Why would an English woman compose music for oud?

By Rachel Beckles Willson

My imperialist grandfather Henry Beckles Willson was sent in 1918 to Palestine to decommission the Ottoman army. A couple of years later his son’s future lover migrated from rural Ireland to London. Personal histories are entangled inter-continentally, and reach into the present: I was born in London and went to Palestine in 2006, I bought an oud in 2010, and I started studying Ottoman makam in the same year.

Evgenios Voulgaris

I believe the musical idiom in which anyone composes, and the instruments for which they compose, say something about who they are, their place in the world, and what they want to say. When I wrote Sing no Sad Songs for Me, I incorporated oud, bowed tanbur and tabla, and I combined Ottoman makam, and Ottoman rhythmic patterns, with post-tonal musical idioms of Europe. These choices were significant: Europe’s deep colonial reach in the 19th century enriched it in ways that are too often forgotten. Remembering can be an active, creative process that makes connections.

Ciro Montanari

Sing no Sad Songs for Me is not composed idiomatically for the oud, or the bowed tanbur, or the tablarather, the music pushes all the instruments into unfamiliar places. Rehearsals with Evgenios Voulgaris, Ciro Montanari and Kostas Tsarouchis have been about stretching instrumental and musical habits into new territories. My compositional work is indebted to my studies with Ross Daly at Labyrinth, in Crete, but it also draws on my interest in large-scale musical structure, which is part of my earlier training in composition and performance in London and Budapest. Sing no Sad Songs for Me builds a dramatic structure in music, is comprises a 35-minute work in 8 interconnecting movements. The oud is not often in this context. 

Cartoon of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I wrote Sing no Sad Songs for Me during 2015 and 2016, years in which my father talked a lot about his Irish mother, his father, and his imperialist grandfather. It was also the time of the Brexit vote, so we talked a lot about Europe and its edges. The poetry I set in the piece is by the Italian-English poetess Christina Rossetti, (1830-1894). She was a child of exile, daughter of Italian poet and scholar Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783-1854)). The Italians of 19th-century London formed a large community, but many of them were impoverished, and struggled with the prejudices of the English: Italian musicians, in particular, were the butt of much abuse.

An Italian organ grinder struggling in the face of London…

Sing no Sad Songs for Me explores the threshold between life and death, one of Rossetti’s preoccupations. Many commentators have suggested this focus was a result of Protestant repression, a self-imposed and unhappy attempt to conform to Victorian England. But her poetry plays in beautifully varied ways on the threshold of life and death – in long-term anticipation, hovering before parting, a desire to die, connecting with ghosts…

The celebrated writer Edward W. Said proposed that writers on 19th-century Europe should connect with the people that it tried to exclude from itself, those on the margins inside, and those in Africa, Asia and the Americas subjected to the control of Empire. Sing no Sad Songs for Me is a similar response, but in music: it brings sounds from the edges of Empire to words curated in the secluded centre.

Sing no Sad Songs for Me will be premiered in London on 30 June, in a concert responding to Europe’s changing relationship with its ‘others’.

  1. A Pause of Thought
  2. Sing no Sad Songs for Me 
  3. Fata Morgana
  4. Meeting Mother  
  5. Yet a Little While
  6. Echo 
  7. A Pause 
  8. Forget and Smile 

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