Music is one of humanity’s most expressive art forms. Strike the right note, and you can explore the peaks of happiness and plumb the depths of sadness – really, any emotion or feeling you can think of. But what if the instrument in your hand can’t accurately express your loneliness or your pain of loss? What about the times when music can’t seem to find a way to say what you want to say?
Professor Rachel Beckles Willson – multi-instrumentalist, composer, SOAS academic, and member of Beyond Mode, the fifth act of the 2019-20 SOAS Concert Series – has had a crack at this question. Her answer? Look to the rest of the world.
“The music that we hear throughout our lives – we associate certain sounds and styles of music with our emotions,” Rachel explains. “As a scholar I’ve studied traditions to understand them and they become part of my emotional landscape, so that as a composer they become resources for exploring and expressing emotions. These days I cannot express what I want in one tradition alone.”
Rachel’s career has seen her working as an academic for the last 20 years, and she’s just become a freelancer in order to work on more creative projects. That journey has taken her across the world – notably the Middle East – but also through a pantheon of instruments, from the more conventional piano and saxophone to the lute-like oud. It’s only by putting all of these together does Rachel feel her sound resonates with her desired emotions.
“As a composer, I respond to emotions. I shape my music through the emotions I want. If I’m using a foreign idiom, I’m still finding my way; I need to combine those sounds with sounds from my emotional world. And I have an emotional world of sound that can’t just be from the Middle East.”
Indeed, Beyond Mode features a range of talents that are more than ‘just’ the Middle Eastern world. Ciro Montanari is from Italy and plays the Indian tabla; Evgenios Voulgaris and Kostas Tsarouchis are Greek and are skilled in the Turkish yayli tanbur and Arabic oud respectively – and all three are superb, established musicians in their own right.
It’s surprising for this writer to hear of an Italian being skilled in a very traditional Indian instrument, but unusual combinations are what Beyond Mode appear to be about – different elements coming together to explore suppressed concepts on a deeper level. Their performance at SOAS, for example, will centre around ‘Sing No Sad Songs For Me’, a composition by Rachel exploring the poetry of Christina Rossetti, the daughter of Italian exiles in 19th century London, in a more universal way than the author possibly intended.
These poems heavily feature themes of death and loss, two of the most challenging, yet fundamental experiences a person must face. The way Rachel addresses these topics is refreshing; as things to experience and understand, rather than fear or hide from, and to serve as inspiration to ask bigger questions.
“The yayli tanbur is ghostly, it’s haunting. And it’s perfect for this – I wanted to explore an otherworldly sound, and our relationship with death, and with this strange world of the dead. I wanted to talk about the relationships we keep with those that have passed, and how they continue in our hearts and minds; but I wanted to explore this through sound and poetry. That’s why I chose Rossetti’s poems, and why I’ve chosen these instruments.”
Rachel feels that simply one mode of music, may that be Western or Middle Eastern, would constrain the intensity and beauty of the poetry. This is despite the fact that Christina Rossetti’s poetry is firmly entrenched in Western environments, as, at the core of it, they are the expressions, in Rachel’s interpretation, of an Italian daughter overcompensating to survive in an unwelcoming, foreign England.
“When I first read Rossetti’s poetry,” Rachel continues. “I felt that an extraordinary pent-up-ness, I felt it was very dark and isolated. Later, when I was losing my father, in the last year before he died, it was a special time, and I thought about what his dying meant. I returned to this poetry and re-entered that isolated space.
“I felt that it was ridiculous that this voice was so isolated. So I wanted to put the voice in a space where its sadness and questioning had a much broader resonance.”
For Rachel and Beyond Mode, this means looking to other parts of the world to bring in musical influences, as well as to explore the messages in Christina’s poetry.
“Putting this voice in an Asian musical idiom makes it more than just about one lonely woman,” Rachel says. “It’s about the grief of the world, the isolation of its people – for example, the way Europe tries to cut itself off from Asia, and creates a sense of opposition.”
Beyond Mode’s show is also notable because it pays homage to poems from other female composers. Their programme describes them as “amplifying the voice of women”, and “those on the move”.
“The Ottoman history is full of men, a society – just like the West, I suppose – filled with male voices. We’re struggling to engage with this, so engaging with work by female composers was important. I worked with African asylum seekers in Sicily, in both musical and humanitarian contexts; I’m passionate about bringing the ‘outsiders’ in.”
Having taken a very academic path to music, Rachel’s – and Beyond Mode’s – performance promises to be something different and yet, say things that are familiar to all of us; an exploration of very human emotions and very universal concepts, made possible only by some very special musical combinations.
- Beyond Mode: A Concert of Memory at Hope will be on at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre on Friday 24 January 2020 at 8pm. Tickets available here.