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Jessica Curry’s Perpetual Light premieres at London’s Old Vic Tunnels

  • Date: 25 July 2011
  • Artform: Music
  • Area: South East
Londinium Choir performing Perpetual Light, Old Vic Tunnels, 2011 Londinium Choir performing Perpetual Light, Old Vic Tunnels, 2011, Chryssa Panoussiadou

For the past three years, 37-year-old Brighton-based composer Jessica Curry has been working on one of the biggest and most powerful choral pieces of her career.

Perpetual Light: Requiem for an Unscorched Earth is a site-specific work based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the nuclear bomb. It honours those who lost their lives in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.

The award-winning composer was supported in 2011 with a £25,950 Grants for the arts award to bring her ambitious project to fruition. It was originally conceived with support from another £21,570 Grants for the arts award in 2009.

Jessica worked with producer Sarah Ellis, Londinium choir and visual artist Jo Fairfax to create a final production of Perpetual Light, which premiered at London's The Old Vic Tunnels on Saturday 4 June with two sold-out performances.

Jessica has been working as a composer since 1998, following training in Screen Music at National Film and Television School. She has received commissions, residencies, grants and awards from organisations such as the Royal Opera House, Welsh National Opera, The Wellcome Trust, Prix Ars Electronica, The Royal Society of Arts, PRSF and Location One New York.

Her latest soundtrack for computer game Dear Esther won at Indiecade, Los Angeles and was selected for Prix Ars Electronica.

Jessica Curry talks to us about the three-year process behind her latest work, Perpetual Light, and why she likes writing music for computer games.

Developing Perpetual Light

'Perpetual Light is a story about one man, Robert Oppenheimer, and also confronts the best and the worst we can achieve as humans. I felt that using a choir was a powerful way of representing the best of our achievements, which is our incredible ability to create harmony.

'I first got started on the project in 2009. I always do a lot of research so I bought a range of books; on nuclear bunkers, Robert Oppenheimer and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I also read survivors' accounts - they're horrific. Reading the stories was a draining process. But the Requiem is also about people's will to survive. We still have those bombs and that technology, but we're still here.

'Oppenheimer believed that he would create something that would enable peace. He wasn't a warmonger. His regret was so moving to me:  he never got over what he'd done. How do you carry on your life knowing that you caused that devastation?

'It took me three or four months to write the Requiem's text and the piece as a whole took well over six months. The text came from the Catholic Requiem Mass, which is a set text that composers use. I changed and added other elements as well, including speeches by Robert Oppenhemier and also the Hiroshima Peace Song, which was sung in Japanese by a children's choir.  

'Some of the words in the original Requiem's Latin text fit perfectly with the theme of nuclear warfare. For instance, the line 'a heart as contrite as ashes' beautifully encapsulated Oppenheimer's regret mixed with the results of nuclear explosion.  I also translated some of the Latin into English as I felt it was so important that people understood the meaning of the words.

'As a composer, the best feeling is when the music comes easily.  With Perpetual Light sometimes I wrote a whole piece in a day. Perpetual Light has 17 different pieces including the soundscapes. Once I dreamt the music in my sleep - when I woke up, I had this piece in my head. That's what's fascinating about the creative process.

'I think my work is often more emotional than intellectual. I didn't set about trying to make the music accessible but I hope that it is. The reviews so far have picked up on this. It's not 12-tone serialism, something with lots of rules where if you don't understand the rules, you don't understand the music. I wrote something very much from the heart.

'Visuals were important to the project too. It was great to work with Jo again - we'd collaborated on a Welsh National Opera commission earlier this year, and I knew from that that he'd do a great job.

'Perpetual Light was a real struggle to realise. I've never made a work that was so difficult to stage. One of the challenges was working site specifically.

'The Old Vic Tunnels (London) were very much a blank canvas with limited power and no theatrical lighting or sound but it was so worth it. With the trains rumbling ahead, it had the feel and sound of a nuclear bunker and the atmosphere on the night was electric - you could have heard a pin drop.

'I couldn't have made Perpetual Light without support from the Arts Council's Grants for the arts and from Music Relationship Manager, Ben Lane, who understood the project from the beginning and believed in it all the way through.'

Perpetual Light at the Old Vic Tunnels

'I think Perpetual Light is the best thing I've written and most proud of. It was such a relief when the show finally went on, and it was everything I wanted it to be. I had this dream and this vision, and it sounded and looked like that.

'The pictures tell a good story. You see Jo's amazing planes that were modelled from the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. In the next room, you see candles beautifully placed and ash on the floor with gravestones with light emanating from them.

'The third tunnel had the choir with the film projected behind them. It was very simple in a way. I wanted it to have the Japanese minimalist aesthetic.

'What was good was that people who wouldn't normally come to a contemporary classical music concert came to Perpetual Light. We got the multi-media audiences, the film audience, and so on. The gaming audience also came, which really meant a lot to me. I think people were interested in how the mix of venue, music, film and installation would come together.

'I'd seen the choir (Londinium) perform a choral work that was an installation in a crypt so I knew they'd be up for it. They have a pure tone that's important for Perpetual Light. I've had many emails from the choir saying what a profound experience it was for them. And I think that's true for all of us who were involved.'

Dear Esther: music for computer games

'I made the soundtrack for a game called Dear Esther, which was very low budget. It's part of a new scene called 'notgames', which is a computer game without any game play. It has no goals no outcomes, no rewards. In Dear Esther you wander around an island. It sounds like nothing, but it's all about the story; about love, grief, and redemption.

'We thought it would be this small experiment, but it just exploded. People loved the game and the music. For the soundtrack, I wrote soft, melancholy piano music. People think gamers are all aggressive boys, but I get fan mail from people saying 'your music really touched me' or 'can I have the sheet music?' That's a whole new audience for the music I write. It's worth trying something different, even if think you know your audience.

'Dear Esther is getting a commercial release later this year. I had no real budget last time, but now I'm re-orchestrating the music for real musicians. The visuals have also all been redone. It's beautiful - I can't wait.

'For composers, there are so many opportunities with computer games. As an artform, gaming is in its infancy, and I think it's going to get bigger and bigger. It's such an exciting time. You have a lot of freedom. Film has a lot of conventions and is quite rigid. In games, people are willing to push the boundaries.

What's next?

'I'm about to work on two large-scale games commissions. One will be for choir, which is really exciting.

'I want to do another large scale project like Perpetual Light, which is my vision, but not right now - I feel pretty exhausted. Watch this space!'

Grants for the arts is Arts Council England’s open application funding programme. It supports arts activities that engage people in the arts and helps artists and arts organisations with their work.

The Lottery-funded scheme is a flexible fund and welcomes first-time applicants. For more information, please see: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/grants-arts/