Last autumn Tansy Davies lived in Amsterdam for three months, as composer in residence of the Concertgebouw. She soaked up the atmosphere and sought inspiration for a new composition for Asko|Schönberg, Soul Canoe, that will be premièred on 17 May. I interviewed Davies in December 2018, just before she returned to England.
‘Amsterdam is a true melting pot of cultures’, says Tansy Davies during our conversation in my living room. – To our surprise, her apartment turned out to be located a few houses down my street. The composer, born in Bristol in 1973, talks with a soft but lively voice that abundantly bounces from the highest to the lowest register and back, in a typically British, melodious intonation.
Often she seems almost surprised by her own observations, which are associative yet apt and well-conceived. ‘You have a centuries-long tradition of trading, of import and export, of constant travel to faraway places. Amsterdam is the incarnate cultural melting pot. I understand very well why so many overseas students come here to study. The conservatory is full of brilliant minds and teachers.’
Masses of water
Davies was moreover struck by the many canals of Amsterdam. Water is a theme that fascinates her anyway: ‘I still want to visit the Delta Works in Zeeland. The idea of enormous masses of water that are kept out is awe-inspiring. At the same time it evokes the thought of all those people who travelled from here to Indonesia and back again. I’ve watched films about that in the Maritime Museum, very instructive.’
This touches on her own background: ‘My mother’s family comes from Friesland. I have tracked down a number of relatives here, cousins of hers. They turned out to be one-eighth Indonesian, so they are connected to all those travels and the events in the colonies. Although they are all different, I feel a great affinity, they are real kindred spirits.’ Radiant: ‘We had rijsttafel!’
Travel by ship
Partly because of the acquaintance with her distant relatives, Davies became fascinated by travelling by ship. ‘While musing about the expeditions of the Dutch East India Company, I saw all those old cargo boats lying here in the canals. Former barges that serve as houses, what do you call them…, woonboten (houseboats).’ She jumps up: ‘Before I came to Amsterdam I even dreamt about this. I had visions of exactly these vessels, which are somehow connected to my inner world. They are, as it were, ships of knowledge – or power. They float around, vertically in space but also at sea.’
A nice image, but how are we to understand this, I ask as a down-to-earth Dutchwoman. ‘I have thought a lot about such vessels. They remind me of my hometown Rochester in Kent, where the sea enters the country and where you also see many boats. All this came together when I visited the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, dedicated to works of art from areas of the Pacific Ocean. I was particularly touched by the so-called Soul Canoe from New Guinea.’
‘That canoe is a beautiful example of woodcarving, with almost the dimensions of the room in which we are now sitting, many metres long. I think it is in possession of the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum Amsterdam). It was made by members of the Asmat people of West Papua and houses amazing creatures: turtles, birds and humans.’
‘Strangely enough there seems to be no room for anyone to sit in the canoe, because of those carved magic figures. It was used during initiation ceremonies and funerals. That made me think about the plight of refugees, people in boats, souls in ships. All these things are now circling in my head.’
Whether and how these would find their way into her composition for Asko|Schönberg, she couldn’t say at the time of the interview, but they have materialized afterwards: in April 2019 Davies finished the score of Soul Canoe.
Davies regularly addresses current topics. Her opera Between Worlds (2014) was inspired by the tragic attack of 9/11. The libretto zooms in on the fate of five individuals who are imprisoned together on one of the upper floors of the Twin Towers. This won her the British Composers Award. Four years later, in the music theatre play Cave, Davies portrayed a father who tries to survive in a world devastated by climate change. In a desperate attempt to make contact with his deceased daughter, he descends into a dark underworld full of spirits.
‘I don’t consciously look for such themes, they present themselves automatically’, says Davies. ‘By reflecting on matters that are important to me and to all of us, I hope to create something of value. I don’t choose to write about certain things, but just wait for them to somehow find me.’
‘Then I try to find the key to work out that thought. In opera, this topicality is even more important, because then I work with someone who writes words, a librettist who is much more focused on the worldly element than I am. Although my music remains close to reality, it never forms a concrete analogy of facts and figures, it is, as it were, the spiritual carrier of the story. In my opinion, all artists have these urgent feelings to create something that can somehow change the world.’
Davies is definitely endowed with a touch of idealism: ‘It is about creating a kind of inspiration to improve ourselves as human beings. Not that we decide to support some cause or charity while listening to music, but it’s part of the discussion on important issues. There are so many ways of communicating that can’t be put into words, and I think we don’t appreciate them enough. That’s why I think music is so important, it’s a powerful carrier of messages.’
Does she mean that music can make people more empathetic? ‘I am convinced of that, yes. It is a matter between composer, performer and audience. If you can open your heart while listening to music, you share a collective experience. If all goes well, you will be touched in whatever way by the experience of this strange, essentially physical, phenomenon. This creates a certain openness, an exchange of energy, emotion, and thoughts.’
She enthusiastically shares various reactions to her work: ‘Sometimes visitors come to me and say: what you have done there has really made me think. On the occasion of an orchestral suite from Between Worlds, I received letters from people who wrote that they had experienced a spiritual healing as a result. One man let me know he felt as if he were floating, hanging in the air above the world, as it were, from where he saw the problems. If my work gives people a different perspective on a subject or makes them feel something different than before, that’s great for me.’
The unfathomable beyond
The spiritual is familiar ground for Tansy Davies. ‘I have been interested in esoteric phenomena such as astrology, shamanism and the Tarot for over 20 years. That kind of pseudoscience is very related to music: you are dealing with codes and systems but can’t prove anything. It is often about finding a balance between the feminine and the masculine. Not in a physical sense but in a metaphorical sense, as with yin and yang.’
‘I look in the mirror and explore the deep darkness of the unknown. I ask questions, go to the bottom and rather expose problems than polish their exterior. In esoteric circles this is typically female, but don’t we all like such cosmic images, of a black sky speckled with white lights? Of staring into the unfathomable beyond?’
Supernatural elements also play a role in composing: ‘It is true that the subjects choose me, as it were, but it always takes a long time before I can start at all. Like a hunter, I endlessly encircle such a theme, until I feel that it has matured within me. Then I perform a ritual, I burn incense and ask my spiritual helpers to send me positivity and empty my mind. I absolutely cannot compose when I am stressed.’
‘Conversely: once I am in the middle of the composition process and my ears are directed inwards, it feels wonderfully quiet, as if I am going under water. Yet that is often not enough, because an idea only has so much wingspan. It’s great fun to work that out and of course I have a lot of compositional muscle, but halfway through I often get a mini-crisis. I realize it’s not about anything yet. So then I have to tear off the carapace and see what’s underneath it, what’s really going on. That may be something extra-musical or a person who triggers something in me, but only when it takes over my body, as it were, does an idea really come to life.’
She gives an example: ‘When I was working hard on Between Worlds, I had a morning ritual. I put a bronze Tibetan bowl on my heart and made it sound. I was embraced by that buzzing sound, continuously encircling me. Thus my heart became like an ear through which my spiritual guides could sing to me. I felt like a gateway, it was a very intense experience.’ Somewhat apologetic though at the same time triumphant, she adds: ‘For some people it may sound strange, but it works!’
The concert on 17 May in Concertgebouw was recorded and posted on YouTube.
Tom Goff conducted Asko|Schönberg – Soul Canoe starts at 1:16:35
Pete Harden: At Pappa’s Altar; Louis Andriessen / Martijn Padding: Gesprek; Tansy Davies: Salt Box; Louis Andriessen: Hout; Davies – Soul Canoe (world première)