"I believe art has an immense transformative power, especially where it comes to altering one’s state of mind/perspective, and I believe the best art asks questions rather than provides answers." Jay Capperauld
I had the pleasure to interview Scottish composer Jay Capperauld on his orchestral composition Endlings, an excerpt of which can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/jay-capperauld/endlings-live-extract-with-pianist-james-willshire-and-the-nyos-symphony-orchestra
I discovered Jay's work last year when we both took part in Psappha Ensemble's Unheard Voices project, and was amazed by the expressiveness and poetry of his arrangements. It was an absolute pleasure to find out more about his creative process through this interview, and I have no doubt you will enjoy it as much as I did!
Question: Could you briefly introduce yourself and Endlings?
Answer: My name is Jay Capperauld and I am a Scottish Composer interested in portraying emotive narratives through music. One such narrative comes in the form of my Piano Concerto “Endlings”, which was commissioned by pianist James Willshire and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
The piece tells the story of a handful of the last known individuals of certain species – otherwise known as “endlings”, such as the Baiji Dolphin and Kauaʻi ʻōʻō Bird - as well as animals who are close to extinction such as the Sumatran Orangutan.
Q. What was your creative process like for this piece, and to which extent was it influenced by the theme of the piece? How did the Baiji Dolphin, Sumatran Orangutan and Kauaʻi ʻōʻō Bird find their way into the composition?
Answer: The initial stimulus for the piece came from the plight of the last known individual Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird. This bird had not been seen since 1985, but was last heard (and recorded by David Boynton) in 1987 on the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi calling out to a female bird who no longer exists. I found this to be a heartbreaking story of loneliness and loss which had to be told through our collaboration, and from there the concept of Endlings came into being.
I made the decision to focus each of the 3 movement on a specific animal (Movement 1. Baiji Dolphin, movement 2. Sumatran Orangutan and movement 3. Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird) and channel their characteristics into the material of each movement while attempting to explore the events that led up to their isolation in an abstract musical context. So, the Baiji Dolphin’s movement, subtitled “Drowned in Poison”, uses very fluid and pure material that is gradually soured by jarring sonorities until its musical environment is altered to point where the piano is drowned in an inhospitable sound, in the same way the Baiji Dolphin’s waters of the Yangtze River was polluted by dumping waste. Likewise, the Sumatran Orangutan’s movement, called “The Scorched-Earth Policy”, depicts the current dilemma faced by orangutan’s as their habitat is ravaged and destroyed due to deforestation and industry. It’s sound-world is very earthy and woody in order to capture the sounds of the forest, but eventually this musical environment eats itself as the pianist is chased frantically through its rapidly disintegrating environment. This leads to the biggest gesture of the piece when, one by one, the members of the orchestra leave the stage while singing a repeated modal fragment as they disappear into the wings, leaving the pianist as the only character left on stage – much like the last individual Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird, whose story is then set to tell.
The last movement, titled “The Last Swan Song”, brings us to the crux of the concept at hand in which we finally hear from an embodied endling i.e. the pianist who is now alone on stage. This movement explores the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird’s song captured by David Boynton in 1987 which becomes the main source of material for this movement. I wanted to capture the yearning and melancholic qualities of this bird’s call, especially in the context of its heartbreakingly fruitless attempts to call out to a female who no longer exists. So, the bird’s call circulates in a relentless beseeching refrain that underpins the narrative of this movement as serval attempts are made by the pianist to reach out and pause to await a reply which we know it shall never receive.
Q. Did working on this piece change your perception of the animals that inspired it?
Answer: Composing this certainly gave me a greater understanding and respect for the finely tuned balancing act our evolutionary hierarchy plays in maintaining life as well as highlighting the fact that we are, to greater and lesser degrees, co-dependent on the survival of other species. Although we observe a sophisticated pyramid that is intricately linked from the ground up, it is also incredibly fragile and delicate; and I often feel that we don’t appreciate enough the knock-on impact that losing one link has on the surrounding species. If we lose enough links, the chain will evidently break all the way to the top. So, in a sense, composing this piece has given me an awareness of just how small our world really is in terms of our connections to other species, our environment and the vast impact and responsibility we have in helping to maintain and preserve those links.
Q. How did your performers respond to playing music based on extinct or endangered species? Were they already engaged in conservation issues before, or did they discover this topic via this experience?
Answer: Both James Willshire, solo pianist, and Nick Zeckulin, CEO & Artistic Director of The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland were already engaged in discussion about climate change and environmental issues as we had lengthy talks about the theme of this particular piece and the context in which it would be performed; the eventual theme being “The Power of Nature” which saw my piece programmed alongside Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. It is hard to tell whether the young performers of NYOS Symphony Orchestra were already engaged in these kinds of conversations, but from speaking with them during our rehearsals I found they had a breadth of understand and empathy for the piece which, to me, emphasised just how well informed the next generation is when it comes to these kinds of issues. Whether it is part of their inherent understanding about the world (i.e. there’s something in the water) or the increasing exposure to regular news/online information is anyone’s guess, but I certainly found a group of involved individuals who seemed to understand and appreciated the bigger picture and our context in it.
