Joby Talbot has had a busy year. Having left his post as a member and string arranger for The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s arch pop classicists, several years ago, Talbot has been busy on a vast array of projects. This year alone he’s scored four film soundtracks, and has worked in New York, Hungary and Los Angeles. For the big screen he’s scored themes for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy and League Of Gentlemen Apocalypse, and continues to work with Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House.
With much of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme consistently mixing and matching art-forms, its fitting that such a renaissance man as Talbot should be one of four composers scoring pieces for Optical Identity, Theatre Cryptic’s collaboration with Singapore’s T’Ang Quartet. Alongside works by Kevin Volans, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Rolf Wallin, Talbot’s piece, Manual Override, is the only new commission for a piece of music theatre which explores synaesthesia, the relationship between visual and aural stimuli.
“As somebody who grew up playing in bands as well as playing classical music,” Talbot observes, “I’ve always railed against the rather boring way in which classical music is presented. I had a long time o think about this when I played a concert of the Domineo once. As my heart almost stopped from boredom and I nearly sank into a comma, I just thought, there’s got to be a way that you can present music in the concert hall in a way that can engage on something other than just a sonic level. It’s the most obvious thing in the world from playing in bands that people pay their money and they expect some kind of light show and some kind of dialogue to go on between the audience and performers, and that it will be some kind of event that’ll take them out of their every-day lives, does something with their heads and take them out the other side. I’ve always tried that with my own group, and found that people really get off on that, and the sort of visual worlds Theatre Cryptic created with Gavin Bryars were absolutely beautiful and exactly the sort of thing I’d been banging on about. So it was all very fortuitous.”
The Cryptic collaboration came about after an un-named Scottish composer was forced to drop out of the project, and Talbot’s publisher suggested Talbot’s name to Cryptic producer and director Cathie Boyd. Boyd had heard Motion Detector, a piece by Talbot involving sampled lutes. Talbot expanded on the idea for Manual Over-ride. As one of a younger generation of contemporary composers whose work straddles the pop mainstream as well as film and theatre soundtracks while retaining an integrity with their stand-alone output. It could be argued that it was Michael Nyman who set the template for this, and there are resemblances in Talbot’s work.
“A lot of classical music has suffered by being part of a museum culture,” Talbot says. “I started writing music pretty much as soon as I started playing. That seemed completely natural, but it’s shocking just how little music by living composers is actually heard. It’s only been that way in the last 50 years or so, and it isn’t natural. If you were living in Haydn’s time and you wanted to hear some music, you’d go to church and hear a mass that had been written the week before. Now you can buy Mozart CDs, while the new stuff gets ignored.”
Born in Wimbledon, Talbot studied composition at the Guildhall of Music and Drama, and first met Neil Hannon in 1993. Dividing his time between the Divine Comedy and his own projects, Talbot formed his own ensemble, Billiardman. In 2004, Talbot’s first Proms commission, Sneaker Wave, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall and Classic FM appointed him as Composer in Residence. An album, Once Around the Sun, grew out of this, and a year later he premiered Path of Miracles, a major choral work for Nigel Short's Tenebrae. Later this year Talbot will debut a new electronic score for Wayne McGregor's new work, Genus, and will become composer in residence for Australian Youth Orchestra. If Talbot wasn’t in the major league before, he certainly is now.
Of the T’Ang Quartet, Talbot likens them to the Kronos Quartet, the similarly styled ensemble who are global stars of the contemporary classical world.
“They constantly try out new ways of working and attempt to re-define what a string quartet can become,” according to Talbot. “They play with the idea of a string quartet being the rock band of its day. That’s everything that Optical Identity’s about as well. Instead of just having four chairs on a stage, the musicians are moving about in especially designed costumes. There’s lighting used, film sequences, everything arranged to make it more interesting as an event. Every angle is covered, and each piece of music blends seamlessly into the next, so it becomes some kind of profound journey. If you strip everything away it’s actually a pretty hardcore classical concert, but presented in this way lends it a context which will give people a far more rewarding and exciting experience.”
Optical Identity, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 31-September 1
The Herald - August 28th 2007