Interview with composer Samuel Bordoli ahead of the premiere of his 'The Narcissistic Fish' at SO
Updated: Jun 17
Samuel, how does this new short opera, The Narcissistic Fish, relate to some of your other recent work, for example your other theatre works and site-specific work at Live Music Sculpture?
The site-specific work is very specific in every sense of the word, I see it really as just one thing that I'm interested in. I've also obviously done a lot of theatre, opera and choral music, and used to write a lot of instrumental music. My recent work however has been very much vocally-based.
The last site-specific project was called 'Planets' in 2018 and actually involved a whole group of composers who each wrote a new short movement for each planet which was then performed inside planetariums with surround visuals and a surround quartet. Before that though they've been very much just me writing something for a particular unusual space.
In terms of how it relates to this new opera film, The Narccissitic Fish, I don't really think it does, it was a very new thing for me almost. I've done short films before but nothing on this scale, it was a very different way of working. It's very much another strand of my work I suppose rather than anything which is connected.
What do you think are the particular challenges with the format of this project as an opera film, as opposed to perhaps a more traditional operatic format?
The film had very, very technical, very specific and very practical challenges. We actually spent around two years putting this together and a lot of that time was spent actually planning for how we were going to do it. There were various models varying from the sort of MTM musical way of doing things to the 'let's just set up a camera in an auditorium and film' way of doing things. I think we found something somewhere in the middle, which involved pre-recording singers to a click track and then them essentially singing along to themselves, with the score itself put in post-production. So really there were three stages to it. As far as we know, that way of working has actually never been done before with an opera film, but the beauty of it was that we could then control every aspect of the soundscape. We had a blank canvas to work with in post-production, and we wouldn't of been able to do some of the shots say if it was the live sound taken from the shoot. The biggest challenge then was really working that out, so once we had, we were very meticulous about it, and we had planned so well that nothing really went wrong. It was a miracle actually, but I guess that's why it took so long to do!
Have you found The Narcissistic Fish quite an exciting project to work on in that sense then? Both with it being so new for you and for modern opera performance in general?
Absolutely, I mean I feel like I definitely want to do something like this again... it could become a serious artform. In the same way that film and theatre are related, I don't see why you couldn't have an opera film and opera relationship as well. It was incredibly stimulating to work on it, and the team were amazing, and to be honest that's what has made it so stimulating. From a compositional perspective, the most interesting part was actually
writing the score to the actual recordings of the singers. As you know Will, we all like to imagine who we're writing for and to literally have those voices in front of me was incredibly stimulating and certainly worth exploring in the future I think.
So do you think that that access to the recordings of the singers really moulded the later composing process of the score itself?
Yes absolutely, in the sense that I was responding to the colour and timbre of the voice and what it was doing, but also that it was actually locked in, so the clicktrack and the tempo tracks that we edited too were there right from the beginning of the process and couldn't be changed. There was quite a big restriction on what was possible in the post-production when I was writing the rest of the score. Obviously there were some harmonic sketches because the singers needed something to work with, but I was sort of constrained by my own initial ideas that had come in right at the start of the process really.
Did you find almost that, with the vocal score being so set in stone from the start, when normally you might let go of certain ideas and bits of music throughout the composing process, that it was hard to be in a situation where that wasn't possible? Did you find yourself almost wishing you could change certain bits, or add or take away something here are there?
It's a very good point and I don't think I really gave it much thought. I knew right from the start what the process was going to be so I had to be happy with all of the material as it existed when I sent off that vocal score. I knew that was it and that I would have to make it work basically in the post-production. I was very careful to make sure that it did work and I think on the whole it did, there was never a moment afterwards where I thought 'oh god I wish I hadn't written that because it's impossible to make it work'. There was so much planning involved that it worked for that reason.
As you describe, the other kind of process where you let little bits go along the way and you're sort of moulding and shaping a piece as it progresses, that just wasn't going to be an option, and I think for any of us, if we know what the parameters are, we just sort of don't have a choice other than to work within them!
So do you find limitation as a composer quite inspiring and a spur for creativity?