Q. And how did the audience respond to it?
Answer: The piece was premiered in Perth, Scotland, and then performed again at Glasgow City Halls where it was also recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland. It was powerful to see the audience’s reaction to the work, as I felt that (after speaking with several people after the concerts) the emotional narrative had a strong impact – one couple said they were moved to tears by the end of the piece, which was a first for me; I don’t think I had ever heard of anyone being moved in such a way by my music until that point, and I felt very humbled by this reminder that music can touch people in significant ways.
Q. Has an artwork (film, music, visuals arts, literature, etc.) ever changed your perception of nature?
Answer: Naturally, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” had a huge impact on me musically growing up, as I heard the piece at a very young age through Disney’s film Fantasia. The piece has stuck with me throughout my life and inevitably makes me think of the elemental ferocity of nature which, in turn, leads me to a strong belief in Darwinism and evolution. However, other musical forces such as Beethoven, Kate Bush, Charles Ives, Harrison Birtwistle, John Luther Adams, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Pauline Oliveros, Hans Abrahamsen and, to an extent, Erik Chisholm (whose music is intertwined into the innate bucolic landscape of Scottish culture) have all highlighted the earthly qualities inherent within music that makes it an interconnected part of nature itself. All of these influences converge in “Endlings” which I hope portrays my deep reverence for nature and the landscape in which we not only exist, but if we regard it well, in which we are also able to live and thrive.
Q. What are the roles art can play in fighting the climate emergency and environmental crisis in your opinion? And what can artists and art organisations do?
Answer: I would consider myself as a composer only, and not an activist; I try not to attempt to alter anyone’s politics, or force any kind of false narrative on an audience. I’m also not interested in acting as a lecturer on how we ought to live our lives and by what means etc. So, in this instance, I wanted to use my platform to simply try to give an honest portrayal of the plights faced by the species/endlings involved in each situation and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions.
I believe art has an immense transformative power, especially where it comes to altering one’s state of mind/perspective, and I believe the best art asks questions rather than provides answers. I would hope that this piece has provoked at least one person to ask a question of either themselves or indeed the current climate situation, so that they can find their own answers as an individual. If music does its job properly it should lead to questions that open up an honest inner/outer dialogue that grants us access to truths about ourselves and the world around us, whether it is grim truths or indeed beautiful insights.
Q. And finally, where can we find out more about your work? Are there any projects you would like to promote?
Answer: My work can be found at www.jaycapperauld.com and, rather excitingly, I have recently self-published my solo, duo and choral music which is now available to purchase as downloadable scores on my website at https://www.jaycapperauld.com/shop
I found this interview with Jay fascinating. I very much enjoyed finding out more about the story behind Endlings, and hope we will all get a chance to attend another performance of it very soon!
One answer from Jay which particularly resonated with me was this:
" If music does its job properly it should lead to questions that open up an honest inner/outer dialogue that grants us access to truths about ourselves and the world around us, whether it is grim truths or indeed beautiful insights."
What are your questions after reading this article?
Please share your thoughts with us by commenting on this post or on social media, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to participate on the blog.
Jay Capperauld (born 1989) graduated Masters in Composition with Distinction from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2014 under the tutelage of Dr Gordon McPherson. Jay has since composed for various artists including; BBC Proms, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, RSNO Community Orchestra, The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Psappha Ensemble, Hebrides Ensemble, The Wallace Collection, Red Note Ensemble, the Glasgow School of Art Choir, WSSO Trust as well as composing solo works for Katherine Bryan (Flute), Alison Teale (Cor Anglais), Lewis Banks (Saxophone), Laura van der Heijden (Cello), and also a Piano Concerto called ‘Endlings’ for the pianist James Willshire and NYOS Symphony Orchestra. Jay has had his works conducted under many prestigious batons including Martyn Brabbins, Thomas Dausgaard, Ilan Volkov, Sir James MacMillan, Jessica Cottis, Peter Wiegold, Garry Walker, Michael Repper and Pierre-André Valade. Jay’s music has been broadcast several times on BBC Radio 3 as well as BBC Radio Scotland and BBC iPlayer. Jay has self-published his work for solo, duo and choral settings which is available to purchase online via his website. More info about Jay and his work: www.jaycapperauld.com
You can listen to an excerpt from Endlings here: https://soundcloud.com/jay-capperauld/endlings-live-extract-with-pianist-james-willshire-and-the-nyos-symphony-orchestra