Music for Music: Cevanne’s Own Voice
The Voice of Welcome: Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
by Dan Ursini ©2021
There are many additional compositions on Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian’s album Welcome Party that I could eagerly talk about beyond those already discussed in part one of this article. Indeed, there are many other levels to the album I have yet to even mention. For example, much poetry is employed and alluded to—many on the challenges of exile. There is considerable reach in culture and timespan in these references. I am afraid it is beyond the limits of this column to do so.
But I can bring special attention to the exceptional replies that Cevanne made to the interview questions I sent her. They are not the usual brief answers. Rather, they are complete statements, carefully considered and eloquently expressed. She shares perspectives about herself and her music that address issues common to all artists at this hugely uneasy juncture in the emerging global community.
Without changing any of Cevanne’s language, I reorganized her remarks by topic and added occasional cover lines. But apart from this, it is all in her voice. She opens with her remarks about “Eye-Music.” It is an intriguing visual and tactile innovation she created to enrich interpretation of written scores.
Cevanne: Inkwells is an ‘eye-music’ score, with holes carved into the manuscript, revealing notes beneath. When Ziazan sings with ornamentation in this piece, it is in response to graphic notation in the form of rabbits! They hop across the stave, inspired by the murals painted by the late Khadambi Asalache at 575 Wandsworth Road, a house he left to the National Trust in England. This way, whenever the piece is performed away from the house, the performer can still feel connected to the place.
On the Impact of the Pandemic
Cevanne: The process of putting together an album, particularly during a pandemic, was certainly an intensive experience. The lockdown halted my fundraising, and for a while my creativity left me completely (which I’d never experienced before). But when my ideas were liberated, and when we could book recording sessions with a degree of certainty, I was taken aback by how much clarity the experience had brought to my compositions—even my singing voice has changed.
The Pandemic: Lullaby Between Two
Cevanne: I created “Lullaby Between Two” as a wordless vocal improvisation using Ableton Live while I waited for the ambulance to arrive for a member of my family (who ended up dying in hospital, having caught Covid-19 there). When recording my arrangement for choir, the singers took a little while to find the emotional shape of the piece without any literary markers. But I wanted to leave it just how I captured the moment in real time, a document of those moments when you just have no words.
The Voice: Of Words and Beyond
Cevanne: Our voice is with most of us from birth: it is a direct form of communicating our emotions and stories. I am very grateful to have been able to set the vivid poems of the late Khadambi Asalache from his collection, Sunset in Naivasha.
Throughout the album, I’ve also written for the voice with limited words, or none at all, for a range of reasons.‘Ser’ simply uses a single word, meaning ‘love’ in Armenian, and is dedicated to all refugees. My ambition is for international choirs to translate the piece with a similar meaning, and perform it in their tongue.
Musical Influences of Henry Purcell, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Kate Bush
Cevanne: Over the years, I have been experimenting with ornamentation, as a composer and singer. Perhaps ‘ornamentation’ is the wrong word, because the detail it brings becomes central to the piece’s texture, to its tuning, and to the expression of the individual performer. I have drawn from so many masters, with inspiration ranging from folk music of the British Isles, to the Armenian diaspora, and the intricacies of Henry Purcell, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Kate Bush, for example.
Influences Continued: The Blues & Bessie Smith
Cevanne: We are so fortunate that some of the blues musicians recorded their trail-blazing art in the USA. The songs of Bessie Smith—her wit and her pain—still ring with contemporary meaning, although a century separates us. It amused me that Khadambi Asalache had painted murals of Bessie Smith, Anna Pavlova, and Cleopatra on his bathroom wall, so the title ‘The Ladies’ is a pun. In such esteemed company, Khadambi’s quote from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra seemed to fit the blues: an isolated woman, refusing to going down without a fight… “Ah women, come. Have no friend, but resolution, and the briefest end.”
References by Other Performers: 19th century wax cylinder recordings & Bel Canto technique
Cevanne: When someone performs my work, I love to hear the references they bring from their own cultural experience, which adds variation, depth, and character. For example, in ‘Inkwells,’ I could hear Ziazan using her Bel Canto technique—informed by 19th century wax cylinder recordings—to produce an agile and intimate sound, even quoting other tracks on the album, like ‘Muted Lines’ and ‘The Ladies.’
On Comedy and Laurie Anderson
Cevanne: My favourite comedies do that—it cuts to the truth and brings release. I love the work of Laurie Anderson for many reasons, but one is the mastery with which she tells stories both profound and absurd, and how one state intensifies the other.
On Birdsong and the Jealous Owl
Cevanne: ‘Walls & Ways’ includes a poignant poem by Asalache called ‘Parting Of Ways,’ in which someone returns home from abroad to find, a little clumsily, that they have changed, and so has their sense of belonging. ‘Swallows & Nightingales’ is fun to perform because I notated their birdsong, and encouraged Ziazan to imitate the flashy vocal aerobics of the territorial nightingale. When I wrote it, a magpie pecked at the window, when I recorded it, a pigeon coo’d on the roof, and when I mixed it, an owl screeched outside. I think they might have been jealous. I will have to write a song for them next.
Authentic to How You Hear the World
Cevanne: I am glad you find my music welcoming to the ear, because what I write is authentic to how I hear the world. Some like to talk about crossing boundaries, but I don’t see it that way. Musically, I imagine mixing registers in my artistic voice to converse and connect more freely: I might adjust my dialect, but it’s still my voice. I love the intertextual nature of Jazz in this way. In the past, programmers have struggled to categorise an artist like me, but increasingly I am finding the culture is changing and becoming more confident and open in the UK. In terms of authenticity, I have taken courage from how Khadambi Asalache painted scenes of places he’d only visited in his imagination. The internal journey is the most powerful part of experiencing music. My album hopes to be a welcoming place for you to make up your own mind.
Artist-in-Residence in a True Work of Art
It is significant that Cevanne created much of Welcome Party during a two-year stay as Artist-in-Residence at a two-year LSO Soundub residency—a program of the London Symphony Orchestra meant to encourage new work. Cevanne was composer-in-residence in a tiny home of great artistic value now part of the National Trust: 575 Wandsworth Road in London. The Kenyan polymath Khadambi Asalache once lived there; and over a 20-year period, using scrap wood and a single carving knife, he filled it with spectacular fretwork covering virtually every inch. Cevanne drew much inspiration from it.
It is fascinating that Cevanne lived in a place so replenishing to the imagination when creating music dealing with such themes as hospitality and exile, life as a stranger, and the quest for a home.