Absolutely yes, I think there's nothing worse than too many options, and it's good to know what is and isn't possible. In fact that's the whole philosophy behind the whole Live Music Sculpture series; limiting what's possible and working with the weaknesses of the acoustic almost, as opposed to the strengths. You can write things which actually might never work in a concert hall and can only work in that particular space, and that is very useful creatively. Even if it's just knowing who you're writing for (the actual people that is), that really gives you a set of parameters, even if they're subconscious, they're certainly there. You know what that particular performer is capable of and what they're good at.
Now, we've spoken a little bit about the people you worked with on The Narcissistic Fish, I wonder if you could talk now a bit about how you came by your residency at Scottish Opera and what you find special about working with the company.
Well it is a wonderful company, the main thing I've found is that they're good with ideas. Everything starts with ideas and then people work out how to make that idea happen. Like you, I would imagine, I've often found that it's the other way around, you start with well how can we make anything happen, and then the idea kind of appears unexpectedly from that web. So that's been great. Everybody wants things to work and everybody is a specialist and an expert in their own field, and the sense of collaboration within the company is very strong. Everything is a collaboration and everybody is involved with everything, which is as it should be I think. The family atmosphere of ideas and support I feel, from my experience of producing projects and working on other commissions, is pretty unique. Perhaps I've had a very unique and privileged insight into that particular atmosphere with my residency also, and though this is my first residency, I do feel that is a particularly special part of my experience.
I haven't seen the film since we don't want to give too much away ahead of the world premiere, however, I was wondering if perhaps (without giving away any spoilers of course!) you could tell us more about the opera and what we can expect as viewers.
It's quite difficult to do that without giving something away, but I'll try my best! Essentially it's set in a kitchen in a restaurant and draws on the relationship between three chefs, Angus, Belle and Kai. Angus is the owner and founder of the restaurant and employs Belle and his brother Kai to work alongside him. At the beginning we come in as they are preparing for the evening service, and it's a very tense atmosphere, clearly something is going on... Twelve minutes later we seem to have seen inside each of their worlds and work out the nuances of the relationship between them, with focus shifting from the brothers onto Belle almost. That's probably as much as I can say without giving too much else away!
What would you say have been your operatic influences, particularly throughout the composing process of this piece and do any of these particular influences manifest themselves in any way in the Narcissistic Fish do you think? Perhaps from the modern operatic arena?
In terms of modern influences I suppose that's very difficult to answer, and I don't know. I consciously tend to look much further back for influences. Of course there are probably subconscious things which creep in from what's going on now, but it's certainly something I try not to do consciously because I always worry about... well just copying basically. It's much easier to in your own time. You're not going to do a pastiche Mozart but you might be influenced by his approach to drama for example. I'd be very interested to know what you and others think, in fact I always ask people the other way round, 'well, what can you hear?' because I want to know as well. I love all the great opera composers; Wagner, Puccini, Verdi, Mozart and Britten, and go regularly to hear that work, so I think really that's where it comes from particularly.
I really get that. Sometimes you really need an outsider perspective almost to kind of say, 'yeah I can hear a bit of this composer in there and I can hear a bit of this'. You're so inside the piece that you don't really see it as other people see it in a way. The influences kind of sneak into the work without you knowing.
Well I'm glad you feel the same, I mean, would you know what your influences are?
I think I'm in a similar boat really, I kind of have a gauge of some of my influences because my teacher, David Fennessy, has often pointed things out and then you kind of think 'well I was listening to a bit of that', there is a relation there you know. I think it's also sometime after you've written the piece that you can return to it, and then see it with fresh eyes. Especially during writing a piece it can be very hard to look at it in an objective way, especially in terms of the influences that have snuck in I guess. I don't know what you think about that?
I agree, I agree, and I think the difficulty is that we all want to have our language, but whether or not that's possible it's too early to say for any of us I guess. I think there is a real danger in talking about your work in relation to others. An interesting take on it is to actually be influenced negatively in a sense that you know what you don't want to sound like, without mentioning any names, there's certainly lots of those examples in my life, I mean I react against things rather than towards them I think.
That leads me on to another question then I suppose and that is, do you find that there is very much a 'British sound' so to speak in the modern opera arena, in the work of Birtwistle and Benjamin say, and would you say you identify strongly as a British composer or would you describe yourself more a composer of the world?
