The Inner Light
The Ebor Singers
25th anniversary commission
Kerensa Briggs is an award-winning composer based in London. Her music has been performed internationally at venues including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. Her music has been recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and BBC Radio Scotland by ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars, the BBC Singers and the choirs of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester Cathedrals. It also features on a number of CDs including Advent Carols from King's College London and the forthcoming All things are quite silent from the Choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Selected works are published by Oxford University Press (2020) and Boosey & Hawkes (2021).
PAUL: Kerensa, we first performed your music as part of the NCEM Young Composers Award in 2014, your stunning and virtuosic setting of part of the Lamentations (listen to the Tallis Scholars singiing it here) . We sang this again in 2017 during the Late Music Festival, and ever since then we'd been looking for opportunities to work with you again! Our 25th anniversary seemed perfect, and then came lockdown in March.... As a composer, how did you find this period?
KERENSA: It was a time of mixed feelings in that I felt there was an opportunity to step back and refocus. I actually quite enjoyed some aspects of the space but obviously also had huge sympathy for those in difficulty due to the socio-economic and health outcomes of the pandemic.
PAUL: Originally this piece would have been performed in the lofty acoustics of the Chapter House, rather than a virtual performance, recorded from everyone's front room! What was the process setting this text to music, particularly in the context of virtual performance?
KERENSA: I pondered on it for a while and then got going! I almost always write on paper and in this case, I wanted to do something relatively rhythmically straight / chordal so that it would be (hopefully!) straightforward to layer together.
PAUL: This also keeps the simple yet powerfully relevant lyrics clear. For me the lyrics capture the situation for so many of us during lockdown and beyond, as we strive to continue with our lives in a socially-dislocated way, relying on virtual means of communication like never before. In other ways too, we have come to know ourselves, our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours differently.
Without going out of my door
I can know all things of earth
Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of heaven…
The text comes from Taoist Tao Te Ching by Juan Mascaró, a Sanskrit scholar, and is used for a Beatles song (on the B-side of Lady Madonna (1968)), written by George Harrison and reflecting more than any other Beatles song the influence of Indian music and philosophy. Your setting feels very much part of the English choral sound, although there are some beautiful, almost exotic harmonies (particularly for the tenors - thank you!). What are your influences for choral writing in particular, and your wider output in general?
KERENSA: I always find this one a difficult question to answer because there are so many... I grew up singing lots of Howells and have always loved his music. I also have a soft spot for jazz, the french and contemporary Estonian and Latvian choral music. There are so many really and I feel it’s something which differs with chamber or orchestral music.
PAUL: For some, Lockdown was an opportunity to explore new music or books, or revisit favorites. Have you listened to anything that might accompany you to a desert island (or indeed, a second lockdown)?
KERENSA: I'm not sure where to start, but a couple of choral favorites were Esenvalds’ Passion and Resurrection, Roderick Williams’ Ave Verum and the choral arrangement of Laura Mvula Sing to the moon. My classical pick would beEsa Pekka Salonen cello concerto, while more generally I took up yoga during lockdown and listened to quite a lot of ambient music!
PAUL: The Mvula is gorgeous, isn't it. The choral arrangement [here performed by the choir of Pembroke College Choir, Cambridge, directed by Anna Lapwood) somehow remains true to the soul-song original, while imbuing it with a very English choral sentiment. And a book?
KERENSA: No question. Winnie the Pooh!
PAUL: Thank you, Kerensa. A fine book choice. We look forward to welcoming you to York to hear The Inner Light when circumstances permit us to perform live again.