A Lady of Letters: Judith Weir Draws on Taoism and an Eclectic Range of Texts to Create Her Witty, Erudite Compositions

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In a glass-walled conference room at a well-known music publishing house overlooking the roofs of London, the 53-year-old British composer Judith Weir, the subject of a mini-festival by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre and on Radio 3 this month, is talking about her career. She is a narrator-composer who tells stories through music. Audiences come away not only entertained, but also informed. For this reason, the pending intensive weekend concert series is called "Telling the Tale".

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At the climax of the festival, Weir will tell the story of London in her latest work, CONCRETE, commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Inspiration came from the area around the Barbican itself, which was the site of ancient Londinium's fort. Strangely, a firebomb raid in 1940 destroyed local housing but exposed for the first time the 1,500-year-old Roman battlements beneath. "This started me thinking how cities rise, fall and rise again," says Weir in her soft Scottish burr, "and how the ancient city is still there beneath the new. It's a story of life perpetuating itself. That is the central idea in the piece."

The capital letters that appear in the title are there "for their slab-like, industrial effect," she explains. "I've become a bit of an enthusiast for concrete. It's immune to fire. You mix the ingredients with water and it turns to stone. The construction is simple, yet the result is strong enough to build to 30 storeys. There's an obvious analogy, too, with musical composition."

Weir is carrying the enormous breeze-block of the manuscript under her arm. She is still in the process of orchestrating it--strings, wind, percussion, voices. Of these sand-and-grit constituents, the dominant element is the choir.

"Knowing that I was going to write one, I have been to loads of chorus and orchestral works over recent years," she says. "My criticism of lots of performances is that the chorus often seems rather in the background. I really wanted this to be about chorus singing. So I am orchestrating it, shall we say, 'motet-style', in that what the chorus sings is always the main focus, with a section of the orchestra provided to help them out, to make their colours brighter."

I ask where she found the texts that the choir sings, and she reels off an eclectic list. The piece does not tell the story chronologically. There is a narrator who, throughout the work, delivers extracts from John Evelyn's "very exciting and incredibly vivid" account of the Great Fire of London in 1666. "I think he must have been wandering around in the ruins," Weir says. There are passages from John Stow's Survey of London, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, a Roman sentry's song from the Penguin Book of Latin Verse, a fragment of the Greek liturgy used in the cult of the bull slayer Mithras, worshipped by pre-Christian Roman Londoners at a temple on Queen Victoria Street, the ruins of which still stand, and Shakespeare's Sonnet 55, which speaks of love outliving the crumbling of cities.

Words and texts are important to the composer, who reads voraciously and widely. As a child, she was surrounded by the case histories of the mentally ill, her father being a psychiatrist at a hospital in Wembley, Middlesex. The family lived in the grounds. Both parents were amateur musicians and she took up the oboe, achieving selection for the National Youth Orchestra.

She went to school at North London Collegiate, which is built on an estate once owned by the Duke of Chandos, Handel's first British employer. Through her music teacher she sent compositions to John Tavener, who took an interest and put her in touch with the Society for the Promotion of New Music. "This was encouragement of a practical sort, which was very valuable at the time, and I shall be forever grateful to him," she says meekly. …