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'Linger' at The Brontë Parsonage Museum
When the Brontë Parsonage Museum approached me to compose a new work for the Brontë family piano I felt honoured. They were aware of my site-specific music having visited Taken, a year-long music installation commissioned by Mid Pennine Arts for Clitheroe Castle in Lancashire which marked the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trial in 1612, and thought my work might be suitable for their first music commission at the Parsonage.
My interest in the Brontës focuses mostly on Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I had read a number of years previously. The novel explores many issues primarily alcoholism, faith and the life of upper-class women in the mid 19th century. Anne's portrayal of Arthur Huntingdon's descent into alcoholism, and ultimate death from it, was presented plainly and without emotional extravagance. I can remember having great admiration for the boldness of the author in tackling such a subject in such an even-handed way. Anne Brontë was clearly driven to deliver some form of 'truth' to her reader. In my view, 'Tenant 'is a remarkable novel whose story is a thoroughly modern one; Anne doesn't shirk from presenting the 'horror and repulsion' of living with an addicted partner.
My original training in music was as a classical pianist. I started to play at a young age and studied it seriously from the age of fifteen until my early twenties. An opportunity to compose a suite of new pieces for Emily Brontё's piano was a thrilling, if somewhat frightening prospect. I visited the Parsonage numerous times during 2015 while working on the project, trying to get a sense of each of the rooms, taking time to think about what I might wish to compose.
The Brontё piano was fully restored to working order just three years ago by Ken Forrest, the project was driven by community music leader and singer Virginia Rushton and primarily funded by Bronte Society member, the American, Virginia Esson. After over a hundred years build-up of dust, dirt and strands of Emily’s hair, the Brontë family piano was clogged with soot and effectively derelict, with much of the internal mechanism missing or completely unusable. Extensive research trips took Mr Forrest as far afield as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before he was satisfied that he knew how to tackle the reconstruction.
The first thing I noticed about the piano was its smaller size, the fact that is was up-strung and how responsive to touch it was. It has a beautiful, bright tone and various combinations of unusual resonances due to its age. Initially, I improvised on the piano to try and understand its 'sound' and how it 'spoke' in its different registers. We understand that Emily was a fine pianist who studied the instrument seriously and played daily. Music was very much part of her inner, creative world and something she regularly expressed herself through. I understand that Anne was more drawn to singing and Emily would accompany her. Indeed her songbook is in the library at the Parsonage.
Linger is the first piece of music to be composed specifically for the Parsonage and in particular for the family’s instrument. Also of significance, it offers audiences a rare opportunity to hear the Brontë piano, a treasured item of the museum’s collection.
Playing the Brontë family piano has been a special and surprising experience. During the various recording sessions at the piano there have been times when I have been overwhelmed by the history surrounding me in the Parsonage and to play the piano which Emily played daily was an incredible experience. Hard to describe, something best expressed through music which is what I have aimed to do with Linger.
I decided I wanted to compose six piano pieces, for six of the rooms in the Parsonage itself. It was very important to me that the music worked within the context they were set. I certainly didn't want visitors to the museum to be overwhelmed with my music and interpretation panels. The essence of Linger is a 'flavouring' of each room in which it is placed. The music colours the visitors experience without driving a particular narrative. Music is a hugely powerful idiom; able to work very quickly on a psychological level – convincing a listener of what to feel. This is something I strongly wanted to avoid.
The pieces 'lock into each other' when heard at a distance. In essence, Linger is a larger work for six intertwining, contrapuntal voices which are separated into six rooms in the Brontë home. Elements of each piece will 'drift' or 'leak' out of each room forming a sonorous space all of their own. Visitors are invited to dwell in quiet contemplation and thought; to linger.
The challenge for me as a contemporary classical composer was to compose music which didn't 'push' the visitor into an emotional response. For me, it is essential, particularly in heritage spaces that an artist allows space for interpretation; to trust one's audience and their unique capacity for individual interpretations.
When I first visited the Parsonage a number of years ago, I was almost afraid to breathe; I was in awe. There was an element of magic about my reaction which I wanted to harness with Linger; we will only ever enter the home of these remarkable women for the first time, once in our lives, I wanted to reflect that.
The pieces are short, none is longer than five minutes. I specifically requested that the sound level is kept low as when visitors enter the museum, the first thing they see on the right hand side, in Mr Brontë's Study is the piano itself. I believe our mind makes connections between the visual and the aural in such situations. Indeed people have said they sometimes sensed that the room installations were being played live downstairs because they had seen a piano when they first entered. I love these instances of psychological play when I work in the site-responsive medium as a composer.
The Linger installations are accompanied by a new 13-track Brontë 'concept' album
comprising the six room compositions and other original work featuring performances by leading new music improvisers Seth Bennett, Sylvia Hinz and Kelly Jayne Jones. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë provides the inspiration for an additional four soundscape pieces and a song performed by the British award-winning, singer-songwriter Tasmin Archer. The text is freely taken from Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) with kind permission from the Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
It was important to me that the album sounded as authentic as possible. I wanted to capture the unique sound of the instrument in the room it was played in. The recording took place on the Brontë piano in Mr Brontë's study with the intention of including the natural sounds of the environment including the grandfather clock ticking, birds outside the parsonage window and piano pedalling. These sounds have been deliberately included in the recording to give the listener a true sense of the timbre of the piano and the atmosphere of the room it is housed in.
About Ailís Ní Ríain
Born in Cork in the Irish Republic, Ailís Ní Ríain is a contemporary classical composer and writer for performance based in West Yorkshire, Northern England. She trained as a classical pianist and composer in Ireland and the UK. Her music has been performed in Carnegie Hall New York, The National Concert Hall of Ireland, The Royal Festival Hall, The Purcell Room and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and on RTE Lyric FM. In addition to composing concert music she often collaborates with visual artists, improvising musicians and has composed short operas, music-theatre and
music installations for a number of heritage sites.
To download Linger the album & listen to extracts
Ailís Ní Ríain plays the Brontë piano
Introductory video to Linger
Short documentary about Linger
The restoration of the Bronte piano
The Brontë Parsonage Museum
Linger at The Brontë Parsonage Museum