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A conversation with Tarik O’Regan on his stirring “Triptych,” in Emory concert

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In a program called “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency” — a free concert March 27 at 4 p.m. — the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church will present three epochs of British music, including the local premiere of a recent cantata that has found a remarkably wide audience: Tarik O’Regan’s “Triptych,” for string orchestra and mixed choir.

The concert will open with a Henry Purcell anthem, with Emory organist Timothy Albrecht and the Vega String Quartet joining the Emory Chamber Choir. Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade” will feature tenor Timothy B. Miller and Jason Eklund on horn.

Born in 1978, O’Regan (at left) is a formidable composer with a knack for understated beauty and quietly piercing emotion. His music has taken off internationally, with devoted performers, several Harmonia Mundi CDs and many performances. “Triptych” is on a recording called “Threshold of Night.”

I called the composer at an office he maintains in Cambridge, England — although since 2004 he’s been living in New York City.

Pierre Ruhe: Tell me about “Triptych.”

Tarik O’Regan: Basically, it represents two different pieces that formed a bigger one. The first movement, “Threnody,” was the first complete thing I wrote after I’d moved to New York from Oxford. I wanted something to reflect the dynamism of a vibrant American city after coming from a rather genteel British city, and I wanted to write something that was fast. This is a generalization, but a huge amount of contemporary music, and contemporary choral music, is slow. It does not move fast. I tried to combat that.

Ruhe: In Britain, do you feel it’s because so many composers come out of the choral tradition, with all those heavy-set anthems and Tudor cathedral music, which moves slowly so you can hear it in a reverberant acoustic?

O’Regan: In England, there is a love of [Renaissance masters] Byrd and Tallis; I love them, too. I’m talking about contemporary composers, in Britain and the States and all over. The ones who write faster music tend to be older, like Harrison Birtwistle or Elliott Carter. The younger composers I like and admire often write slower music, like Thomas Adès and Oliver Knussen. It seems we tend to keep subdividing the bar into smaller and smaller fractions, but the music doesn’t get faster. I find that harmonic movement tends to be slowing down in most contemporary music, and particularly in choral music.

So with “Threnody,” I wanted to write something that was fast. The piece was commissioned by the Choir of London, with the idea of going into Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to work with musicians from different areas and different backgrounds, like the Barenboim-Said East-West Divan Orchestra. So “Threnody” was taken up by another group and performed in 2004 in Jerusalem and the West Bank. . . . That’s partly why I wanted the text to speak more universally, to people from all backgrounds. And I wanted it to be fun to sing. It was a professional bunch of Brits that would go out and work with local performers and children together.

Ruhe: In “Threnody” you use short poems from William Penn, William Blake, a Psalm from the Bible and an Egyptian poet, Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayoumi.

O’Regan: The Egyptian poet was introduced to me by my mother, who’s Algerian. She was always interested in English translations of Arab poets.

Ruhe: So Algerian and Irish?

O’Regan: [laughs] Both my parents are British. My mother’s background is Algerian, although she was born in Morocco. You’d have to go back to my great-grandfather to find the last Irish person in the family. My father was actually born in Sri Lanka, when it was called Ceylon.

Ruhe: You’re the cultural legacy of empire.

O’Regan: What’s interesting is that my father’s father was a huge proponent of the democratic elections and setting up elections in the former colonies, and the formation of the Commonwealth, in Sri Lanka and Uganda, Jamaica, Nigeria. He met my grandmother, who was the daughter of the governor of Ceylon, and who represented the old guard of empire. My grandfather had arrived to end that and to oversee an election and make sure that the new country began.

Ruhe: Ah, remind me to tell you about the book “The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh,” which you might find fascinating. But “Threnody” has a certain hard-to-pin-down Arab or Oriental quality. Was that with the Middle East in mind?

