The prestigious Iceland-based label, Bedroom Community have recently unveiled a soaring artistic triumph in the form of ‘Folie à Deux’, a concept album by award-winning British composer Emily Hall, with lyrics by long-term Björk collaborator Sjón. The gifted composer represents the tenth artist to join the label since its inception in 2006, joining the formidable roster of talent that includes Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigurðsson, James McVinnie, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, Puzzle Muteson and others, who have forged some of the most deeply affecting and resolutely unique modern-classical works of recent times.
‘Folie à Deux’ was commissioned by Mahogany Opera Group. The remarkable full-length is an intense investigation into love and loneliness within a relationship. Hall’s minimal and intricately crafted songs in the modern folk tale are woven together for two singers, Sofia Jernberg (Swedish vocalist) and Allan Clayton (British tenor) and a specially created electro-magnetic harp. The album features electronics from Mira Calix, was mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson in Reykjavík and co-produced by Sigurðsson and Hall herself.
Emily Hall studied composition at York University and the Royal College of Music, London. She has written for many different ensembles and orchestras including the London Sinfonietta, LSO, BBCNOW, the Brodsky Quartet, Opera North, LCO, Hungarian Radio Choir.
Interview with Emily Hall.
Congratulations on your stunning Bedroom Community debut, ‘Folie à Deux’. One of the aspects I particularly love about the new record is the many spheres of sounds – choral, pop, folk, electronic, classical – that is masterfully embedded (and seamlessly layered) into these sonic creations. Please discuss ‘Folie à Deux’ both in terms of its conception as a concept album and as an opera? I would love to gain an insight into the creative world that brought ‘Folie à Deux’ into glimmering life?
Emily Hall: Thanks so much. I guess it’s been 3 years in the making – In 2012 an opera company in London called ‘Mahogany Opera Group’ asked me to write a small-scale opera and I put it to them I wanted this to be a concept album and an opera, which could co-exist and would be co-conceived. They were more than happy to go for this and interested in it as a slightly unusual hybrid form. Unlike conventional opera, I didn’t want any recitative, just songs and instrumentals, like a dramatic song cycle. And I liked the idea the audience might have heard the songs on the album before they saw the live staged version. And on the flip side, I was interested in the idea of a narrative in an album which may or may not be relevant to the listener.
I have a good friend who is a psychiatrist and she suggested the psychosis ‘Folie à Deux’ would make a great subject for an opera. ‘Folie à Deux’ is a psychosis where a delusion is transmitted from one person to another, normally a partner or family member. It seemed to me like an exaggerated version of many relationships and a good basis for drama.
I knew I wanted to write for the Swedish vocalist Sofia Jernberg, I first heard her sing a friends piece (Larry Goves) in Leeds in 2009 and fell in love with her voice. And I knew I wanted to write for harp in some way because I wanted to work with harpist Ruth Wall but I wasn’t yet sure how….
Please discuss the collaboration between you and Icelandic writer and long-term Bjork collaborator Sjón. Can you recount for me your memories of first crossing paths with Sjón and indeed the collaborative process that clearly works so well between you both?
EH: I asked Sjón really out to of the blue if he wanted to collaborate on this in an email and I was happily surprised he said ‘yes’ straight away. I approached him because not only had he written amazing lyrics but also a number of opera librettos. So we met for lunch soon after when he was passing through London and then later had a 3 day brain storming session in the depths of Suffolk countryside with the director Fredrick Wake-Walker. Because the psychosis ‘Folie à Deux’ has very defined stages we were able to hang different scenarios on each until we came up with ‘the one’. On the final day, when Sjón had the idea of an electricity pylon at the centre of the delusion, I was taken by it straight away because of the strong sonic characteristics. Sjón then sent me the finished libretto/lyrics a few months later and I was completely entranced as soon as I read them.
After many revisits, I feel a lovely parallel exists between ‘Folie à Deux’ and Julia Holter’s ‘Loud City Song’ record from 2013. The characters, themes, emotions conjures up a similarly transformative world and beguiling soundscapes. Also, the master-work of ‘Ys’ by Joanna Newsom comes to mind. Can you discuss please the narrative to ‘Folie à Deux’, Emily? Also, the two singers, Sofia Jernberg and Allan Clayton add divine colours and textures to the record’s sprawling canvas. Can you discuss the input of these two gifted singers. A song such as ‘Wonderful Things’ epitomises the sheer beauty these enchanting voices create.
