Composer Tom Coult goes in search of lost time
Tom Coult has a flair for the theater. Although meek and reserved in person, the 33-year-old British composer writes colorful and fantastical music, often deploying instruments as if they were actors in a play. Yet, until recently, he confined himself to channeling all his theatrical zeal into works that were not intended to be performed on stage.
When Britten Pears Arts and Music Theater Wales jointly asked him to write his first opera, he took up the challenge. “I was keen to avoid just taking a story off the shelf, like this or that myth,” he says. With her librettist Alice Birch, the playwright and screenwriter best known for her BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney normal peoplehe made up a whole new story. Purple is about a conservative, patriarchal village in which time literally evaporates. At the start, the day is missing an hour, the next day it is missing two, then three and so on until after 24 days the plot comes to a standstill in a temporal black hole where everything ceases to exist.
Concepts such as black holes and clockwork may seem strange to opera, removed as they are from the world of human drama. But Purple, premiering at the Aldeburgh Festival in June, is richly dramatic, according to its composer. “There are so many metaphors to extract from the idea of a malfunction of time,” he says as we meet in a cafe in the London Bridge space where rehearsals of Purple occur.
In his opera, he symbolizes freedom for the eponymous heroine, a stranger to the village, who savors the disruption of her routine existence. But, says Coult, one could also interpret the tale as an allegory of modern society: “There is something brutal and inflexible in the nature of clockwork, and in a world where everyone is rushing always to get things done, the idea of wasting daylight hours is a uniquely modern terror.
In his story, Coult has no interest in maintaining scientific realism. “Clocks literally move two hours in an instant.” Instead, it is concerned with emotional realism within the confines of its absurd plot. “The artwork that always appeals to me is wild and fantastical, but delivered with an absolutely straight face,” he says. “So Alice and I played pretty straight, trying to explore what’s happening to the city, what’s happening to the people, and what would happen to us, knowing that we had 24 days getting shorter and shorter to live.”
He describes his score as a gradual descent into chaos. “Towards the end, as the world of opera begins to disintegrate, the music itself begins to freeze. The pieces are starting to fall. The tuning gets weirder and everything is generally dried out and frayed. Even the music he writes for individual characters is purposely pockmarked. “One thing I love about Alice’s work is her precision in how people stumble over words. Each point is precisely imagined. . . I tried to incorporate that into the way the voices of the characters behave and imagine my path to becoming a creature of spoken word theatre.
To some extent, Coult already is: his mother is an actress, his father is a writer and theater archivist, and as a child he was often taken to the theater. Yet he was never tempted to follow in his parents’ footsteps. “I was too close to this world,” he says. His entry into music was the result of an accident: at the age of five, he electrocuted himself by sticking his fingers in a badly wired lamp, so his parents introduced him to the violin and the piano to help him find a mobility in his hand. He didn’t like to practice. But after switching to guitar as a teenager, he applied to study music at the University of Manchester, where he developed an enthusiasm for contemporary classical music and discovered his true talent: composition.
Since then he has received a steady stream of awards and commissions, with the BBC Philharmonic naming him its ‘Composer in Association’ last year. His music, widely admired for its originality, has already earned him several accolades, including a prize from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Still, Coult remains modest, describing himself as a musical scavenger. “I often listen to music for entirely selfish reasons, wondering if there’s anything in there that I could use myself.”
His sound universe, he says, is therefore quite eclectic, especially in Purple, which combines elements of tonality, atonality and microtonality. He sees little point in pinning his colors to a single mast. “I don’t think we composers are fighting the battle [over tonality] more. I don’t have the energy to fight him, and I don’t know which side I would fight for anyway.
According to him, the world of contemporary classical music is exciting precisely because “there are a million different artists from various genres doing interesting things and you don’t even have to go to their concerts to consume their work. You can listen to it online. Relaxed as he is in his approach to musical style, Coult is meticulous in his work ethic, with an obsessive streak when it comes to detail. “It takes me a long time to write my music,” he says.
It’s probably taking even longer right now, considering he’s often up at awkward hours with his toddler. When we meet, Coult says he takes painkillers because of the physical toll of rocking his son to sleep. And yet, he tells me, his sense of discipline hasn’t wavered, even though he sometimes dreads the music-writing process. “I like to have composed, but I don’t like to compose. Ninety-five percent of that is like pulling teeth or slowly climbing a mountain. There’s only one part that I like: the remaining 5%. »
But that 5% is crucial; it keeps him coming back for more. “When everything starts to ramp up, you make thick, quick decisions and you think, ‘Wow, this is really cooking.’ It’s so exhilarating,” he says. “I’m pretty happy with the route I’ve chosen.”