Roxanna Panufnik. Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega Photography

Roxanna Panufnik in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1

The composer Roxanna Panufnik’s work encompasses opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, orchestral and chamber compositions, through numerous international commissions. Her affinity with many world musics, and her interest in creatively synthesising these interests with the western classical music tradition, led to ‘Four World Seasons’ for violinist Tasmin Little 2 , which was selected by BBC Radio 3 to launch its 2012 Music Nation weekend 3 and subsequently released on Chandos Records. In this conversation, Roxanna spoke to Ed Hughes about ways in which existing musical scores and practices are referenced in her work.

A recurrent theme in this conversation is how exploration of different musical cultures returns one to elements that connect rather than divide them; and also the importance, for Panufnik, of faith in stimulating and even originating musical expression. Music is used to explore the nature of religious faith and what connects varieties of spiritual experience. Is the exploration of both historical and current musics from all over the world an important element in releasing the personal creative voice? In this context, the conversation also considered the distinction between ‘appropriating’ music from cultures outside one’s own, whether historical or contemporary, and creatively assimilating elements as influences which start to inhabit and shape one’s compositional voice.

Ed Hughes: In your recent music there’s this striking interest in world music, and in making connections across genres.

Roxanna Panufnik: Also I use a lot of plainsong but I completely reharmonise it, and transform its rhythms.

An example of Roxanna Panufnik’s reharmonisation of plainsong

I work with world music and with faith music. For example, a new piece that is about to be premiered (November 2018: Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland 4) in Poland and the UK refers to a Sephardic Kol Nidre 5 from the Middle Ages, which plays an important part historically in one of the poems I set. So I do work very closely with music from round the world 6, and historically as well.

‘Votive’ for string quartet, by Roxanna Panufnik, based on the Sephardic Kol Nidre, also used in Panufnik’s oratorio ‘Faithful Journey’.

EH: Is that to do with integrating music and text, making really direct connections between musical origins and text?

RP: The only time I really do that is when I’m bringing together music from different faiths. Particularly the Abrahamic faiths. Because the most important fact about Christianity, Judaism and Islam is that these all believe in the same one God. And that’s so seldom remembered or referred to. So I often make that point through music. And it’s really interesting because the chant from those three faiths all came from the same one place in the Middle East, starting off in one place as one thing, and as [practices] of how people communicated with God and received his message [changed and] moved geographically, it took on all sorts of things like different modes and different ornamentation 7. If you went back to the really bare bones of plainsong, and you put it in a middle Eastern mode, and added some ornamentation, that is what you would get – you would get some kind of chant that’s Sephardic or Oriental or Ashkenazi Jewish, or even – and you have to be very careful about how you write about this – the origins of Islamic chant as well, which I’ve studied quite carefully.

EH: How have you managed to do that?

RP: I wrote a Violin Concerto called Abraham for Daniel Hope. When 9/11 happened I was pregnant with my first child. And it made me absolutely terrified about what kind of world I was bringing her into. The Violin Concerto was based on the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac and it appears in all three of those faiths. I wanted to start the piece with an Islamic call to prayer. I consulted two Mullahs – one Shia and one Sunni – and one said fine, go ahead, but the other one said I don’t think you should – why don’t you listen to lots of them and see what the common elements are and write one of your own? So that’s what I did.

Daniel Hope plays Roxanna Panufnik’s Violin Concerto ‘Abraham’
Savannah Music Festival, Georgia, USA (2008)

EH: Did that feel like a bit of a warning?

RP: It did and I completely respected that and I was very glad to have had that conversation. I had always suspected that that would be the case. But as a result, I studied mainly Pakistani and Turkish calls to prayer. And found the common elements of those: the ornamentation, the kind of rhythm, the way it moved, step by step, and then created my own chant.

EH: I like the idea you are allowing something profound to inhabit your voice.

RP: Definitely. But also I think you have to be so careful about cultural appropriation – people are very sensitive to that. When I am working with people of other nationalities or faiths I work very closely with them. There was a case in Canada recently where there was a musical made using spirituals. There was a backlash from the Afro-Caribbean community about how those spirituals were being used 8 .

EH: I guess also it’s very difficult in today’s world in which sampling is considered to be both creative, and the subject of intellectual property disputes and exploitation in commercial music.

RP: I think the other thing that is important to consider – I have a collaboration CD coming out with North Indian musicians 9 – the whole question of cultural appropriation came up in the context of an interview with an interviewer who clearly wanted some sort of radical statement which I wasn’t willing to give. But I did say we live in a big world where actually many of us are genetically mixtures of other cultures – I for one am a massive mix of Northern and Southern European, Christian and Jewish, I’m a melting pot of different things, but I also wonder if anyone ever said to any Asian composers you can’t write for a Western orchestra because that’s cultural appropriation. And you look at all the amazing works by Takemitsu, from Bollywood film composers, and I think all sides have to be looked at.

