This latest (Un)easy Listening post looks at the music of John Woolrich, one of 16 composers we’ve commissioned to write songs for our Notes to the New Government concert. Philip Cashian, fellow composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, reveals some of Woolrich’s techniques and musical influences. Join us on Saturday 9 May to hear the world premiere of his song Singing in the Lifeboat.

The history of John Woolrich’s songs

Of the 16 composers writing new songs for this concert, John Woolrich stands out to me as being one to particularly listen out for. Vocal writing – whether for children in the classroom, opera, choir, solo voice and orchestra, or making instrumental transcriptions – is central to John’s creative output over the past 30 years.

In the late 1980s he and Mary Wiegold started work on the Mary Wiegold Songbook, commissioning fellow composers to write songs for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello and bass. At last count there were nearly 200 songs in the collection ranging from Elvis Costello’s The Trouble with Dreams to Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due Risvegli e il Vento.

Written for Mary Wiegold’s songbook in 1988 and barely 90 seconds long, John’s song The Turkish Mouse bears many of the fingerprints of his music: a strong and memorable melodic line repeated with decorations, a ticking (double bass) pulse, soprano saxophone, wit, clarity of intent and a clever use of repetition to establish musical ideas:

John is also one of the 100 or so composers who contributed to the NMC Songbook released in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of NMC:

And he wrote a song last year for Aldeburgh Music’s Friday Afternoon project.

His brand new song for the London Sinfonietta, Singing in the Lifeboat, is scored for voice and nine instruments. The instrumentation is typical; the percussionist plays five tin cans and the clarinet is replaced by soprano saxophone. In a song with a message, the words need to be heard and the vocal line has been carefully written so that all the words come across and are never buried in the accompaniment that frames them. John’s choice of texts is always brilliantly considered and appropriate and this song is no exception in it’s setting of fragments of Voltaire:

Don’t think money does everything or you’ll do everything for money.
The comfort of the rich depends on the abundance of the poor.
to get to the top it’s not enough to be stupid, you must also be polite.

John Woolrich’s influences

Hanns Eisler is a model for John with his accessible but subtly abstract style. Here is one of John’s favourite Eisler songs:

Tom Waits is another song writer greatly admired by John (and by Colin Matthews, another of the 16 composers creating songs for Notes to the New Government). To my ear, the influence of Waits can be heard in John’s approach to orchestration – listen out for 08:28-10:46 in John’s piece The Ghost in the Machine:

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