Although not quite to the dispiriting extent that afflicted some fine work in the rebranded Festival of Brexit, “Unboxed”, Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 has been one of those arts initiatives that has never really grabbed the public imagination, however fine its aims. It has, admittedly, been a tricky year in which to make an impact.
Some projects look to have legs though, and Scotland-domiciled Irish composer Gareth Williams’s Songs From the Last Page is one – a constantly evolving song cycle that has been bringing musical performance to book festivals across the country throughout the year.
He’s a most engaging raconteur, and Williams has honed the explanation of his music winningly. He sings and plays the (electric) piano, with SCO violinist Aisling O’Dea and cellist Justyna Jablonska completing his trio. The concept is self-explanatory: he sets words from the last page of books, mostly novels and mostly Scottish.
He began with Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie and – after checking in with that author for permission (about which he has an amusing story in itself) – ran with the idea from there. With support from Chamber Music Scotland, Williams’s song-writing has become a literary journey that takes in contemporary fiction as well as the classics, the texts often remarkable for the allusions and references to other works in the Scottish literary canon.
Truth to tell, he often plays fast and loose with the words on the pages in pursuit of the structure of the song. More precious writers might bridle at his repetitions and re-ordering of their carefully-crafted sentences. Most, however, will be flattered by his attentions, resulting in a form he describes as “literary chamber pop” and which has echoes of the work of Randy Newman at times, while the string arrangements do a lot of the work in taking his melodies towards the classical side of things.
There is a continuity of style throughout the set, and although the set-list is revised for each performance, certain songs have become staples by virtue of their transparent success. Those include Ali Smith’s How To Be Both (although whether he has set your last page of that book depends on whether you read it the same way he did), and the end of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, which seems to have set a template for some other pieces.
There are less obvious choices in there too – although all are served with a tasty explanation for their presence – including Ely Percy’s Duck Feet and Ross Sayers’ Sonny and Me, and the composer’s challenge to himself to write an appropriate song for each recital produced an excellent addition for Wigtown, using the latest book by local bookseller-memoirist Shaun Bythell, Remainders of the Day.
In this session, however, it was the classics that impressed most: Sunset Song, with its quote from Flowers o’ the Forest in the strings, Treasure Island and its “Pieces of Eight” refrain, and the Tinkerbell-evoking pizzicato arrangement for a very selective choice of last paragraph from Peter Pan.
Songs from the Last Page are next heard at Portobello Book Festival on Friday, September 30 and Findhorn Bay Arts Festival on Sunday, October 2.
Composer Gareth Williams talks to KEITH BRUCE about his new work for Scottish Opera’s Young Company
There will come a time when new work in the arts does not carry some legacy of the pandemic, but it has not arrived just yet.
For composer Gareth Williams, who – as he puts it himself – “emerged from lockdown with a baby”, it was a time of personal as well as professional challenges. If fatherhood has dictated that he still doesn’t get out as much, the lengthy gestation period of the latest of his stage works for Scottish Opera meant that it has gone through a number of versions on the way to the performances in the company’s Elmbank Crescent HQ at the end of this month.
Rubble is the third collaboration between Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight for Scottish Opera, following The Last One Out in 2012 and Hand for an Opera Highlights tour. The initial proposal to Director of Outreach and Education Jane Davidson came from Williams, drawing on a celebrated Graham Greene story from the middle of the last century, The Destructors.
“I said I wanted to write something with young people and in The Destructors they are fishy characters that don’t conform to society’s rules, and I really liked that about them. I wanted an edge about them, and some bite, and I wanted to work with Johnny. So we handed it over to him and after it had been through his mind the Graham Greene is long gone, and what has emerged is something very dark and menacing as well, but more contemporary.
“We had a libretto reading in February 2020 and I remember it very clearly as on the way home I crashed my car because I was so pre-occupied. It is a really troublesome, challenging story. Johnny is someone who throws the gauntlet down to you and you have to take it somewhere else.”
