Ephemera & Inventions: composer Tom Coult discusses two Oxford Lieder Festival premieres

Suppose you were to be roused from your sleep with the cry of Fire!and were informed that the house in which you had been sleeping was in flames, how would you act?  You might reply, I would leap out of the window as fast as possible, to save my life.”  Be not too quick, however, in your decision, lest you make more haste than speed,and break your neck in the attempt.

Wise words of counsel from one Giles Roberts, self-declared apothecary, in his earnest article, ‘How to Escape From Fire’, which was published in the 1829 edition of his trade pamphlet, The Annual Mentor – along with other helpful recommendations for self-preservation, such as remembering to check whether a kindly neighbour has lent a ladder against the wall before jumping impetuously through the window, ‘for it would be a great pity to lose the advantage of this for want of a single look’.

What do Roberts’ didactic homilies, delivered with unintentionally ironic deliberateness, have to do with this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival?  Well, copies of Roberts’ Annual Mentor – or to give it its full title, The annual mentor; or, Cottagers companion: comprising concise maxims and golden rules for preserving the mind and body in health, and conducive to wealth, long life, and happiness, a Friend to the Poor, and a Companion for the Rich – found their way into the hands of one John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956), whose collection of ‘printed ephemera’ now forms one of the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections.  And, as Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries, it was this Collection which composer Tom Coult explored in researching and writing his song cycle for soprano and piano, Wholesome Counsels.  This new work is the culmination of the Fellowship, a partnership between Oxford Lieder and the Bodleian Library, and one of the twenty newly commissioned works which will be performed during this Oxford Lieder 20th anniversary season, reflecting the ambition of the Festival’s Song Futures programme to perform and commission new music.

John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956) by Hubert Andrew Freeth, 1956 © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

So, just who was John Johnson?  After reading Greats and Arabica at Exeter College Oxford, Johnson joined the Egyptian Civil Service.  His discovery and subsequent co-edited monograph of a Theocritus papyrus dated 900 years earlier than any previously known manuscript of the author established him as a papyrologist, but the First World War intervened, and Johnson returned to Oxford to work as Assistant Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press.  In 1925 he became Printer to the University of Oxford and was awarded an Honorary DLitt in 1928 upon the completion of the printing of the Oxford English Dictionary.  He retired in 1946, having been appointed CBE the previous year for special services during the war.

Though his career as a papyrologist was short-lived, that early discovery was a personally and culturally significant one, initiating a life-long curiosity about Britain’s paper heritage.  Ultimately, his passion led to the formation of the collection which Johnson named the Constance Meade Collection of Ephemeral Printing, and which would grow to contain around 1.5 million items divided into 680 subject headings.  These ephemera comprise uninterpreted printed documents, produced for short-term use but fortuitously preserved, including advertisements, handbills, playbills and programmes, menus, greetings and trade cards, posters, postcards and bookplates.  Re-named the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, it transferred to the Bodleian in 1968.  Johnson himself described the Collection as ‘a little museum of common printed things, to illustrate at one and the same time the historical development of our social life and the development of printing’.[1]

Tom is the ninth Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music and the second Fellow who is a composer rather than a musicological researcher.  He studied at the University of Manchester with Camden Reeves and Philip Grange and with George Benjamin at King’s College London.  Between 2017 and 2019 he was Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge, and in 2021 was made Composer-in-Association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.  In 2022 will be Composer-in-Residence at Switzerland’s Musikdorf Ernen Festival.  His music has been described as ‘funny and surreal and delicately poetic, all at once’ (The Telegraph) and ‘full of bewitching sounds … fresh and precisely imagined’ (The Guardian), The Telegraph commenting that ‘Coult is a composer who spins glittering, teasingly ambiguous patterns out of simple-seeming material … a very individual voice’.

In conversation, Tom explained that he had found his investigations into John Johnson’s collection of printed ephemera to be fun but also fascinating.  “There’s something I find enjoyable in yesterday’s fish-and-chip wrappings, so to speak, not only finding their way into the Bodleian Library, but also now being set to music and performed at a vocal recital.”  We discuss how Johnson’s excavations into the waste-paper baskets of the past might not be possible for future curators and researchers, as digital forms of publication take precedence over print publications, and I ask Tom if he is likely to leave a ‘paper trail’ for the next century’s musicologists to explore.  “I used to have huge piles of pencil sketches on manuscript paper for each piece that I’d shift around and work with, but I don’t make nearly as many now, as I compose straight into the computer more often than I used to,” he replies.  I reflect that, given that digital preservation and curation are still in their infancy, it will be interesting to see what happens to our own digital scribblings and palimpsests.