EH: OK thanks – those are very nice parallels.
The story is a back-packing girl meets a young farmer high up on the hill and they fall in love and move in together. Everything is rosy until a pylon is built next to their little house. The man becomes completely obsessed by the pylon and its potential power and influence. She becomes very lonely as he spends hours staring out the window at the pylon and humming along with its drones. She realizes the only way to re-connect with him is to join him in his adoration for the pylon and they sing ‘it’s saying such wonderful things’ together. ‘Mantra’ is a song at the point when they are both delusional about the pylon and ‘Folie à Deux’ in happening. ‘The Scream’ is her exit from the delusion; she bursts his ear drums and externalizes all the pain and fear she has had to endure. ‘Embrace’ is his release, his journey up the pylon – to the summit of his delusion – walking towards the light – to his Nirvana. And in the final song ‘Ode to Nature’, she sings a nostalgic song for him but from a peaceful place, back close with nature and long free of the delusion.
I wrote for Sofia Jernberg right from the outset. We spent some time together in Stockholm in the middle of writing which informed things quite a lot. And then the scream was something I asked her to do in a rehearsal but she took it to a whole new level by doing this long electronic sounding scream by slowly breathing in air. I knew the kind of tenor voice I wanted but not a specific singer, but once Allan Clayton came on board, he informed some of the songs like ‘Embrace’ – that amount of control so high up in the voice is pretty rare. I love how Sofia and Allan sound together.
Please talk me through the specially created electromagnetic harp utilized on the new record? What sets this apart from the more traditional harp instrument?
EH: As I said earlier, I had decided to write for harp already and when the idea of the pylon came up I was trying to figure out how to make a harp drone like the hum of a pylon. I looked at aeolian harps then came across some experiments by an Icelandic musician called Ulfur who had successfully used electro magnets on piano strings and make a beautiful drone instrument. My partner, David Sheppard, is a sound designer, and so he figured out how to make this work with a harp, along with an instrument builder called Jonathan Green. The strings are swapped for metal strings and then a specially made system of transducers is mounted to the strings. They are controlled form some bespoke software and MIDI devices. You hear a lot of 50Hz ‘G’ in the album which of course is the frequency of a mains hum in the UK.
Another gorgeous aspect is the presence of electronic beats, supplied by Mira Calix. I wonder at what stage in the music-making process did these beats come into the mix? The final third of ‘Mantra’ is a wonderful example of Mira’s input. Also, I am intrigued by the production of the album. Was this quite an intensive period? What precisely did the production – in which you and Valgeir Sigurðsson collaborated – consist of?
EH: Mira Calix came up with the beats once I had demo versions of loneliness and Mantra. It was very nice to collaborate with Mira – because she gives the songs a whole new aspect, all her work is always so inventive. With Valgeir, I sent him the tracks once I had gone as far as I could with them. Then I went to Reykjavík in March and I spent 4 days at Greenhouse Studios with him working with him on the final mix. An amazing experience.
Lastly, please take me back to your earliest musical memories and indeed your life in music? How do you see you have developed as a composer and what projects and plans do you have in the pipeline?
EH: Probably trying to figure out Pachelbel’s Cannon on the violin as a kid in my parents dining room having heard it on the radio and then playing it over and over and realising I couldn’t play it alone. And the strange and characterful sound of my parents and their friends playing string quartets which I would drift off to sleep to.
I am a weird mix. I know I’ve absorbed many types of music and ways of making it. I am drawn to song and melody of folk but I have a training in avant grade contemporary classical and also a leaning towards technology and electronics. I love to write for people and collaborate.
I’m working on an opera installation right now for The Corinthia Hotel in London. I have written songs for Allan Clayton, Sofia Jernberg, Puzzle Muteson, Mara Carlyle and a boy treble all linked together with a chorus, organ (James Mcvinnie) and cello (Oliver Coates). And then later in the year I’m going up to Unst – the most northerly point of the UK to write a 15 minute piece for Radio 3’s Hear and Now – using field recordings and one or two instruments. So fun projects ahead.