Photo: Lillie Harris

7 August 2019

Award-winning composer Benji Merrison is perhaps best known for scoring David Attenborough’s BBC series ‘Dynasties’. His exciting new NYCGB Commission xoxvx ovoid  is making its world premiere at Snape Proms next Tuesday (13 August); Benji worked with NYCGB Young Composers and National Youth Choir of Great Britain to develop it. We caught up with him to talk about writing for the National Youth Choir, and the fascinating process of making this new piece.

“This piece has always been about the choir itself, in essence I wanted to explore the deconstruction of the human voice – in that way it’s more of a concept. The piece xoxvx ovoid is just one possible output of this seed concept, of which there are infinite permutations.  The piece is named like a random file on your hard drive, which you named without thinking.

I started developing the piece at the National Youth Choir spring course in Uppingham last April. I worked with the choir members and NYCGB Young Composers to explore different ideas – to discover the range of possibilities of the human voice, and in particular the specific voices of these young people.

It was a very interactive process, we tried many ideas out. Out of these ideas, I focussed in on simple music cells which we recorded at Abbey Road Studios – the choir giving feedback on the process.  I wanted the piece to be like holding a mirror to the choir itself.  We used imaginary words that don’t exist in any language – these came from the imaginations of the choir.  Once these musical cells had been recorded, I took them into the studio and processed them to make sampled instruments, and used a modular synthesis and other forms of processing to morph and mangle the voice into something new.

From these processed sounds, I developed a 6-7 minute electro-acoustic backing piece.  I then started to relate this back again to the human voice, and imagine how this could be over-scored, the piece was returning full circle.   I used a few different compositional techniques, sometimes human and sometimes computer based methods and aleatory. Finally I developed the electroacoustic composition into a quadrophonic mix.

The idea at Snape is for the piece to be played over quadrophonic speakers set up so that both the audience and the choir are within the sound space. This way the audience will experience the human and electroacoustic elements as part of the same experience.  The whole piece is about exploding the human voice – imagine if you hummed just one note – and with a magnifying glass you could focus in and see all of music within that note.

I have plans to develop the concepts started with this piece into real time electronic processing of the human voice. The way I see things, a piece isn’t ever finished, it’s just where you stopped with an idea.

When I was commissioned to make the piece, I thought long and hard about what it should be.  Should it be some lovely four part harmony? That would be nice… but I thought, no! I believe I was asked to challenge what a piece of choral music is in the modern day, using all the amazing sounds and tools we have on our laptops, phones and tablets and how all that relates to the talents of these amazing young choristers. 

If you take away the trappings of liturgical history and all the traditions, then choral music is simply organised sound using the human voice as its instrument. In some small part, this piece explores that simple truth."

xoxvx ovoid premieres on Tuesday 13 August, 7.30pm as part of Snape Proms, at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. 

Tickets are available from Snape Maltings Box Office Click here

Applications are currently open for NYCGB Young Composer Scheme 2019/20. Click here for details of how to apply

We are most grateful to the John S Cohen Foundation, kind funders of the commission and world premiere.