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Richard Blackford

Publisher: Novello & Co

Voices of Exile (2001)
Commisioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Poole Arts Centre with funds provided by Southern Arts, Poole Arts Trust and the John S Cohen Foundation.
Novello & Co Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
55 Minutes
SATB & Children's Chorus
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano, tenor, baritone, violin

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Programme Note
Richard Blackford Voices of Exile (2001)
Voices Of Exile

In 1992 I recorded a 15-year-old girl refugee in the Kalighat slum area of Calcutta. Her village had been destroyed by drought and she, like hundreds of thousands, lived in Calcutta's streets. When her family left her village they had to walk for days and consequently could take none of their few possessions. All she could bring with her, she said, were her songs. For Kamla the songs were her link with her village, her past and her culture- they represented a part of her dignity. Although at the time I did not know it, I felt that one day I would write a work that would incorporate Kamla's beautiful song and the stories of others like her.

Nine years later the political debate on refugees and asylum seekers seems to often overlook the fact that these people are individuals, not statistics or political footballs. Voices of Exile makes no overt political point, it tries rather to give a voice to a wide-ranging group of writers who have suffered exile, prison, sometimes torture, and who can give an insight into the shared experience of the refugee. It is an uncomfortable subject, yet one which, after being introduced to the work of the Medical Foundation and Prisoners of Conscience in 2000, I decided to make the theme of my commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus.

The work of most of the writers and poets I selected covers their experiences of the last few years- human tragedies that are occurring today and will occur tomorrow. At the outset I realised that a cantata on this subject begs the question- can the humanities humanise, can art make any difference? Theodore Adorno wrote "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz". In other words, has the instinct for poetry in the post-Holocaust era been burned out of mankind? Tony Harrison, my collaborator for the last six years, refuted that famous statement by writing "There can only be poetry after Auschwitz". The fact that refugees and torture victims have recorded their thoughts and experiences in prose and poetry that is in turn poignant, passionate, bleak, courageous, humorous, affirms the ability of at least some to celebrate life even after experiencing the worst that can befall.

The image of a fragile candle, the same flame that commemorates those who burned in the flames of Auschwitz and elsewhere, is the central, ambivalent image of the cantata- the destructive flame is also the flame of the imagination, the creative spark that appears able to sing through the flames. In the Epilogue Harrison writes:

The candle burns but for how long? Loneliness, loss, exile, grief may move the sufferer into song that like the candle's bright but brief.

The poems I discovered over a year of meetings with the Medical Foundation, Prisoners of Conscience and Exiled Writers Ink embodied increasingly "the flame that men must light and light again". The experiences I read about seemed to fall into five main categories that became the pillars of the cantata: I Memories Of Home; II Journeys; III Prison; IV Exile; V Freedom.

Since the poems span thirteen different languages I took two decisions early on- to set them in English and to make no attempt to imitate the inherent music of the countries covered. Instead, to give the "voices" of the title their due I recorded four poets reading in their original languages and, like UN simultaneous translation, play a taped section before crossfading to the English translation set to music. Yet the presence of authentic musical refugee voices became more compelling as the composition progressed, and I decided to incorporate three folksongs (Bengali, Somalian and Macedonian) into the playback material. In the case of Macedonian singer Tanya Czarovska I also recorded for reference a version of the spoken text in Macedonian and English translation. One afternoon I accidentally played back all three layers simultaneously and discovered a strange, haunting texture of the original folksong layered with spoken text and translation, which I then harmonised with live chorus.

My attempt at a unified musical style that would span an eclectic range of textural sources presented questions about the internal structures of the songs. Some seemed to cry out for classical forms, such as the passacaglia in Erich Fried's circular poem It Has Happened (No 7). The insistent "It has happened, and it goes on happening and will happen again," seemed to require the unforgiving, immutable straitjacket of the passacaglia, in which jagged, angular choral lines struggle to break out from the constriction of the poem. The passacaglia leads directly into a fast fugue (No. 8) in which Abdirhman Mireh describes his painful ambivalence towards the aircraft that promises his survival but parts him from his homeland forever. The double entendre of fugal flight was irresistible, and the entire fugue occurs over a pedal bass that evokes the throbbing of jet engines. One song, Ken SaroWiwa's description of his dream encounter with the ghostly General Jen Saido (No. 10) is a dramatic monologue in which the tenor soloist takes on both the voice of Saro Wiwa in the tenor clef and that of the General in the bass clef.

