How a Poem Becomes a Symphony

From the left: composer Dan Thomason, OAE clarinetist Katherine Spencer, and me, discussing how Replenishment might be interpreted musically for a digital overture.

by Dawn Gorman

Poetry belongs in the community: that’s my starting point as a working poet. Let people have it and do with it what they will. So it was a great pleasure to help put that into practice in Wiltshire last year, alongside one of the world’s most distinctive orchestras, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE).

This ground-breaking ensemble, which plays on instruments from bygone eras, regularly brings its innovative Watercycle project – an orchestral journey through the urban landscapes of England – to the Wiltshire Music Centre (WMC) in Bradford on Avon, and last year drew in both Wiltshire children and adults to create a unique concerto for the county.

Excitingly for me, the concerto was based on my poem Replenishment, which won a competition calling for poems on the theme of the local significance of water, run by the WMC. And as if that wasn’t enough, I also worked with sound technician and composer Dan Thomason from the WMC, and OAE clarinetist Katherine Spencer, to create a digital overture for the concerto, complete with a film poem, shot by Oliver Brown.

Inevitably, all this called for masses of collaborative work, which began with members of the public recording individual lines of my poem in a special booth at the WMC, to be jigsawed together for the overture. The way total strangers threw themselves into this activity was both surprising and humbling. The poem had grown out of a solitary walk alongside the river and canal in Bradford on Avon in that slightly deflated, just-after-Christmas vacuum, and, ultimately, draws on the essence of the water to offer a fresh surge of energy. The richly-textured chorus of local voices which Dan assembled from the recordings made me feel as though my local community was giving me the gift of my own poem, living and breathing. Very moving.

Dan, Katherine and I subsequently talked through how my ideas in the poem might be interpreted musically, and, in deconstructing my own work, it was clear that the poem wasn’t simply about a walk – it was also a journey from bleakness to hope.

Meanwhile, I was collaborating with the OAE, the award-winning composer James Redwood, and 240 pupils from various primary and secondary schools in Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon to conjure up the concerto itself. The students produced some phenomenally creative, insightful work, and I was unfailing impressed by the musicians’ rapport with them. The secondary students worked with James on ideas based on Replenishment to produce a tone poem that the younger children could sing. Again, it was a profound experience hearing my words in that new, rich context. The scope of Watercycle is ambitious, covering everything from the evaporation-condensation-precipitation cycle, to awareness about the charity WaterAid – http://www.wateraid.org/uk

The newly-composed music was premiered at the WMC in April last year and included the OAE and all the students involved. The overture film poem, which on the night featured live clarinet from Katherine alongside the digital score and the film, was subsequently chosen for screening at various film festivals, including the Cannes Short Film Festival 2015. You can watch it here https://vimeo.com/135481910 . The poem itself is on my website, www.dawngorman.co.uk

Huge thanks to the OAE, James Redwood, Dan Thomason, Oliver Brown, the WMC and the people of Bradford on Avon for the opportunity to be involved in such a brilliant collaborative project.

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