Bob Chilcott’s a cappella choral work The Angry Planet will receive its first performance at the Proms on 5 August. He talked to us ahead of the premiere about the challenge of writing a large-scale unaccompanied piece and trying to tackle the subject of climate change.
Tell us how the piece came about.
It was originally commissioned by The Bach Choir for an education project – there are a lot of children involved, I think about 300. Originally David Hill, the music director of the Bach choir wanted to do a piece about the environment and he had the title Angry Planet in his mind. I’ve worked with the poet Charles Bennett on quite a lot of things and we talked about the idea, he went away and came up with a script – the libretto – we played around with it and made a shape out of it. What we ended up with is very strong, wonderful actually.
Why did you decide to write the work as a cantata?
It’s a big piece – 45 minutes long and in four sections, so it has a symphonic feel. But I decided to use the word ‘cantata’ because that’s simply an expression of singing. This is a big a capella piece so I felt ‘cantata was appropriate.
A 45-minute long a cappella piece must be quite a challenge for the singers – children and adults alike…
Yes, it’s a huge challenge actually. There are 2 big choirs involved, and a very big choir of children and a chamber choir, so I had to make very specific choices about how to score the piece over that period of time. I wanted to make sure I kept varying the sound palette. The piece takes place in a forest at night and each movement represents a different time of night – from 6pm through to 6 in the morning. Each movement features animals emerging that really don’t exist any more, or are very close to extinction, such as the wildcat, the corncrake and the horseshoe bat. The National Youth Choir take the part of these extinct animals – they sing in a deconstructed vocal style to create a melée of voices over which lots of text is spoken. At the end when we get to morning there’s the otter – it represents the possibility of new life.
Do you think enough contemporary composers are tackling the subject of climate change?
Writing this piece made me think a lot about climate change, but at the same time it feels like there’s a kind of inevitability about all of this destruction. It has its own journey and its own momentum, and to stop it is really hard. I went to Fukushima the year before the tsunami happened and the enormity of these things suddenly struck me. In the centre of the piece, right in the middle of the night, the choirs sing this litany to all these animals that have disappeared. There are some extraordinary names, things you don’t recognise and things you’ve never known; and actually you realize that the process of things disappearing and man affecting what goes on around us has been a long one. You think – ‘oh gosh, is there a solution?’
What do you want people to take away your piece?
Most of all, I want people to feel the power of voices – the live human voice, unamplified. The unamplified voice is a very powerful thing and I’ve tried to create a piece which will different vocal colours and enough sense of shape to engage people through quite a long period of time with just voices. Not an easy thing to do.
'The Angry Planet' will receive its premiere on 5 August at the BBC Proms at 4.30pm. The BBC Proms run until 8 September.