What McKnight came back with was a scenario of young people who have been let down by the care system picking through the fragments of their lives in the rubble of an abandoned children’s home. Parallels with some harrowing recent court cases and public inquiries may well be self-evident in a black comedy that Scottish Opera is describing as challenging. The performance of the cast of 17-23 year olds is not recommended for those under 14.
Although the creative team was in place, with staff director Roxana Haines and young company artistic director Chris Gray conducting, events conspired to put obstacles on the road to Rubble’s production.
“Rubble is kind of haunted by Covid,” says Williams. “I had to stay away from wind and brass instruments, so it is written for piano, two percussionists, accordion and single strings. But part of my want from the very start was to write for a chorus, about 30 strong, singing together for as much of the opera as possible. That felt quite affirmative with the young people.
“The initial idea was that there would be lots of opportunities for workshops, and because of the pandemic that didn’t happen. So we have all had to live with this opera a lot longer.
“We didn’t know when it was going to happen, so it became a process of eternal tinkering. At one point it might have been an outdoor show so I started to arrange it in that direction, and then it came back to being indoor so that changed it again.”
There were positives about the extra time gifted to the team, however.
“It was the most open casting call. Before we made a final decision on voice types we allowed the young people to go for any of the main characters, so it is very non-gendered. That left it for me to do a bit of sculpting at the end, but it was a good call.
“And because I didn’t have access to the chorus, I wrote as a singer-songwriter at the piano and sang some of the arias and made demos and sent them to the director and conductor. So they already know this piece inside out, because of that extra year.”
Williams had plenty of experience in that singer-songwriter role because of the other project that has occupied a lot of his time recently: Songs From The Last Page.
Working with Chamber Music Scotland, Williams has created an ever-growing suite of new songs that draw their texts from the last pages of books, most of them Scottish and running from classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island through to contemporary writers like Ali Smith and Andrew Greig. Arranged for himself at the keyboard with cello and violin, Williams has brought onboard guest singers to supplement his own vocals. Following a show by the trio at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival, the next two performances will include Deirdre Graham, at her home in Skye, and Lori Watson, in Portobello.
“We have a run of gigs in the autumn,” says Williams, “including Wigtown, Aberdeen and Blairgowrie, and then we are back in Glasgow, at Partick Bowling Club, in December.”
The set list has its staples, but Williams is constantly adding to the catalogue.
“Somebody asked me to do an Alexander McCall Smith one, so I did that – I am just kind of responding and keeping loose with it. It has become this weird hobby. I just can’t stop doing them and there is an inexhaustible supply of ideas – there are plenty of good last lines!”
Songs From The Last Page has remained mostly based on adult books, despite the composer’s best efforts following the birth of his son.
“There have been a couple of books I was told I couldn’t have; the publisher just said no. I wasn’t allowed the last line of The Gruffalo or Winnie the Pooh – anything with a big corporate image attached was a no-no.
“But many living authors have been really generous, and it is good to have things like Treasure Island in there too – things that are out of copyright. I am going to record some of them this autumn and see if it might make an album, in the hope that we might persuade international book festivals to book us next year.”
Also grabbing a slice of his time are the Grammy Awards, after Williams was proposed as a voting member of The Recording Academy by fellow composer Craig Armstrong, and duly appointed. “The first round of deliberations starts this month and I am really keen to try and become more involved and learn how it works.”
He has other projects in the pipeline, but the final weeks of rehearsal of Rubble – about the full plot of which Williams is very tight-lipped – and the still-new experience of being a father are top of the agenda.
“Parenthood takes up a lot of your blue-sky thinking time, it turns out – I am a slave to this little sleepless god. And writing that piece about vulnerable young people and becoming a dad at the same time weighed on me in a very interesting way.”
Rubble has four performances in Scottish Opera’s Elmbank Crescent home, at 2pm and 7pm on July 30 and 31. For future performances of Songs From The Last Page, see chambermusicscotland.com
Rehearsal pictures of Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight and the Scottish Opera Young Company by Sally Jubb