An interview with composer Owen Morgan Roberts

We talk to the Welsh composer, who worked with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson during the last few years of his life

Published: September 18, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Owen Morgan Roberts’s latest project is one he has taken over from the late Oscar-nominated film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, someone he worked with increasingly over the past few years. The project is an immersive theatrical experience entitled Now the Hero, which features a requiem written by Roberts and Jóhannsson, and will take place across the city of Swansea later this month.


When did you start working with Jóhann Jóhannsson?

I worked with him for quite a few years primarily as an orchestrator on his film scores, and was involved with quite a few of his projects in different ways. He knew he wanted to do this project, and we were looking for an opportunity to work together again in a more collaborative way, rather than me working on his music.

We had been working on music for choirs and had talked about Welsh male choirs, because my family is Welsh and very involved with the country’s music, and Jóhann was really interested in the Welsh musical traditions. We’ve written the requiem that is being performed in Brangwyn Hall as part of the project.

We started working on the project together, but when he died I continued our ideas as part of my own work written in tribute to him.

How did the process change after he died?

At the point at which he died, we more or less had a plan of how we wanted to approach the whole piece, but not much more than that. We had visited Swansea together and seen the fantastic organ in the Brangwyn Hall, which we had decide to use throughout the Requiem.

Because I had worked with him so much over the past five years, I wanted to honour what I had learnt from working with him. During that time, a lot had changed in how I approached music-making. At every stage of writing I had his voice in my head.

What was it like working with him?

It was wonderful. There were quite a few young musicians like me around him, because he was so focused on bringing people up in the industry and giving them new experiences. If you had ideas he could get along with, he had complete faith in you, and would listen to your ideas and help them grow. It was invaluable. He was very perceptive and open, and was such a big part of my musical growth.

What can audiences expect from this new immersive production?

It’s an immersive theatrical experience taking place across Swansea. The audience take a journey from Swansea Bay on the beach, moving through various scenes in the city and ending up at the Brangwyn Hall, where the requiem that we’ve written will be performed. It’s a reflection on war, seen through the journey of the characters involved.

What music have you been responsible for in this production?

The requiem was the main musical challenge, but there is also accompanying textural music inspired by the requiem that will be played at the other locations in the city to trace the journey across the piece.

The requiem is based on a poem called Y Gododdin, one of the oldest surviving Welsh poems, written by Aneurin in around AD 600. The Welsh poet Owen Sheers has written a wonderful libretto translation of the Welsh text, which breaks down the poem into clearer segments with its own interpretation. It features some of the old Welsh text but also some of Owen’s English translation.

How would you describe the requiem’s soundworld?

It’s all about the use of voices. All the music that’s been created for the scenes surrounding the requiem have been created using the organ in Brangwyn Hall and recordings of polyphony, all processed to make experimental, electronic material. It’s a very electronic sound, but all created using organic material.

How did this project initially come about?

Jóhann was asked by the artist Marc Rees to be involved about two years ago, so it’s been in the works for a while. Necessarily so though, because it’s a complex production.

Our focus was the concept of ‘beauty in chaos’. It was very clear what Marc wanted from us – he wanted this intensity, but also a sense of timelessness – a sense of not just looking at the First World War but war throughout the ages. The poem is quite heroic, but it also has a lot of doubt about war and doesn’t just celebrate the heroes – it also looks at the pain it causes. This concept then developed as the work progressed.

What are your plans for the production beyond this initial run at the Swansea International Festival?

The intention is to record the music to create an album version which will be released following the five-night run. Hopefully this will include the other textural music and the poem.


Now the Hero is the headline event at the Swansea International Festival, and is taking place from 25 to 29 September.


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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