EH: I think motivation and intention are very important. There’s a soundtrack to an early film I listened to recently – a new score by Anoushka Shankar to the 1928 film Shiraz 10 – and I think she did it very well. It felt like it was going to be very traditionally scored (sitar, tabla) at the beginning; but gradually she allowed Western idioms to infuse the score. In a way this starts to address the fact of Shiraz being originally an Indian/British/German ‘co-production’.

RP: Do you use world music at all?

EH: No, my appropriation to this point in time has been from early music – a fascination for early motets, particularly 15th/16th century early music. I fell in love with some of the Tallis Scholars CDs when I was a student. That was formative for my language, in particular John Sheppard’s music 11. This summer I’ve gone back to that and spent the summer intensively writing a Sinfonia for 17 instruments which is like a transformation of early motets. So I guess what I’m trying to do is go back over that ground and understand it better.

I’m interested that you use the orchestra – you don’t attempt to bring non-western instruments into the picture?

RP: Not orchestrally, but the recent CD ‘Celestial Bird’ (track 1) mixes North Indian instruments with South Asian performers; I have a Carnatic singer, I’ve got a sitar, I’ve got Indian violins, Indian percussion. And I’ve also worked with a Shakuhachi player; I wrote a piece for Chinese Hammered Dulcimer a long time ago – so I have done that. It requires a huge amount of research! It’s an intensive process.

Roxanna Panufnik discusses working with South Asian and North Indian musicians in ‘Unending Love’, a track from the CD ‘Celestial Bird’.

EH: That’s fascinating. I listened to your Three Paths to Peace (2014) which is related to your Violin Concerto. I admired the layers across the orchestra.

Three Paths to Peace (2014) [extract] by Roxanna Panufnik

I wondered, how are you making those simultaneous layers work – is the work notated or free?

RP: It is notated – everything is notated and there are written instructions as well. It’s all carefully planned. I use midi playback when I have ideas about combining different things: I use playback to help with that. Partly because I’m a terrible keyboard player – it took me 12 years to get to grade 5 and that’s where it stopped. I have this bizarre rhythmic dyslexia; I can hear, create and imagine rhythm; but I can’t play and I could never conduct. The Sibelius system helps to reassure me that I’ve written what I thought I heard, and also with the multiple layers of things.

EH: I like the way you gradually introduce the material so that you shine a light over the different parts of the orchestra and then gradually build up this really quite complex texture before the listener even realises what is happening.

RP: I do worry sometimes it is too complex. I’m very sensitive to what the audience around me are feeling. One of the worst things about being a composer is sitting in the audience while your premiere is happening. I can sense there’s a sort of ‘Huh?!’ going on in the audience! But I think as people hear these things more than once, if I’m lucky, it becomes clearer to them.

EH: That seems to me to be a quality of your musical language – the rich harmonies I detected in Three Paths to Peace (2014) and also in the Four World Seasons (2012). Is there any relationship to Vivaldi, as pre-cursor to works about the seasons?

RP: None whatsoever, but the seasons are a great format. I’m just in the process of writing Four Choral Seasons 12 for The Bach Choir.

EH: So, the soundworld of Four World Seasons, am I right in thinking that this work surveys different parts of the world?

RP: Yes, in my orchestral Seasons Autumn is in Albania, Winter is Tibet, Spring in Japan, and Indian Summer.

EH: Did you go through a rigorous study process?

RP: Yes – finding out elements of music from all those different countries then using them with my own musical language. The people I go back to time and time again are SOAS who have a wonderful ethnomusicology department. One day I’d like to do an MA in Ethnomusicology. It’s just so interesting. I do think that student composers ought to be doing it too. There’s so much to learn from these different countries’ approaches to music, and genesis of their music.

EH: What are the benefits of this work with pre-existing material? In the sense that my former teacher Robin Holloway had to engage with Schumann in order to get himself out of the modernist paradigm, whereby you can’t write anything because there are so many rules, is it like that or is it more to do with projecting a vision of the integration of different cultures?

RP: I think it’s probably much more the latter. It’s actually an amazing tool for aiding inspiration. The most frightening thing for me is a blank sheet of paper. And I’ve got to start a piece and there are no words, no structure, no theme. And to have not only a theme and a concept but also some very different musical elements to play with is a fabulous gift.

EH: Do you love classical music? In the sense of pieces that come down to us through orchestral concerts, and so on? Has this kind of work changed how you feel about it at all?

RP: Well – I could take or leave a lot of late 18th and early 19th Century music. People are quite shocked when I say that because composers like Beethoven come under that banner. But I feel Bach says it all, in terms of emotion, and his amazing harmonic sense. Other music just leaves me feeling a bit flat, particularly the 19th century. And I only start getting really excited again with the late French romantics and the Russians at the beginning of the 20th century. So – classical music – I don’t tend to ‘put it on’. I do love really early church music and my son is a chorister. 13 So for the last four years I’ve had a lot of the early music you’ve been describing and I love and have greatly come to appreciate that music and the partnership between that music and the acoustic of a big church or cathedral – it very much does what I like to do anyway which is to smear harmonies and to mix them together by the very nature of the reverberation within that building. So – it’s fascinating – it’s really interesting that I’ve come to appreciate that style of music.