Glenn Memorial Church

O’Regan: Not exactly. I’d gotten interested in al-Andalusian music, music from Moorish Spain that was more or less linked to the Arab and North African world. That music has a peculiar fractal quality, where melodies and rhythmic ideas are driven forward all the way through. It’s not so different, in concept, to what Janacek does in his melodies. What appears to be the end of the line carries on and repeats and sometimes forms a repetitive pattern, which begins to merge with a new driving section. It’s not at all like the pop music of North Africa, like Raï, and other forms of more traditional North African music. Al-Andalusian music is quite different. I spent so much time in Morocco and Algeria, because of my mother’s family, that when I got to New York I was thinking back on what I knew and felt attached to. You get interested in finding your voice when you’re away. Perhaps it’s like Aaron Copland finding his American sound once he’d gone to France to study. It’s a strange thing.

Ruhe: And how did the other two movements of “Triptych” — “As We Remember Them” and “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency” — become attached to “Threnody”?

O’Regan: A school in Portsmouth commissioned these two pieces for the 11th of November, in 2005, to commemorate those fallen in war. That city has a very, very long association with the British Navy, and Remembrance Day is taken quite seriously. It was to go with the Fauré Requiem, so it was originally for high voices and lower strings. But I knew it would make a nice part with “Threnody.” I later re-orchestrated it for full strings and for SATB choir so it would go with “Threnody.”

Again, it goes back to slow music, what I was saying earlier. Most remembrance pieces are sad and very, very slow all the way through. I didn’t want that. So I started with slow music but then made it more vibrant, quite dancy, if you like. A lot of cultures don’t memorialize death in a slow manner. I’m thinking of music for an Irish wake or dances performed at funerals in many cultures. I tried to piece together the “beyond” without coming from any particular religious or secular angle. How do people get on with their lives beyond the initial sadness, and what happens to the lost loved ones? It’s fairly simple.

Ruhe: Well, it sounds well constructed, which is a certain simplicity — or economy of writing. But it’s subtle or understated, and the layers can get quite dense. The last movement has a dance quality, with a syncopated bass line. There’s almost a pop or rock energy and tunefulness to it.

O’Regan: The music I’m drawn to and listen to a lot is ‘70s British rock, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin. The bass lines in the Who and Led Zeppelin were incredibly syncopated, even if the tune was quite simple. I’m attracted to that interplay.

Ruhe: That carried over into early-‘80s post-punk, bands like Killing Joke and Southern Death Cult, with really interesting and clever bass parts that were melodic or in counterpoint with the top lines, not just the typical thumping bass of most rock and pop. I’d forgotten about the quality of some of that stuff.

O’Regan: Yes, exactly, and if you listen to Bruce Foxton from the Jam — Paul Weller’s band from the same period, late ‘70s-early ‘80s — it’s a hyperactive bass line! I was always drawn to that interplay between that and the drummers. That’s heard a lot in my music . . .

Ruhe: . . . but cloaked still within a thoroughly “classical” sound world. What about the British choral tradition?

O’Regan: I came to it later; it’s not really my background. I was never in a choir, didn’t go to church growing up, and at university at Oxford I didn’t join a choir. I was a drummer in jazz and rock bands. I started composing late, at 17, 18, 19. Strangely enough, I learned Stravinsky and Bernstein and Britten before I got into that English Tudor tradition, Byrd and Tallis, which I grew to love. But I’m more drawn to Lassus and Gombert, with a sudden dissonance and then you’re out of it: blink and you’ve missed it. I love how Peter Warlock is like Gombert, with a twist of lemon in the harmony. That’s very attractive to me. I’m not drawn to the core of the standard Romantic tradition, compositionally.

It’s funny: what you’re influenced by musically may not be what you’re drawn to write as a composer. I’m not drawn to write rock music or serial music like Schoenberg or highly expressionistic atonal music, or Harrison Birtwistle, but that music has been hugely influential on me, weirdly. People say to me, “I don’t hear Birtwistle in your work,” and I say there isn’t any in there, but he was an influence inside my head.

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