The ideas behind ‘The World Around Us’ with Ben Rowarth
For World Earth Day, Birdsong composer Ben Rowarth discusses the process behind composing 'The World Around Us'.
I grew up in the remote countryside of Northumberland, about twenty miles north west of Newcastle Upon Tyne, very close to Hadrian’s Wall. Although I now hugely enjoy living in London, a city full of life and energy, the first eighteen years of my life inevitably left me with an equally strong pull towards more natural environments. I crave the sense of calm, the rugged beauty and dramatic impact of places where it seems nature still rules and humans simply fit into its pattern. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, I had not fully reflected on this important part of my life until the opportunity arose in 2022, when The Marian Consort commissioned The World Around Us.
The World Around Us is an educational piece written for eight part vocal ensemble and children’s choir. The project came about in reaction to the current, pressing issue of climate change and the degradation of our planet as we know it. It is a huge and existential problem; one with which we all must engage. However, this piece, rather than focussing on many of the more depressing predictions for the future of humanity, is approached from a more optimistic viewpoint. If we stop and look at ‘the world around us’, what is it that we take for granted? What do we not want to lose? Or rather, what should we fight to save?
When deciding what, from this enormous and slightly generalised idea of ‘the natural world’, the piece should focus on more specifically, I was able to take my inspiration from the primary aged children that would be involved in the first performances. They all had their own elements of the world around them that they liked, disliked, loved, found interesting or simply wanted to save because it felt like home. In workshops with conductor Rory McCleery, we explored how these things could inspire musical sounds and how we could paint what was in their imagination through music. After gathering up their (many!) ideas, each child wrote a poem about their experience of the world around them and short fragments from each of these formed the basis of the text in the four main movements.
To bind all of this together, each movement also features a poem by Sarah Teasdale. Her clear, vivid descriptions of nature provided a main text with enough simplicity to create the central structure within which the many and varied poetic fragments provided by the children could fit. Her poetry also touched on another key aspect that I wanted to engage with musically; the idea of ‘renewal’. Again, this was something that we explored in workshops with the children: the various cycles found in nature, the seasons, nature’s capacity to renew itself and human capacity to facilitate this. It therefore made perfect sense to reflect the four seasons in the four main movements.
Within this idea of cyclical renewal came the underlying structure for the piece as a whole; not only in the slow, seasonal development of nature in the four movements, but also in the way the musical material is constructed. At the heart of each movement is the same, four-phrase, musical refrain. The continuity of the refrain is initially hidden, as it is placed with new musical material and used in different ways within each movement. The ‘non-refrain’ music and text specific to each movement uses different methods to work with the refrain (musically), not against it, recycling it and ‘renewing’ it each time. As the piece progresses, the refrain also increasingly reflects a ‘cyclical renewal’ idea within itself as it begins to be used in canon, another idea we had considered in workshops. By the end of the final movement, the refrain is sung in canon by four groups of children.
Aside from this simple metaphor and the children’s contributions in the texts, ideas that began in the workshops also came out in literal, musical reflections of what they saw and heard in the world. We created melodies that moved up and down in pitch to ‘draw’ the shape of mountains in sound and combined multiple falling lines to ‘paint’ the idea of snowfall. Pairs of swallows were represented with darting, dancing duets and you can hear the sound made by swarms of birds at dusk in the swell of shimmers and trills as all parts combine in the final movement.
Even when trying to approach the subject matter of climate change through a relatively hopeful lens, it has the potential to be overwhelming , especially for children. To counter this, the main movements would be broken up with light hearted interludes. In a completely unforeseen chain of events, this led to me writing my own children’s story. The story is set on the Pembrokeshire coast (not explicitly, but in my head a least), features a magical creature called ‘The Gribbin’, and warns of what happens when humans have no consideration for the natural world.
When considering what I don’t want to lose about the natural world, I can’t help but end up thinking about the Pembrokeshire coastline in South West Wales, where my wife (who grew up in Wales) and I spend as much time as possible. Like much of rural Wales, it seems not just untouched, but wild. Here you feel like nature still rules; it’s a truly magical place and was an obvious starting point for a piece focussed around saving areas that we love. All of the different elements of the story are inspired by real locations along this coastline, mostly near a beautiful village called Solva which sits next to the hill from which I took the name ‘The Gribbin’. It’s a short and very simple children’s story which, I hope, puts across the right message — the idea that if we do the right thing now, we can make things better.
Imagery, sounds and situations in the world around me are almost always my musical starting point. It was inspiring to share with the children in this project the ways in which these things can be reflected on musically. There was also something humbling about the way the children approached the music: without cynicism, agenda, the fear of criticism, or in fact any consideration for what the listener would think of them (or me) on experiencing it. Their only motive for making music was enjoyment. As a result, creating this piece became one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had.