The Music of A Song for the Future

23 March 2021

Welsh National Opera’s latest digital work, A Song for the Future, evolved from a planned live new opera to a filmed performance over the past year. Composer Boff Whalley tells us how the music came together in these unique circumstances.

‘Writing the music for A Song for the Future began in the pre-pandemic world – with train rides from Yorkshire to Cardiff, people meeting in rooms, talking and working things out together. I remember sitting in the waiting room with Sarah Woods on a platform at Cardiff railway station, throwing ideas at each other and deciding how to get this whole thing started. We used to hug and shake hands with people when we met, didn’t we? We had a physical connection, we looked at people’s faces, we laughed together. Back then, the Oasis Refugee Centre in Cardiff was a place to meet people who were writers, poets, musicians and players but had been assigned the label ‘refugee’. They would create and form this project.

But then lockdown forced a different version of the everyday world upon us, and with our first group Zoom meetings we quickly shifted the project so that it became about enforced isolation – and also about dreams and regeneration, new ways of living, hope. The participants began to write ideas and poems, spoke on camera, played snatches of music. As the chances of performing in front of an audience began to disappear, we decided to shape the project into a film.

Everything had to be translated musically from remote recordings and weekly online meetings into sheet music and audio files. We sent microphones to participants so they could record their words and playing, mainly on their phones. The participants spoke their words, and played instruments I didn’t even know how to spell: the ney, the setar, the tanbor, the tombak, as well as acoustic guitar. It was wonderful, but also difficult, to bring all these musical ideas and different styles together remotely. Most musicians – especially our participants in this project – are brought up in a culture of playing together, creating together while sitting together; it just isn’t in their mindset to play along to pre-recorded music on headphones.

The sounds of the ney and tanbor had to be put together with cello and violin without the natural empathy which may have been created had we all been in the same room. It took some bending and twisting, but somehow it began to make sense. Sarah cleverly translated the participant’s words, poetry and ideas into lyrics, and the sung words were mixed with the spoken to glue the piece together as a story of hope and optimism.

For three months I sat in front of a screen in my basement piecing all these things together, thrilled to hear all elements of the project blending through the speakers. In the way that Sarah was trying to balance powerful words and fragile ideas, I was trying to balance voices and instruments that were recorded in kitchens and living rooms, separately, so they might sound unified.

In many ways A Song for the Future is testament not only to the participants and players, the singers and writers, but to its organisation and management – by our WNO producer Lydia especially. So much was against us in this process – especially working without the musicians being able to physically play, create and shape the sound as they normally would.  But what we all had was an enthusiasm to make it happen, a determination to tell this story of separation, of home, of freedom, and to tell that story despite the isolated recordings, lockdown alienation and endless Zooming...’