Interview, Will Todd on his Jazz Missa Brevis
British composer Will Todd shot to fame in the early 2000s with Mass in Blue, an innovative work which (as the name suggests) blended jazz and blues elements with a more traditional choral idiom. It was an instant hit with choirs and audiences alike, and has been performed regularly ever since. Since then, Todd has composed works in a variety of styles, releasing two albums of what might be called "mainstream" choral music with acclaimed choir Tenebrae - but until now, he hadn't revisited that unique choral-jazz style. I asked Will about the factors that drew him back to the sound-world of Mass in Blue, and about his creative process.
Since you composed your Mass in Blue, a number of other composers have experimented with fusing jazz and sacred choral music – notably Bob Chilcott, with two jazz Masses of his own. Do you see yourself as the founder of a new sub-genre of music?
I’m not sure! I exist in a tradition which goes back into the blues and gospel era, really. Take Duke Ellington in the ‘60s – towards the end of his life he became increasingly concerned with spirituality and religion and did a series of what he called Sacred Concerts, very large works in which he fused gospel and praise music by blending his big-band sound and a choral sound
I started life as an improviser, teaching myself to play the piano. I’m still first and foremost an improvising pianist, and all of my more “classical” training sits on top of that. The other formative experience for me when I was growing up was singing in choirs, so it’s actually quite a natural fit for me to use improvised music and choral music.
So in one sense it’s not “my baby” in that people have fused these elements before, but in another sense it is, because these are strands that are very integral to my DNA as a musician – on the one side the blues, improvised element, and on the other side the choral, religious style. (That said, I've also written plenty of more straightforward choral works which don’t use jazz at all!).
Given the huge and ongoing success of Mass in Blue, what has led you to revisit the “jazz mass” concept over 15 years on?
Interestingly, after Mass in Blue became so successful, I felt that now I had to do everything differently and consciously avoid that sound. That's a problem that many artists face, and perhaps it’s to do with how strongly we emphasise the value of exploring and evolving. But if you look at any well-established artist in any era, you see that they have a certain 'trademark' sound: Puccini's operas, for instance, are almost instantly recognisable as Puccini. That isn’t to say that early Puccini is the same as late, of course, but there’s a tangible thread linking them.
But by the time I started working on this project, I think enough time had elapsed since Mass in Blue for me to realise that I really did love that sound-world, and that I’m allowed to revisit it! Interestingly enough, in both cases - Mass in Blue and the Passion Music - the composition time itself was very short, which I think is often a sign that you’re in your correct vein. The music just flows out and is relatively easy to write.
Do you anticipate any of your jazz-infused works being used in a liturgical setting, or are they intended first and foremost as concert works?
Both pieces received their first performances as concert works, and Mass in Blue is frequently done this way, but having said that I’ve done several liturgical performances of Mass in Blue over the years: it was broadcast on Radio 4 some years ago, and I’ve done it in several cathedral settings. It wasn’t written with liturgical use in mind, in terms of the length of the movements – it’s over half an hour of music, which is a lot to have in a service. I did write a shorter jazz mass (Jazz Missa Brevis, which is also on the new album) which was composed specifically for liturgical use: it was commissioned by Portsmouth Cathedral. That’s why it’s more compact and doesn’t feature a Creed, which generally isn’t sung in modern liturgy.
With Passion Music, I was conscious of wanting to create a piece that would work in a concert setting where you perform all nine movements in a row, but I was also mindful that it would be interesting to use this music in a liturgical way, by interspersing it with readings from the Good Friday Liturgy, or indeed from other texts. I’ve elected not to stipulate what those texts might be, because I think that can hem things in a little: I quite like the idea that the people who put the religious service together will bring in their own ideas, and I hope in the fullness of time that we’ll get to do Passion Music in a liturgical context.
For several of the works on the album, you’re the lyricist as well as the composer. How do you find this facet of the creative process relates to the musical aspect?
Thinking back to my early music-making, I started with improvising and very quickly moved into song-writing: in my teens I wrote a lot of songs, some of them more pop-oriented, some of them more religious. I worked at the piano and developed the lyrics at the same time, with the two things going in parallel. When I entered my 20s I became terribly self-conscious, as one often does – I think it’s one of the great gifts that teenagers have, that in some ways they’re less self-conscious about being creative.
There was a breakthrough point for me in 2011 when I wrote a Christmas carol called My Lord has come, in which I went back to using my own words. And it was instantly very successful; people seemed to love it both as a piece of music and also for the lyrics. I’ve set lots of other writers’ words to music, and I’ve worked closely with living writers, which I love doing because they give you ideas that you would never have yourself. But I think there's still that part of me that's a songwriter – sometimes when I can’t necessarily find the text that I want, I just think “I know what I need” and have the confidence to create the text. They’re often quite simple “word-worlds”, but I know what they’ve got to do with the music.
You’ve notched up a number of compositions in recent years – a clarinet concerto, Requiem and Te Deum as well as smaller works. Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
I can – it’s certainly not a secret! You may know that I wrote an opera, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which we did with Opera Holland Park and which has been very successful both for them and me. I’m now writing a large-scale (and highly topical) piece for Welsh National Opera called Migrations, which will be staged in autumn 2020: it's a series of interwoven stories, some current and some older, and as you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of pain in those narratives. There's also a single-act opera for Opera North in the works for the summer of 2020...
Opera was another influence on me whilst I was growing up: my mother and father had very broad musical tastes, but opera was really their great love. We had records of opera playing a lot in our house when I was young, so I have a great love of the art-form, even though it’s a very challenging one in all sorts of ways – both acoustically, and because the stagecraft is very complex. But I relish that: I love figuring out how to get the music to convey the emotional impact of a scene and amplify it. These two big operatic projects are essentially going to take up the next eighteen months of my life, and I'm enjoying it enormously: so far I’ve finished the draft of Act I of the WNO piece, which my collaborators seem pretty happy with, and I’m ploughing into Act II as we speak!
Shaneeka Simon (vocals) & John Turville (piano), St Martin’s Voices & Will Todd Ensemble, Will Todd
Will Todd: Passion Music & Jazz Missa Brevis is released on Signum on 1st February.
Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC