The Listening Project Symphony

Professor Gary Carpenter‘s composition, the Listening Project Symphony, was part of the BBC Listening Project.

It was first broadcast live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme from MediaCityUK in December 2012, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in front of a specially invited audience of Listening Project participants.

It is available on BBC i-Player and also at Gary’s Soundcloud Channel. Gary talks about the project here.

Operatic composers such as Janáček and Britten often based their vocal lines on speech patterns whilst the American Steve Reich samples speech and loops it into his work. The recently formed Size Zero Opera tackles tough subjects often using unedited texts from national newspapers. The National Theatre has taken ‘verbatim theatre’ even further with ‘London Road’ where transcribed news footage and interviews are musicalized. ‘The Listening Project Symphony’ occupies similar territory – effectively part of a Zeitgeist – but differs markedly from each of these concatenations of incorporated  speech, in that the text is hyper-real: actual untreated voices, actual conversations.

In this respect and particularly from a symphonic perspective, it explores uncharted territory, presenting both as an artwork and as a musicalised social commentary. Further, the piece was specifically intended to be performed live by the orchestra, with the speech recording projected into the concert space in real time. In constructing the work, Reich’s documentary sampling techniques are studiously avoided, but often the lilt and pacing of many of the voices are permitted to provide contour and colour as well as context. The objective in part of the compositional work was to mirror the honesty, warmth and love the conversations evince without over-emphasis, or resorting to overtly cinematic devices.

The piece aspires to travel in tandem with the words – observing, commentating, sympathising; highlighting a little here, spotlighting there. The orchestra ultimately becomes a participant in the dialogue between score and speech – its own character within, as it were. The conversations that the producer Cathy Fitzgerald chose and assembled from the dozens broadcast throughout 2012 are deeply engrossing and evocative. In one of two tangential references to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Listening Project Symphony is dedicated ‘to everyone within…’.

First performance and live broadcast: BBC Radio 4, 14 December 2012, Media City UK, Salford. BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Terry Davies conductor.

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