The Sound of Silence

The following article was first published in the July 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Three years ago, pianist and vocal coach Nancy Cooley wanted to hear more of her favourite music. “Often, as an accompanist, you don’t get to choose what you want to play”, she tells me. And so the Lewes Festival of Song was born. “We just did one day of concerts in October 2015 and then I thought I’d expand it.” This year she’s artistic director of a three-day festival that opens on Friday 6th July with Glyndebourne favourite Louise Winter performing a collection of songs on the subject of youth and dreams. “I love putting the programmes together”, Nancy explains. “It’s about the people, the lovely collaborations, which is the joy of music, really.”

All the concerts take place at St Anne’s church at the top of the High Street. “The music director just said ‘come’ and the support from the church people was wonderful”, says Nancy. In a spirit of reciprocity, this year’s festival ends on Sunday 8th with a concert entitled Sacred Raptures. “I wanted to do a programme that was very much to do with St Anne’s church. I included music about solitude because there was an anchorite living in the church in the 12th century. She was in a tiny little cell just off the vestry.”

As part of this site-specific celebration, Nancy spoke to Sussex-based composer Orlando Gough and asked him to create a choral work for the occasion. “I started thinking about silence and what it meant to me”, he explains. “I thought to myself, could I be an anchorite or a hermit? When I find myself in the countryside where I can’t hear anything, it’s a really beautiful feeling. And then I thought about the other kind of silence, the three o’clock in the morning silence when you wake up, you’re by yourself and you’re terrified. So I thought I’d write a piece about the two contrasting ideas of silence.” Orlando was also influenced by a radio interview with a Libyan refugee who’d crossed the Mediterranean by boat. “He described the voyage as being ‘like a great journey made in silence’ and I was really struck by that phrase. It then becomes about a collective silence, about all being in the same situation. And the piece has ended up being extremely monumental and epic.”

Finally, to the elephant in the room. A newspaper review of one of Orlando’s projects last year talked about treading ‘a fine line between eccentricity and madness’. How does this one shape up? “The text is quite odd”, he admits. “There’s a 12th century flavour to the lyrics; they’re written in rather arcane language. It’s all similes: silence is like a hyena, it’s like a jackal… at the end it’s like a dung beetle, it’s like a blinding light. But by my standards, it’s not wildly eccentric.”

Lewes Festival of Song runs from Friday 6th until Sunday 8th.