Vic Hoyland
Composer

Interview with Vic Hoyland

Essex-Xingu souvenir programme page 8

Essex-Xingu souvenir programme page 9

Extracts from an interview with Vic Hoyland by Seona Reid (1979)

You define Xingu as a piece of music theatre. Why music theatre?

“The first point to make is that all music in performance has a visual element. The musicians playing their instruments — the kinds of musical gestures they make, the way the instruments are set out, one side of the orchestra bowing against the other side — is already something to watch and it has always concerned me that if with music in performance you already watch as well as listen, then with composing you should make as much use of that visual element as you can, not only with movements within the orchestra but also by extending that element beyond the orchestra and incorporating theatre design, lighting etc. It is also important to me that music theatre is not some kind of opera, removed from the proscenium and placed around the orchestra. All the ingredients of opera are contained in music theatre — lighting, design, accompaniment, speech, song etc. — but in music theatre they are not working together to tell the audience a story, they are not distant from the audience and they are not necessarily all happening all the time."

“With Xingu and all music theatre pieces, I am simply saying ‘watch' because the visual element is as much the piece as the music itself."

Why did you choose the Xingu as the basis for the piece?

“I was commissioned to write a 'jungle symphony'. I looked everywhere for a source. Africa and the Pygmies of the Congo interested me but they didn't interest me enough, so I turned to the Amazon and was particularly fascinated by a book called "Xingu, the Indian, their Myths" by the Villas Boas brothers in which they sought to explain the Indians' view of their environment and how they behaved within it. The Xingu approach to living seemed so sensible and so appealingly sensitive to their environment. They need to hunt in order to eat and survive but they only hunt when necessary and take only what they need — to take more would be wrong, wasteful and would treat their environment badly. Before hunting they seek permission of the forest and they do this by dancing and making themselves beautiful. They also believe in the co-existence of different levels of reality — the practical and the spiritual. By dancing and drug-taking, they can leap from the practical to the spiritual and there, can talk to the animals and understand what the animals say to them. It may take several attempts to enter the forest. Having done so they spend the night there and have dreams in which they make love to the animals and ask their permission to hunt them. They have no sense of separation from, or fear of their environment, the single exception being the jaguar, the only animal which hunts humans. The whole hunt is undertaken in a spirit of love — there is no sense of cruelty involved. I found this mythology, this attitude to life very appealing and chose to base my piece on the Xingu."

How did you translate these realities and myths in to a music theatre piece?

“In the piece these ideas break down into three main sections. The first section is concerned with the idea of entering the forest to hunt. There are three attempts at this and in the piece the chorus makes moves towards the orchestra, the orchestra at this point representing the impenetrable. The chorus dance and sing and make various hunting calls as if anticipating tomorrow's hunt. The second section is concerned with the leap from the practical to the spiritual level the night before the hunt. At this point the music draws together all the elements previously introduced, draws them together and explodes them — suddenly you are on a different level, you have made the transition. For me, this transition is the central idea of the piece and is represented physically by the blue butterfly and musically by a quote from Wagner. All sorts of amazing things happen on this level — the Indians become very close to the animals and, after the Wagner reference, the piece becomes almost totally animal noises. The third section begins the following morning with the actual hunt — you are back on the practical level. The hunt takes three or four attempts before it is successful, there is a confrontation with the jaguar when the music becomes menacing and aggressive and then the piece enters the carnival, the celebration of the success of the hunt. So, the piece ends on a note of optimism. The forest has provided for the Xingu Indians since time began and for them, it always will. The cycle will begin again."

“It is important to say that the music does not tell a story. I don't want people to say ‘Oh, that's the point where the monkeys are hunted or the jaguar hunts the hunters’. It is not as specific as that. l don't think music in itself can tell a story. As the various elements of the piece work on each other, counterpoint against each other, you can sense the development and growth of the ideas. I want to present a sequence of sensations for which the audience finds its own meaning, its own structure. It does slightly worry me that people will expect some sort of ethnic extravaganza and that’s not what I’m doing.”

“In some ways, the progression in the first section is like the Western idea of a labyrinth - you make various tracks through to find the centre but you do not necessarily succeed. The centre of the labyrinth is the point at which you transcend physical reality. This concept bears many similarities to the process of writing music. Before you write a piece, you make all kinds of preparations - read a lot, take notes, perhaps try to write - but there comes a time when you have done all the research you can do and you have to make that leap into actually writing the piece. You do labour to get to that point but that labouring itself is not the point - it merely serves to focus your mind on the problem. To actually solve the problem, you make some kind of transition"

Design and photo by Kate Owen

You refer to the blue butterfly as the central idea, the leap from one reality to another. Can you explain this idea further.

“Well, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I had a strange experience some years ago which has remained with me and which l have tried to capture both in my previous piece, Jeux Theme, and in Xingu. Staying with friends in Paris, we went to see Chartres Cathedral. I was interested in the sculpture and the stained glass which is mostly blue, a very vivid blue shining on to the stone. It had a strange ephemeral quality - it was only light but somehow it acted on the stone. I was looking at the floor, looking for the large labyrinth I knew was there somewhere obscured by the chairs. Suddenly another reality presents itself, not really through your own efforts although you may have made an effort to reach that point - you leap in to another sort of world. The blue of the light shining on those stories, the colour coding of the Xingu by which red represents life and blue represents spirit, all came together in the blue butterfly. I hope it will give the sensation of that leap - because it is so large, so much larger than life, because it is beautiful and comforting but also slightly imposing and menacing and accompanied musically by this quote from Wagner.”

Why have you incorporated references from other composers in your piece?

"All the musical quotations have to do with the idea of animals speaking to humans. The central reference is Wagner's "Forest Murmurs'', the wood dove telling Siegfried where to find Brunhilde, and within the Wagner I have included all sorts of bits and pieces, like the section from Ravel’s "L'Enfant et le Sortilege" in which the child goes to sleep at night and all the animals come out to talk to him; like a tiny section from Mahler's Third Symphony - "What The Animals Tell Me"; and like an extract from Stravinsky's "Rossignol”. l have used these quotes as if they were found objects. By including them within the framework of my own music I have tried to give them a completely new perspective. They are objects in themselves with a musical syntax totally different from my own and in that central section, they present themselves as a totally separate reality. It makes the leap musically from one reality to the other.”

“At the end of the piece I have used a quote from the final section of Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” but for a different reason. When I was researching the South American ethnic element I was struck by how close the material I found was to “Les Noces” or “Rite of Spring.” That kind of primitive music is universal. It is very much strong rhythm, singing round one note rather than a melodic line and it is extraordinary how close music from the Brazilian forest is to a Russian folk song and so, writing the music it became inevitable that I was always hearing Stravinsky and it seemed that if l was hearing him, he had better be in the piece. Also, by using Stravinsky at the end, I wanted to make the point about the universality of folk music - it has the same qualities wherever you look."

Vic Hoyland (1979)

Did the fact that you were writing the piece for a youth orchestra and a chorus of schoolchildren, or the numbers involved (100 musicians and 75 chorus) inhibit you in any way?

“I was worried at first because my music is very complicated and difficult but I heard a recording of the orchestra playing something of Stravinsky which was incredibly strong and exciting. The orchestra was obviously very good, very competent and my fears were dispelled. l felt I could write what I wanted to write without any ideas of having to simplify the music because they were young. In fact, I have written a piece that is far more difficult that I might normally have written precisely because they are young."

Seona Reid is Press and Publicity Officer for Ballet Rambert (1979)