Interview with Simon Bethell on his composition for the CTYC US tour

As part of the programme for our upcoming tour to the US, CTYC conductor Leon has commissioned a number of new works from up-and-coming young African and South African composers, on the themes of loss and joy. Two of these have been from highly talented members of the choir, Conrad Asman (baritone) and Simon Bethell (bass).

Kyle Rother sat down with Simon to discuss his new piece, a setting of Psalm 133 “Hoe goed, hoe mooi is dit as broers eensgesind saam woon!”

Talk to me about the piece. How did it come about, how did you go about composing it?

Well, Leon asked me to write a piece on this text for the tour programme. It was supposed to be a bit of showstopper, specifically to end the first half of the concert, but the way it worked out is slightly different. As well as the text, Leon sent me a YouTube video of Harry Belafonte singing a Hebrew folksong called Hine ma tov – which is actually based on the same text as the psalm, which translates roughly as “isn’t it good for brothers to dwell peacefully together?” – and that song kind of inspired the structure of this piece, but in a very loose way. The piece is in what’s called a rondo form, with 5 to 7 clear sections, and the same melodic material comes back repeatedly, but in different settings. It starts out quite slow and almost peaceful, but then – like the folksong – grows in speed and excitement until the end, which is quite joyous and exuberant.

What was your approach to setting the text? Did you have any trouble with it? What does it mean to you?

For me, a text already has music in it, and every person will bring that out differently. I actually hadn’t composed anything for a while before I wrote this piece, that’s why it took me quite a long time! And I wrote quite a few introductions to the piece, which I discarded before I settled on the right one. For some people, when composing choral music, the text will be the top priority, but for me the music always takes first place. I did struggle a little bit with the Afrikaans text,  specifically the idiomatic pronunciation of the word Aäron, but Leon helped me out with that. It is a religious text, so obviously there is a lot of meaning in it, but I would prefer that everyone bring derive their own meaning from it.

What is your usual composition process?

Composing for me is like building a house – you have to put all the bits together in the right order. Often a piece only has two or three main “ideas” in it, and those form a core around which you build the rest of the piece. I usually compose in my head, and I tend to get bored with an idea fairly quickly – that’s why I had to start this piece so many times! When composing choral music especially, I like to follow strict harmonic rules, and voice leading is very important. All of the lines should make sense on their own first, and then fit into a harmonic frame. In that sense, I follow the Russian approach to counterpoint – people like Prokofiev and Rachmaninov.

Where did you write the piece, and what was some of your inspiration?

I started writing it in London. I actually went on holiday there specifically to write this piece, because I felt like I needed an artistically stimulating environment to draw inspiration. I went to a lot of concerts, mostly new music, and a lot of choral music, specifically of French composers like Durufle, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc. The piece was also partly inspired by a trip to the Tate Modern, where I saw a lot of work by Lousie Bourgeois, who believed that art should be autobiographical. Some of her work is quite strange, but it resonated with me, because I also like a lot weird contemporary music as well – things like Nine Inch Nails, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd! I tried to bring some of that into the piece through my use of harmony, which veers between quite late romantic and atonal.

What is some of the other music that inspires you?

I’m quite fond of big orchestral composers like Prokofiev, Sibelius and Holst, but also have quite a liking for South African composers – Roelof Temmingh, Hubert du Plessis, Arnold van Wyk. And Hendrik Hofmeyr, who was my composition lecturer at university, is something of an idol. Then I also like some more contemporary or modern composers like Samuel Barber and Igor Stravinsky.

Speaking of university, talk to me a little bit about your background in composition.

Well, I started taking composition lessons from Stephen Carletti when I was at school. Then at university I did a BMus with a focus on composition. I won the Peter Klatzow prize in my third year of study, and the Nick Abbott prize in my first year, which is given in the memory of Nick who was a promising young composer at the South African College of Music before his tragic death. That one was quite special for me, because I have a personal connection to the Abbott family.

Do you have any particular favourite moments from the piece, or anything you’re particularly proud of?

As I said, the piece kind of builds in tempo and rhythmic complexity throughout. I generally tried to stay away from a strong sense of rhythmic pulse, using a lot of cross rhythms and irregular time signatures – in places the piece almost has a traditional African feel to it, but in a Westernised way. Anyway, so there’s a moment in the middle – one of the sections is a kind of fugue, with the voice all imitating each other, and at the end of that section everything builds up to a kind of climax of complexity, everything derails and then resolves from chaos into order – I’m quite pleased with the way that turned out!