Having just completed the dissertation element for my MA in International Relations – 16,000 words written, hundreds of thousands read, 4 months of research, many new wrinkles and a further receded hairline – which challenged Giorgio Agamben’s theory of sovereign power and bare life by suggesting that we can theorise the act of self-immolation in Tibet as a form of resistance to sovereign power, I have gladly stepped back into the world of musical composition.
A fortnight ago I was in Glasgow, writing and performing the music for a new play by my old school friend Michael John O’Neill. This week I’m working on a commission for the Arts Council NI, a scene for an opera which I’ve been wanting to write for the past five years.
The opera, which I hope to write in full over the next year, is based on the life of Roger Casement (1864-1916), British imperialist, humanitarian, and Irish revolutionary martyr. There has been much written about Casement and his transformation from a loyal British consular officer, convinced of the benevolence of western imperialism, to a fervent Irish nationalist and revolutionary. It is a transformation which is generally considered to have begun during his time in the Belgian controlled Congo Free State, where he collected evidence of slavery and severe punishments enacted by the Belgian forces in a report for the Foreign Office.
The scene I’m writing at the moment focuses on this period, creating a fictionalised meeting between Casement and Joseph Conrad – the two did indeed meet and spend a few weeks together in the Congo in 1890, but the conversation is invented by myself. There is a difficulty in approaching this scene which stems from the fact that the two men did meet and discuss things, and there are some records of the kind of things they spoke of, but I want to create something new. Trying to construct a verbatim conversation would of course be impossible, but using the available letters etc. may bring me closer to actual events than I intend and end up being confusing.
I think that I can avoid these issues by keeping one thing clearly in my mind: this is not ultimately an opera about Casement per se, but rather an opera about imperialism, expressed and explored through the character of Casement, through his own emotional and intellectual journey through life.
Still, writing the text is proving to be no easy task. Libretti are strange things and don’t make a lot of sense when they are simply read, they need to be sung and listened to in order to reveal themselves. I’ll have a look through the libretto of Alban Berg’s wonderful Wozzeck: that dark psychological thriller of jealousy and murder set on an army barracks. I think my opera will want to capture something of the mood of Berg’s.
Earlier this year I wrote the overture and an interlude for the opera, which were performed by members of the Philharmonia orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall (conducted by Rudiger Bohn) in June. Recordings of Banna Strand (the overture) and Matadi (an interlude) can be found here:
Casement: I. Banna Strand
Casement: II. Matadi
The first movement, Banna Strand, is constructed of groupings of major thirds which constantly oscillate in an agitated manner, flowing in and out of different combinations and forming a variety of larger chords. The fore- and backgrounds shift and merge as melodic lines appear from the agitated textures and melt away again soon after.
The second movement, Matadi, begins as a plaintive monody played by marimba and shadowed by subtly different lines played by the ensemble. The movement develops into a two-part invention, which suddenly ceases revealing a striking perfect fifth, which shifts immediately into a completely different harmonic world, the work ending with sullen string chords.
The scene I’m writing at the moment is titled The Wood that Weeps, which refers to a term used to describe the rubber trees of the Congo. Rubber extraction involved draining the sap of the trees, which made the trees appear to be weeping, but the entire process of rubber extraction relied on slavery and violence against the Congolese, giving the phrase an added pathos. When the scene is done I will have around 25 minutes of the opera written, which isn’t too bad going. I imagine it’ll end up between 1’30” and 2 hours when it’s all done, so there’s much work to be done.