Saturday, May 28, 2011

Alfie Hay's Tom

I've been working for the last week or so orchestrating some songs from a musical written by Alfie Hay.
It's called Tom, and is based on Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies.
This is a musical that Alfie wrote in the 70s (before I was born), and it was the first of many that he wrote for the children in the schools in which he has taught since that time.

When I was at primary school, Alfie was my headmaster, and it was under his tutelage that I learned a great deal. He conducted the school orchestra in which I played clarinet, and we learnt how to transpose together, often transpose on sight - a skill that has stood me in very good stead since that time! Alfie taught me how to perform, and the importance of performing for others rather than for myself. He made performing fun, social and part of every day life. I performed in a different musical that he had written every year of my study, and finally took the lead in Francis (based on the life of St Francis of Assisi) in my final year in 1989. I played my first publicly performed composition (called originally Shapechanger, but in the context was renamed Into Danger) during School Party, which we performed in 1988. Experiences of collaboration with Alfie, writing scripts even though we were school children, gave a real sense of ownership, and he always treated us as equals. This sometimes meant that he expected a lot from us, but he always gave so much energy to every project in which he was involved. Since I left the school, I continued to be involved with Alfie and with his family. My sister and I, and his two daughters put on various performances, musical and dramatic, and I continued to be encouraged (egged on) and challenged by him through secondary school, and into my A-Levels and beyond.

Last year, Alfie contacted me and asked me if I'd be willing to help him out with his latest revision of his cantata/musical Jewel of the River. I took this on willingly, and Alfie came up to Edinburgh to work on some of the songs with me. I arranged them for voice and piano, and roped in a student to sing the vocals for a recording to be distributed to schools in the area around Henley-on-Thames. These schools then rehearsed the material to perform it with soloists and choreography at The Hexagon, Reading. Meanwhile, I orchestrated my arrangements for a small chamber line-up (two flutes, oboe, saxophone, two horns, two trumpets, tuba, piano, percussion, strings - in the end the saxophone line was taken by a clarinet, and the tuba part by a bassoon) and ended up conducting the orchestra on the night while Alfie directed the massed choirs. It was a lot of fun, and well worth the stress and trials that went into the production. See the local paper's review here.

Later last year, Alfie rang me up and asked me if I'd be willing to do the same again with a new musical, this time a revision of his first composition. I recorded the songs with a former student at the beginning of this year, and am currently working on the orchestrations. The orchestrations are slightly different this year. Rather than a semi-pro chamber orchestra, I'm writing this time for secondary school children from Langtree School (flute, clarinets, saxophones, and a bass instrument). The challenges are different obviously and have stretched me in different ways. I was thinking, initially, that something along the lines of Britten's Noyes Fludde might be called for, but I have since moved away from the ideas of massed percussionists playing kitchen sinks towards a simpler wind-based ensemble inspired by the groups I played in at school (and, following the closure of my local Saturday morning music school, at Langtree School on Wednesday afternoons).

Alfie is self-taught as a composer, but writes songs that are so catchy that I find myself singing them without even realising. Both of my vocalists have since complained that they can't stop singing them, and I have been told that I can't leave scores lying around the flat because they lodge in the brain so firmly and persistently. It's been a privilege to work with the material, to analyse Alfie's harmony and bring it out in both piano arrangement and in orchestration. Working with someone else's material, whether this orchestration work or the type-setting that I have done in the past (and will do again) for Fabrice Fitch, is always really nice, and I discover new things about material and the basic craft in which I am engaged every time.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home