Gary Carpenter

Listening Project Symphony

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Throughout the year Fi Glover has been presenting conversations from across Britain in Radio 4’s The listening project. Now, some of them are being set to music in the Listening Project Symphony, which is being performed by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by Terry Davies this Friday. We spoke to composer Gary Carpenter about exactly how the piece will work.

Gary CarpenterCan you talk me through how the project came about?
I was approached by the BBC Philharmonic and the producer of The Listening Project, Tony Phillips, about doing a presentation of some fragments from the conversations for orchestral accompaniment. I have some form in this area because I’ve worked on verbatim projects before – but what made this project different was that they wanted to use the actual original tapes of people’s conversations. A producer called Cathy Fitzgerald assembled – from thousands of hours of material – a number of items that would fit into a half-hour slot. She’d arranged the subject matter into five sections covering birth, arguments, death and resolution. The final section is basically everybody in some way or other expressing their devotion, fondness or love for the person they’re talking to – which is apparently how most of the conversations ended up anyway.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the piece uses the recordings?
It’s a 25-minute piece, the major component of which is conversations. But the music is more than just underscoring – although the approach is very similar to underscoring in that you have to make way for the speech as and when it occurs. There are moments when the music is allowed to breathe and as it were move to the forefront and then pullback. It becomes, in fact, a sort of dialogue between voices and orchestra in much the same way as the listening project is about a dialogue between two people.

And it’s called a ‘symphony’ – why did you choose that word?
It was a deliberate choice on the part of Tony Phillips and I shied away from it, to be honest because of the baggage that comes with the word ‘symphony’. But by the time I got to the continuity sketch – which I needed to do so they could edit the text to the music – I had this five-movement piece, 25 minutes long and in many ways it was symphonic – it had unity of theme and there’s material that appears throughout. So I thought, fine, let’s call it a symphony.

What do you hope the audience can take away from the work?
Well I hope that they will be absorbed, entranced and enchanted by the whole thing. It’s not an editorial piece, I’m not making commentary, it’s more that I’m travelling along with what’s going on. So I’d just like the audience to be both moved and engaged.

The Listening Project Symphony will be broadcast live on Friday 14 December at 7.15pm, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK Salford