I am lucky enough to work in an amazing historic house full of the most extraordinary works of Victorian art, and treasures collected from travels around the 19th century world.
It is a source of unending creative inspiration, and I really wanted to find something to encourage me to write some music. There is one particular sculpture there that really caught my attention, of a Biblical character called Jael.
I guess the fascination came from the craftsmanship of the sculpture (you can almost see her breathing), the setting of the opulent room she is in, and the story of the character.
She was an Old Testament heroine, part of a desert dwelling tribe who gave refuge to an enemy general, Sisera. She offered him milk and then drove a tent peg through his head, therefore fulfilling God’s prophecy.
It is told in the Song of Deborah:
“She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead”
Apparently this section is one of the oldest written parts of the Bible. Pretty grim stuff, and there’s plenty more amazing mythology and folklore in the Old Testament.
The sculpture is attributed to the Italian artist Orazio Andreoni.
As I was researching the story, I decided I wanted my piece of music to have the following qualities:
- I wanted it to feel like a piece of religious music, like church music, but I want people to imagine the sound drifting across a bleak, terrible and ancient desert.
- I wanted it to reflect the narrative of the Jael story, so that it develops and things happen, and things have changed between the start and the end.
- I wanted it to be for two voices to represent the two characters. I knew that this would be a challenge because I have never sung or been involved in singing. In fact when we sang in primary school I was asked to mime by the teacher.
- The story is full of violence and betrayal. The framing prophecy helps it to feel soaked in an atmosphere of friction between men and women and between tribes desperate to survive. I wanted to evoke a sense of menace and of disturbing things.
- I also wanted there to be softness and beauty, especially around the seduction, to offer contrasting tones.
- The story is set in such a distant time and place, and the sculpture represents the sculptor’s impression of this exotic and unknown desert tribal culture. I really wanted to capture that alienness, which I feel is emphasised by the location of the statue in the lavish Victorian Drawing Room.
- This is way beyond my skills, but I would love for the female voice to feel like the carved clothes of Andreoni’s Jael, draped thinly over the body, and for the male voice to feel like the solid presence of the gleaming marble. I’m sure that sounds very arty farty, but I do think music can be sculpted and shaped.
- I wanted it to last between 2 to 3 minutes.
And here is what I came up with. I am reluctant to call it a final version, because I may well go back and play with it at a later date. But for now, here it is.
I am not very technical and there are sound quality issues, but personally I’m not too concerned about that.