it would probably have been more sensible to start earlier . . . However, at this late stage I returned to university to take a Master’s degree in composition and soon after I began receiving commissions. One commission seems to have led to another.
MH: How did you juxtapose western elements of the music with Arabic motifs?
CM: Very often the boundaries that are given by the commissioner can give a real sense of freedom, which may sound a bit of an odd thing to say but it does mean that some of the decision making has already been made. The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain asked me to write a work about “children in conflict” and the writer and poet Kevin Crossley-Holland met Nujeen and Christina Lamb at a literary festival and was thoroughly inspired by Nujeen’s remarkable, perilous journey. He fashioned a narrative around her trajectory. So I felt I must find a way to connect with Nujeen’s cultural background, even if it was from a Western perspective. I immersed myself in an Arab sound-world, listening to what I could find, to explore a sense of that tonality; I knew a wonderful violinist who is both a classical violinist and one who understands the Middle Eastern idiom. She brought an extra, authentic dimension to work.
MH: What is the one thing you would like the audience (and performers) to take away from Everyday Wonders?
CM: I hope, by drawing attention to the struggle, the terror, the hardship of Nujeen and her sister’s extraordinary and harrowing journey, that this cantata will bring the listener closer to what migrants endure in their desperate search for peace and stability, wherever in the world that might be.
MH: Can you tell us about your interactions with Nujeen and what her reaction was to the music?
CM: I have not been lucky enough to meet Nujeen and her sister yet. The NCCGB did try to bring them over for the premiere last August in the UK but ultimately it proved to be too complicated, alas. The pianist, Claire Dunham, of the first performance did, however, manage to make contact after the performance and received a most positive and poignant response from Nujeen.
MH: What is your next big project?
CM: My next full scale work commemorates the 500th anniversary of Leonardo. It is called the Da Vinci Requiem. It lasts 35 minutes and is for mixed chorus, baritone and soprano soloists and orchestra. It receives its premiere on May 7, 2019 in the Royal Festival Hall, London (5 days after Leonardo’s actual death date, 2 May).
VCS sings Everyday Wonders at its next concert, Us, Together. Online tickets are on sale until 11:55 pm, Friday, March 8, 2019. At the door, 6:45 pm, Saturday, March 9, 2019. $25/adults, $20/seniors (65+) and students (15 – 18). Youth aged 14 and younger attend for free when accompanied by a paying ticket holder.