Gosh, I mean I think that every living British composer has the shadow of Britten hanging over them, not in terms of style but the fact that almost anything you hear sung in English, which is usually in received pronunciation, can't help but sound like Britten. I think even Birtwistle, whose harmonic language and everything else is obviously completely removed, there's something about English being sung, and Britten's work is so powerful and so well known, you can't avoid it. One thing I've tried to do to get away from that is set things in other languages, which is really difficult, and actually I probably won't do it again. In this film, the libretto is actually in Scots however which was incredibly liberating because it helped to get away from that received pronunciation, British opera sort of feeling, and that was great.
Yes, I see exactly what you mean about almost the shadow of Britten hanging over. In a sense, I would almost be tempted to say that I find English quite sort of 'cringey' in an operatic setting personally, I don't know if that's the best word to use but, I feel like there are many other languages which work much better musically, that are naturally much more musical. I almost find English quite a clumsy language to set sometimes. I don't know what your opinion on that is?
Yes, I agree although I think that's often because the wrong kind of text is being set, you get it a lot for example with the kind of dialogue/recitative style setting, but perhaps if it's more poetic I don't think that's the case. I think in any language you would have to choose your text wisely, it would be interesting to know what other people thought; what an Italian thought about Italian being sung in Puccini for example, whether they found that cringey or whether they thought it was wonderful, who knows. It may just be because we know it so well and other languages, we're less familiar with, so we don't have that subtle sense of it. But yes, I think you're right - though I don't think it's the fault of the language itself!
Yes, so perhaps it has more to do with our familiarity with it as a native speaker?
Yes I think so, and perhaps composers aren't always fastidious when it comes to actually saying, 'well I don't want to set that'. I mean there are some words that do sound ridiculous. I've often said to librettists, you just can't sing that word, it's just not going to happen, and of course we've all made requests to change certain words based on purely technical things like, 'it doesn't sound right when it's sung high'. There's a good example in the film actually, the Scots enabled me to do things which I wouldn't of been able to do in English. The word 'my' for example can't really be put on a high note without it really sounding terrible, but in Scots it's 'ma', so suddenly the vowel allows you to set that word completely differently. I do think perhaps we don't think enough about things like that, it's a bit of a generalisation, but actually knowing the text and really thinking about things like that is the answer to really making it work. We all make mistakes and I think sometimes it's impossible, sometimes you have to sacrifice something to get the meaning across, but generally I think if the text is explored properly and those things are thought about, then those problems can be avoided!
Fantastic, and I suppose that leads us nicely onto talking about the librettist herself,. Tell me a bit more about your process together on this piece, did you work together particularly closely and collaboratively or have you both worked quite separately?
Yes, it's been a very interesting process! I would say it's almost been more separate than other collaborations in a way, in the sense that we were never in a room together working on it, though maybe I'm wrong because I don't think I've ever been in a room in that sense with any librettist. The meetings we did have were all about concept and agreeing on what that was going to be. We agreed on the kitchen concept early on with the three singers, and then I said to Jenni, go and write it basically. We didn't want to impose any other restrictions on her and she came with the first draft and it was great! It was very visceral and poetic, and I'd said at the start that I didn't want to set lines like 'Do you want a cup of tea?', which is often what happens. So yes, it was beautifully poetic, even the dialogue/recitative type lines, and structurally, Jenni was very receptive to shifting bits around and grouping together blocks of text that were initially separate. Then we simply said 'this is it' and that's what we worked with.
Great, I can't wait to hear it!
Finally, I should ask you the unavoidable coronavirus question! Have you found this period particularly inspiring free of distractions or have you found it quite a disruptive period creatively?
It's an interesting question, I think initially it wasn't disruptive, apart from the shock we all felt coming to terms with what the hell was going on for about a week. After that I was able to get back to the studio and finish the film - that was written and completed under this thing. I haven't done anything else since then creatively, though I probably wouldn't of done anyway, because I've written so much over the last year that I was actually just planning to have a few months of just collecting my thoughts. The great thing about having time is that the collecting of those thoughts can also be listening and looking at scores, playing the piano and those sorts of things that there's just no time to do normally. Actually absorbing rather than creating, which to me, I don't know how it is for you, is sometimes even more important than creating.
Samuel Bordoli, Thank you very much!