Clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh is associate artist at this year’s Spitalfields Summer Festival. He talks to us about the new piece he has composed for the festival, his musical influences and the importance of Spitalfield’s social history.
What does your role as associate artist at this year’s Spitalfields Summer Festival involve?
This has been something I’ve been planning with my creative producer and Spitalfields Music for a number of years. As associated artist, I am putting on two of my own events and collaborating on another. The first is the performance of my new piece Spitalfields Suite, which takes place at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch [on Saturday 7 June]. We’ve got another event called Tales of Tradition and Trade, which is a participatory event inviting the audience to bring instruments and perform with us. Finally, we’re going to be doing a show with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment [on Wednesday 18 June], another associate artist of the festival.
What story does Spitalfields Suite tell?
It explores the history of immigration into the Spitalfields area. In the 1700s the Huguenot people, whose industry was weaving and textiles, arrived fleeing persecution. They built streets and chapels and became very integrated. A few years later Irish weavers and their families arrived. By the 1800s there were Jewish immigrants and then in the late 20th century Bangladeshi immigrants began setting up BanglaTown. All of these communities have shared ideals, shared histories and parallel experiences and I wanted to write a piece that explores that.
How is the piece structured?
It takes the form of a symphonic poem or programme symphony, with recurring themes running through the work. It’s in four main sections with an epilogue to mark the chronological aspect. The first movement is the Huguenot experience and that moves on to the Irish experience. The third movment very much focuses on the Jewish story and the musical language moves from the Huguenot diatonic, chorale-based sounds to the Eastern modes that Jewish music favours. The fourth is the Bangledeshi movement. The epilogue of the piece takes us out of time and is about Spitalfields now and acts as a statement of where we’ve got to. It’s almost like a historical document of those times: this is the history of Spitalfields in four and a half movements.
Have you scored the piece in a special way to reflect its story?
Yes. It’s been written for what I am calling a world chamber ensemble. I am leading it on clarinet and I’ve got cello, violin, Brazilian percussion, a south Asian tabla, trumpet, flute and a vibraphone. The Bengali movement features an instrument called the sarangi, a South Asian bowed instrument with a similar sound to the cello. We also have a vocalist who will be performing the electronics to incorporate found sounds into the piece.
Tell me about how you use these found sounds in the work.
They are pre-recorded sounds from field recordings, let’s say ‘urban’ field recordings. They include things like the Muslim call to prayer, traffic and people in restaurants. There are also church bells, weaving machines and extracts of birdsong. The Huguenot people were renowned for catching special songbirds and having them chirping away in their factories. I find it really stimulating working with found sounds. The music really flows from them and you can hear the musicality in them.
How important do you think it is for music written now to reflect the pertinent issues of today?
That’s a really good question. What I feel is that even the things we’re expressing about history is very pertinent to now. I always take inspiration from what’s happening right now and that is what shapes my music. It can include anything from political energy, activism, peoples’ uprisings or the suffering that people have to go through, both here and abroad. I would like Spitalfields Suite particularly to feel historical as well as being something real and of now.
What significance does the Spitalfields area hold for you?
I am very fond of the area because of its diverse history and its present day status and identity. And it’s a real honour for me to be part of such a renowned festival. I hope it turns out to be quite an ear-opener for those who know my music as well as those who don’t yet.
Spitalfields Summer Festival takes place from 6 to 21 June and Arun Ghosh’s Spitalfield Suite will be performed on Saturday 7 June at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. Visit: spitalfieldsmusic.org