I started work on Mannaz in a fairytale cabin in the New Hampshire woods surrounded by snow that regularly came up above my knees. I would occasionally step out in the morning to find bear tracks that led past my door on their way to a compost area further down the lane. I was on an artist fellowship at MacDowell, it was March of 2018. The fairytale cottage came equipped with a grand piano and a fire, as all the best fairytale cottages do.
I spent much of my month there listening to recordings of birdsong and transcribing them into parts for singers. It was labour intensive work. Each song was complex and unique with superhuman intervals and virtuosic rhythms that refused to be pinned down to the conventions of western music. It was one of those times when it’s entirely rational to ask yourself ‘Have I entirely lost my mind out here?’ I had begun working on it because of the theory that human speech is partly evolved from birdsong (Charles Darwin, Shigeru Miyagawa). I had noticed similarities myself: if you remove words and simply listen to the pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic of human speech you can find surprising comparisons to the songs of certain birds, but out here in the woods on my own, it started to feel as though I’d taken a wrong turn along on one of the meandering paths and was only getting more and more lost.
I began adding some of the repetitive sounds made by the black capped chickadees and dark eyed juncos that hung out in the woods around the cottage, unlike the recordings of blackbirds, robins, wrens and finches I’d brought with me, these were less melodic (or perhaps more accurately, I could not capture the full complexity of their nuanced songs) but their little bursts of rhythm, sung back and forth in the deep silence among the snow-topped trees, added a feeling of structure, a feeling that a whole ecosystem was present.
I ended up with 72 independent lines of music. But at the end of my retreat I was left wondering whether I’d created anything worthwhile. The page looked deranged: for starters to be readable each page needed to be around two feet tall and none of the 72 lines bore a relation to the others. I was kicking myself: a month in a fairytale cottage where I could write anything I chose to and I created this unwieldy miasma of sound. I had no idea what I would do with it.
Yet I never fully gave up on the concept. My work in recent years had been with sound dispersed across areas of woodland using multiple independent audio speakers and I loved the idea of a woodland filled with ‘human birds’. When I was approached by Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles to create a large sound installation I set about adapting the work to the site. The main theme of the piece (‘The Sky Beneath Our Feet’) was the life of trees but, in trying to conjure something of the life of trees with the piece a question had come up ‘how do the humans sound to trees?’
I titled the piece ‘Mannaz’ from ancient Norse, the word has multiple meanings including both ‘man’ and ‘divine harmony’ – I liked the idea of the piece evolving slowly into a harmony, a metaphor for the possibility of cooperation and consonance with the natural world.
Finally, in 2020 there came the chance to hear what I had created. Singers were drawn from some of the most the UK’s most respected choirs such as The Sixteen, the BBC Singers Tenebrae and others.
We braved the wet February weather and piled into Press Play Studio into South Bermondsey – lunch was a variety of chip related dishes at the Millwall Football Club cafe nearby (highly recommended). Our choir of eight singers had the task of multitrack recording it: in other words they would need to record nine final takes to create the necessary layers of the piece.
It became a dread. During our seven days of sessions our producer, Jim Unwin, would say ‘ok, I think we should go back and record another layer of Mannaz’ there would be a collective groan. I didn’t blame them – it was intense, our singers were some of the most seasoned and talented professionals around but this was asking a lot: the rhythms and melodies of the first minutes bore no relation to each other, it was the opposite of a chorus: they were left grabbing stray notes and rogue rhythms out of thin air. Getting to the end of one take and being told ‘ok, we just to do another eight of these’ was testing.
One of the hardest things was that recording this was made it impossible to get much sense of the final piece. It was only several weeks later that I received a rough mix from Jim and knew what we had. I loved it. I knew that didn’t mean that others would but finally, having imagined the sounds and the effect for two years there it was, albeit in stereo, the final step would be to assign each voice to a separate speaker for the array in Descanso Gardens.
I set about mixing for the array at my own studio, which has 20 speakers. Running mixes 16 speakers at a time. I joked to a Jim; ‘it’s easy mixing for 72 speakers really, it’s just like mixing 36 stereo albums simultaneously’.
I was excited for how this would finally sound. But another problem was now making headlines. A new virus had appeared and was growing at an astonishing rate, Italy was badly hit and had locked down, now other countries were following suit… Having spent much of 2019 writing the piece and all of 2020 up to this point recording and mixing it a question loomed in front of me: would the piece even go ahead? I began emailing my agent nervously about contingency plans.
I was set to fly to New York on March 22nd to be present at the showing of an excerpt from my opera Ga Sho at Joe’s Pub, then flying on to LA to check levels and be present at the opening at Descanso Gardens, followed by a drive up the coast to friends in San Francisco and then back to the south of France to begin work on an even larger piece, set to open in summer of 2021. I watched helplessly, the UK went into lockdown, and one after another date was cancelled as each new project was put on hold…
Ultimately The Sky Beneath Our Feet opened to the public in May, two months delayed. I was luckier than most in my profession. But it seemed highly inadvisable to take the 11 hour flight from London to Los Angeles. Unable to get there in person, I asked Jack Klink if he would walk the installation just like a regular visitor and send me the recording. Below is the result of his trip. It was intended so that a composer might get a glimpse of his own work, but it occurred to me afterwards that others might like the experience too: