Early Words to Late Music

On Tuesday 21st February, St Gregory’s Centre for Music witnessed a musical journey that took us from ancient Mesopotamia to present-day Europe, via medieval England.

Composer and vocalist Stef Conner and her ensemble conjured ethereal contemporary music with an ancient flavour, employing lyres and loop pedals in settings of the world’s oldest poetry – the account of the Flood, in Sumerian and Babylonian – and in performances of English medieval lyrics and ancient Greek music.

Royal Philharmonic Society Prize-winning composer and singer, Conner graduated with a starred first in music from the University of York in 2005, before joining the Mercury Prize-nominated Northumbrian folk band The Unthanks, and performing at venues including the Barbican, Covent Garden, Glastonbury, Womad and the BBC Folk Awards, and supporting artists like Adele, Ben Folds and Billy Bragg. The group’s raw yet delicate approach to musical storytelling made a deep impact on her style. Conner returned to York in 2009 to complete a PhD in composition with Bill Brooks, developing creative responses to questions concerning the relationship between music and language. Performers of her work include the Esoterics, the Renaissance Singers, Queens’ College Choir, Dark Inventions, the Kreutzer Quartet, The Ligeti Quartet, The Dr K Sextet, Juice, John Potter, the Nieuw Ensemble and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Two of her pieces premiered at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and she has received performances in York Minster, Waltham Abbey, the Royal Festival Hall, Peterborough Cathedral, Queens’ College (Cambridge) and Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, as well as numerous broadcasts on BBC radio. Conner was the first Composer in Residence with Streetwise Opera, a charity using music to help homeless people make positive changes in their lives; her debut opera with the organisation premiered at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (2015). In 2014, she was named, in the ‘Music-Makers’ category, as one of the Evening Standard’s ‘1000 Most Influential Londoners’. Conner currently performs with The Lyre Ensemble, whose independent debut CD The Flood received over a million online listens after its release in December 2014, with performances on BBC Radio 2 and 3, at the unveiling of the reconstructed Palmyra Arch in Trafalgar Square, the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), the University of Cambridge, the Medici Institute (Florence) and the Union Chapel, London. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Huddersfield, researching ancient Mesopotamian music, and conductor of two choirs in Cambridge and Surrey. She is composing a new work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which will be performed this summer.

Stef Conner performed her amazing programme for us with two of her talented collaborators, Alice Barron on violin and Tiago Coimbra on double bass.

Alice Barron is a violinist and collaborator based in London, performing throughout Europe and in India, Hong Kong and the West Bank. Focusing on contemporary and world music, Alice plays with Nigel Kennedy’s Orchestra of Life, London Sinfonietta and with folk musicians Sam Lee & Friends at WOMAD festival in Australia and New Zealand. Alice is a founding member of iyatraQuartet, whose 2015 debut album of co-authored compositions was received with highly acclaimed reviews by Songlines and fRoots magazines. She is also a member of the folky-classical Duo Folclore and contemporary group, Dr K Sextet, which was a resident ensemble at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013 and 2016. Alice is passionate about collaborating and creating new music with artists from all musical traditions and artistic disciplines, with experiences including contemporary dance, live poetry, storytelling and theatre. Her explorations learning the violin in south India have been generously supported by SEMPRE and Somerville College and are part of a practice-led doctorate at the University of Oxford. Alice previously studied at the University of Nottingham and the Royal Academy of Music, where she was awarded a distinction for her Masters in performance and research.

Tiago Coimbra studied at the Academy of Contemporary music and Berklee College, Boston. While at Berklee, Tiago recorded with his own band Spontaneous, and Hiromi Uehara’s .Explosion Trio. He has also taken masterclasses with Matthew Garrison, Abraham Laboriel, George Duke and Branford Marsalis. Tiago has performed all over the world, including at the Manila Jazz festival and with Arthur Maia in Rio do Janeiro. In 2016 he performed with Hiromi on the Venice and Austrian legs of her Europe tour. He currently plays with Gavin Harrison and 05Ric.

Programme

  • Invocation of the Muse  Arr. S. Conner, A. Barron. Words and music: Mesomedes of Crete, 2nd century CE. Edition: M.L. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford 1992)
  • Balbale to Nanshe  Music: S. Conner, A. Lowings Words: Sumerian, late third–early second millennium BCE; text and translation (adapted) Source: Oxford Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL): 4.14.2
  • The Flood  Music: S. Conner, A. Lowings Words: Babylonian, first millennium BCE; text and translation: SOAS Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature Archive of Recordings (ed. Martin Worthington)
  • Worldes Blis  Arr. S. Conner, A. Barron. Words and music: 13th century, Middle English, MS Rawl. G. 18 (Bodleian Library)
  • Dumuzid’s Dream  Music: S. Conner, A. Lowings. Words: Sumerian, late third – early second millennium BCE; text and translation (adapted): Source: Oxford Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL): 4.14.2
  • Wynter Wakeneth  Music: S. Conner, A. Barron. Words: 14th century, Middle English, MS Harley 2253 (British Library)
  • Enkidu Curses the Harlot  Music: S. Conner, M. Harmer, A. Lowings, A. Barron, T. Coimbra. Words: Babylonian, first millennium BCE; Babylonian text supplied by Martin Worthington. English translation by Stephanie Dalley
  • Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld  Music: S. Conner, A. Lowings, A. Barron, T. Coimbra. Words: Babylonian, first millennium BCE; text and translation: SOAS Babylonian.

Following a fantastic, eye opening programme of music, Stef participated in a free masterclass for our students, open to staff members and the general public. She explored creative ways of making new music from medieval source materials. She began by delving into some of Britain’s earliest notated repertoire, including the songs of St Godric and the Nuns of Chester, before conjuring up imagined versions of the lost oral traditions from which the notated music sprang. Finally, abandoning notation completely, Stef encouraged the students to use their voices and bodies to create imaginative soundscapes inspired by ancient modes and words.