As the composition took shape it seemed as if the musical language was undergoing a journey of fragmentation akin to that of the lives of the poets. The music of part 1, Memories Of Home, has a confidence that is gradually eroded with the descriptions of upheaval, and becomes a fragmented, tonally ambiguous texture in No. 10 and rhythmic neurosis in No. 12. The texture then becomes suddenly very fragile and spare, with just a cappella chorus accompanying the beautiful Macedonian folksong (No. 13). Even sparer is the following song with solo piano and violin accompanying the touching Algerian poem by Samia Dahnaan. Part V, Freedom, rediscovers something of the confidence of Part I and even recalls the exuberant rhythms of Memories of Home. In each of the anthologies and collections of unpublished poems it seemed that love poetry played a vital role as an antidote to the suffering of the writers, whether as a spark kept alive as lovers are separated, or the discovery of new love in the places of exile.

Part V includes two love poems, Mohammad Khaki's beautiful "My Wish" (No. 16) and the sensuous "Daughter of the Dessert" (No. 17) by Antonio Joaquim Marques from Angola. The latter is a dream of fertility returning to a parched land, an apt metaphor for the hope, however distant, that the cycle of inhumanity might one day be broken. In the meanwhile, as Tony Harrison's Epilogue concludes, the poetry and the songs that continue to be written and sung represent, like the candle's flame, a fragile hope.

Richard Blackford

Preview the score:

  • Ensemble
    The Bach Choir, New London Children's Choir, The Philharmonia Orchestra
    Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Gregory Kunde (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone)
    David Hill
  • Music Sales Group:
  • 09 JUL 2016
    Wimborne Minster, Wimborne
    Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
  • 07 JUN 2009
    Cologne, Germany
    Chamber Choir Constant and Ensemble
    Harald Jers, conductor

    Other Dates:
    9 June - Dortmund, Germany
  • 09 MAY 2009
    Dortmund, Germany
    Chamber Choir Constant and Ensemble
    Harald Jers, conductor

    Other Dates:
    6 June - Colgne, Germany
  • 20 APR 2005
    Royal Festival Hall
    Philharmonia Orchestra
    David Hill, conductor
  • 09 NOV 2002
    Minnesota Center Chorale 30th Anniversary Season
    St Joseph, MN
    Minnesota Center Chorale
  • 19 NOV 2001
    Voices of Exile London Premiere
    Royal Festival Hall, London
    Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Dorset Youth Choir, Kokoro Ensemble
    Christine Botes,Robert Tear, Paul Whelan; Neville Creed, conductor
  • 17 NOV 2001
    Voices of Exile World Premiere
    Poole Arts Centre, Dorset
    Bournemouth Symphony Chorus,Dorset Youth Choir, Kokoro Ensemble
    Christine Botes, Robert Tear, Paul Whelan; Neville Creed, conductor

Exile arouses many emotions - nostalgia for lost homeland, rage at the oppressor that made one flee, longing for freedom, distress at being marooned in an alien culture. They were all evoked in Richard Blackford's hour-long oratorio, Voices of Exile. It was a seamless, cunningly wrought sequence of poems and songs for soloists, chorus and orchestra, the texts inspired - if that is the word - by recent conflicts in Angola, Turkey, Macedonia, and a dozen other places. Blended into the live sounds were recorded folk songs and poems in the original languages, including one from a 15-year-old girl in a Calcutta slum, recorded by Blackford himself. In their direct rawness, these were the most moving things in the piece; next to them, the contributions from the three soloists were bound to seem too 'arty' and sophisticated (an unfair comment, this, as all three soloists were excellent and far from precious - which only goes to show how vulnerable the listening experience is to its context). As for Blackford's music, its utter sincerity was shown in its impeccable craftmanship and good taste. And it had genuinely touching moments, particularly in the dignified choral accompaniment Blackford added to the pre-recorded Macedonian folksong.
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,22/04/2005
Premiered three years ago, but newly reworked with full orchestral accompaniment, it's a sincere, well-calculated work: a kind of extended protest song against the manifold persecutions that turn innocent victims into refugees, and refugees into innocent victims. Blackford draws his texts largely from poems, songs and testaments of exiled writers from many different countries and eras - often heard via tapes of the exiles themselves. He then weaves a lush cocoon of very English choral polyphony round these haunting foreign voices... At its best, as when a recording of beautifully inflected Macedonian folksong is counterpointed with its own translation and then against a live choral backing, the technique is evocative and touching. His orchestrations are resourceful, his tonal harmonies old-fashioned but strong, his use of classic forms such as fugue and passacaglia apt, and his word-setting intelligent ... this is an eminently singable, thought-provoking choral work that deserves wide circulation.
Richard Morrison, The Times,22/04/2005
Blackford, as a deeply literate and assured composer, senses precisely the response demanded by each poem. And he has the skill to set them with a graphic immediacy which never descends to bathos. In a work such as this, that skill is rare.
Hilary Finch, The Times,21/11/2001
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