Friday, July 28, 2017


And here she is: our SILVER BIRCH composer, the fabulous Roxanna Panufnik. You've heard a lot from me already about the words and the background, so I asked Rox some questions about how she wrote the music.

JD: How does Silver Birch differ from anything you’ve written before? 
RP: The sheer size and range of vocal forces involved is amazing - such a lot to hold at the front of my brain whilst composing! 
JD: How did you go about connecting with the subject and the story? I know I was way out of my comfort zone at first and wondered if you were too?  
RP: Completely. I first wondered how I could empathise with a young man going to war, but the more Sassoon I read and meeting our inspiration Jay Wheeler helped me hugely to relate to our subject. 

Rehearsing the battle scene...

JD: What have been a) the most challenging, b) the most rewarding things about writing it?  
RP: I’ve never been very hot on unpitched percussion and this piece has required a huge amount of it! But with the help of my ex-drummer brother Jem and Garsginton percussionist Cameron Sinclair I’ve conquered my fear! I think the most rewarding thing would be the wonderfully positive reactions to the piece from those taking part in it - professional and non-professional.

JD: You met most of the singers and worked with them in your shed - how did that affect what you wrote for them to sing?  
RP: For instance with Darren Jeffrey (estranged angry father, Simon) we looked at ways of injecting anger into the timbre of his voice without damaging it. With Sammy Furness (our hero, Jack), again, I needed his guidance with writing high up, at the peak of his range, when his brother Davey gets shot in battle. With the other singers it was a case of making sure that I wrote something that was comfortable enough in their voice that they could emote dramatically without worrying about the technical. 
JD: The vast majority of our performers are adult amateurs, young people and schoolchildren. How difficult is it to write the music you want to write while keeping the technical level appropriate for them?  
RP: It’s not at all difficult - I’m a terrible singer so I went by whether I could sing their parts or not! I also had a lot of support and guidance from Suzi Zumpe, who is responsible for training the non-professionals, and learnt hugely form her as I went along.

JD: I based some of the story on what really happened to Jay Wheeler, and he has been wonderfully helpful to me - I even used some of his words in the libretto, especially the “One chance” chorus and Jack’s “Got to look after my brother". Was it helpful for you to work with him too, and in what way?  
RP: It was fantastically helpful to be able to ring him up and ask him what kind of things he heard in the midst of battle (more shouting and screaming than anything else) and running across the desert at night (his own heartbeat). I was also hugely inspired (and moved) by the photos he showed us of him in Iraq with his soldier friends, the place where they slept and also of him and his brother as little boys.

JD: I’ve got the bug for writing operas now. How about you? Shall we do another? :)  
And now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to our premiere!