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A Q&A with Anthropocene composer Stuart MacRae

Composer Stuart MacRae in conversation with Anthropocene Assistant Director Jack Furness and the students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on the opening night of Anthropocene at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, 24 January 2019.

Jack Furness: An easy one maybe, let’s go in at the shallow end. The Arctic wasteland is such an important part of the piece (Anthropocene) in its setting; and there are some incredible sounds in the orchestra that seem to me to be evocative of that Arctic wasteland, and I wondered what your process was in finding some of those textures; and working out how to represent that kind of stuff.

Stuart MacRae: Yeah. I think that the first decision— one of the first decisions I made—was not to use any pre-recorded sounds in the piece, which could have been an option. And, y’know, it would have turned into a very different piece, and some composers would certainly have found sounds that evoked that— y’know, record the sound of cracking ice, record the sound of melting and vibrating ice— and those were sounds that I had in my mind. A lot of it was about trying to recreate sounds that I have heard or imagined, but not in too literal a way, so not worrying too much about whether it sounds like the thing but rather that it evokes it in some way or creates a new kind of alien sound that is inspired by something.
I remember after Christmas a few years ago, up in the Highlands, we went for a walk and we went to this loch and it was completely frozen over, and we decided to throw stones on it and see how far we could get them. What we didn’t know—and many people do know now because it’s all over the internet—but if you bounce stones on ice that’s, kind of, that thick, it make the most amazing kind of vibrating sound and it keeps going on for ages… It’s like a big kind of drum-skin that sort of makes these otherworldly noises and it was just amazing, hearing that. Then, of course, we ruined it by getting this this big boulder and smashing the ice, and that was the end of it. Y’know, I’ve always been fascinated by ice, and on these kinds of walks in the Highlands I just love that thing where the ground’s really dry but frozen, and you get these puddles of ice and you just, sort of, feel them with your foot and you just, kind of, break them, and I always sort of feel that breaking something is also creating something,; it’s also kind of making a sound, so… I’m imitating sounds from my experience and my imagination but none of them sound anything like the actual thing that they’re imitating. That’s the thing: it’s about creating an artificial sound-world.

JF: A lot of that— it’s not just painting a landscape picture— it’s, quite often there’s an unsettling emotional content to some of those sounds…

SM: …Yeah I think some of the rumbling, deep noises and the unsettling emotional world is kind of an intuitive thing for me. Because I’m not always sure why I’m doing these things, but it’s about sustaining an atmosphere, and sometimes you start something with a deep kind of sound, and then it goes away for a bit, but when it comes back it evokes the memory of the previous bit that that was used in— whether that’s a musical motif or it’s just an atmospheric sort of sound. There’s also a lot of quarter-tones, increasingly, as the piece goes on, actually; a lot of quarter-tones in the piece that are there to create an increasingly unsettling atmosphere— I don’t know why I like unsettling people so much, it’s something, it sort of comes naturally, it just happens while I’m writing it. I always go back and think ‘why is this unsettling, do I want it to be that way?’, and if I don’t want it to be that way, I clear it up and make it a bit, y’know, kind of more pure. So, really, I’m trying to create a very wide range of sounds and emotional expressions within the piece, rather than trying to put it all in one sound-world or emotional plane.


Audience question: As mentioned, the piece uses a lot of unusual sounds, quarter-tones and things like that, but the singing in it is quite standard for opera; is there a reason for that?

SM: Yes. The more I write for opera singers the more I realise I get the most out of them when I write for their voices in the way that their voices have been trained. So, if you write things that are much more difficult to sing— let’s put aside extreme expressions of the voice for a moment, which can express extreme emotional states— within a kind of a typical kind of operatic palette, the more lyrical the use of the voice, the more the singer is able to modify it themselves in order to be able to express and interpret the role. What I’ve found in the past, the more complicated the writing for the voice is, the less expressive it is in the end because the singers are constrained by the difficulty. It’s about finding balance between what’s possible and what’s expressive, in a way. The more opera I write, the more lyrical it becomes so, y’know, there are actually things you’d recognise as motifs or tunes even in this, which is a development that’s taken place over years for me. But at the same time in some other pieces, In instrumental works, I sometimes write more experimentally for the voice. But certainly in opera, maximising the effectiveness of the operatic voice is what I’m really interested in at the moment.

JF: Each character quite often has their own sort of way—Ice is the obvious one, she has a very clear way of expressing herself— but all of them have their things, their tics and their ways of talking and singing. How do those things come about?

SM: The way I do it is, I read through the libretto: and as I go along certain phrases or words jump out at me and I imagine a musical shape to them. I progressively refine that, and when I put it along with some instruments— with some orchestration or with some accompaniment— that often changes the rhythm as well. And at each moment I’m thinking about ‘what is each characters’ motivation for saying this?’, and ‘why would this character say this?’ and ‘what is their emotional state?’ or ‘what is their position along their emotional trajectory?’. Somehow, that tells me how that character would behave, and that carries vocally as well as physically. So in a way I build it up piece-by-piece and then I go back and look at bits I’ve written earlier and say ‘OK, I’m going to make this bit a bit more like what they had later, because that seems to fit the character’. So it’s an iterative process where I keep going over things and trying to make it more characterful.


JF: I just heard the beautiful duet in scene five between Ice and Prentice with the ground bass; and it has the kind of shivery ornaments that sort of remind me of Monteverdi, or something like that. I suppose I’m interested in how that moment came to be? Had you (and Louise Welsh, librettist) talked about that moment or a moment like that?

SM: I was thinking about the moment that Ice would really come back to life, or realise she was alive again, and I played that through at the piano in more or less one take. I must have recorded it or written it down really quickly in a sort of shorthand. Then I developed it and I realised I didn’t have anywhere near enough words (in the libretto) to actually fill it. Then I had the idea that with the seven or eight words that Ice had, I could do this thing of her kind of shivering, or learning language…It’s between (her) trying to learn to form the words again and also shivering. Yes, Monteverdi is an influence in that, but it is used to a purpose to create that sort of unique thing.