Spanning five centuries, Johnson’s collection is most notable for its holdings from the 18th century, but it was the 19th and early 20th-century material from which Tom largely drew the material that would form his own texts.  The sheer amount of printed material that was published during this period, facilitated by new technology, astounded Tom.  “There was an explosion of printed matter – a sort of equivalent to Twitter today.  Much of the material was what you might call ‘over-written’, which gives it a strange lyrical quality – an enormous amount of work had gone into each publication even if the end-goal was quite minor.”  Was he able to visit the Collection in person and handle the physical documents?  “Yes, last month I did have the opportunity to personally view some of the printed ephemera that I’d got to know very well.  What was really surprising was the difference in physical scale, how small some of the objects were, written in such tiny handwriting.  It’s probably a bit like when you see a painting in a gallery that previously you’ve seen in a book, or online, and the unexpected dimensions make a striking impression and impact.”

Dr Giles Roberts (c.1766-1834), unknown artist, courtesy of Bridport Museum Trust

One publication which Tom was drawn to was the above-mentioned Annual Mentor, or Cottagers Companion, an annual pamphlet which Roberts, from Bridport in Dorset, first published in the 1820s.  At the age of eighteen, though lacking any medical training Roberts had set himself up as an apothecary selling own-brand herbal medicines.  He attained a local reputation for success in alleviating fevers and agues, and did subsequently acquire medical qualifications (some honorary), going on to develop an ointment which he claimed was a cure for aches, pains and gout, and which was marketed as The Poor Mans Friend.  Building on this success, Roberts developed Pilulae Antiscrophulae, an ointment for scrophula and scorbutic eruptions.  The Annual Mentor served to promote such wares and also offered the public advice on health, hygiene and household matters – providing lists of ‘Wholesome Counsels’ and solemn articles on matters such as choosing a wife, the importance of early rising, economy in candles, how to escape cholera, and how to treat persons apparently dead from drowning.

The 1829 edition which included Roberts’ fire-safety directives also contained a list of twenty ‘Common and familiar Signs exhibited by Animals, which indicate approaching Changes of the Weather’.  We know rain is coming, for example, if sparrows chirp loudly, bees stay near to their hive, chickens roll in the sand, or if cows look to the heavens and ‘turn up their nostrils as if catching some smell’; but, if crows croak, larks sing blissfully, gnats form a vortex column and goats obstinately refuse to leave their fields, then fair weather is surely on the way.  Such helpful hints are assembled in the second song of Wholesome Counsels, ‘A state of siege’, and combined with a passage from a wartime essay on helping the war effort by cutting bread thinner, by the entertainer Harry Lauder.  Tom explains that he has not just taken sentences, phrases and paragraphs and created poetic texts from them, but he has at times sought to transform their original sense by placing them in new contexts, creating unexpected juxtapositions and what he calls “creative misunderstandings”. 

Another document that Tom uncovered in the collection was a ‘Song Book’ published by the Star Music Publishing Co. in 1912, and costing one penny, which contains the lyrics of five songs which were performed by a contemporary music hall star, Miss Maud Esmond.  The music of one of these songs, ‘Good-bye, dear old London town’ by A.J. Mills, is no longer extant, so Tom has composed his own, in period style, interleaving Mills’ lyrics with testimonials printed in a pill manufacturer’s pamphlet.  The last two songs of the cycle amalgamate texts from varied sources.  ‘His curious tune’ reflects upon a man’s various qualities and skills, concluding with the soprano’s reminiscences about the tune he plays on his trumpet, while the last song, ‘Wholesome counsels’ is a melancholic lament, alluding to undisclosed past events.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra & Claire Booth (soprano), George Benjamin (cond.) perform Beautiful Caged Thing at Snape Maltings Hall in June 2015

I ask Tom if this method of assembling fragments of text into new forms is a technique he often employs when writing for the voice in a concert setting?  “Yes, I have used a similar process in the past, taking my favourite words, sentences and paragraphs, which form a big ‘swimming pool’ of words from which I can make new texts.  One reason why this works for me is because I am not a writer.  I have a strong idea of the sort of text I want to set to music, but it doesn’t exist and I’m not the person to write it.  For example, Beautiful Caged Thing [composed in 2015 for soprano Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra] uses text from Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  I found Wilde’s sentences beautiful, but they are not ‘poems’, and his poetry wasn’t ‘right’ for me either.  So, I made poems from ‘stuff’, as it were, bringing together words and phrases that were not meant to belong together.”

Similarly, I Find Planets (2020) for soprano, bass clarinet, harp, double bass (with the two latter musicians also playing pitch pipes) – commissioned for The Hermes Experiment, who will perform the work at this year’s festival – sets text that Tom adapted from the automated Twitterbot ‘Newfound Planets’ (@I_Find_Planets), which each hour of every day announces the discovery of an imaginary planet.  Tom comments, “If one takes a text that is complete in itself, it’s not so easy to cut and change it, but if one makes a new text by patching it together then one can lose or add words.”  But, “In any case, one is always slightly ‘performing’ when choosing and setting texts, ‘corrupting’ and ‘cherry-picking’ the original in some ways.  Often, I know what type of piece I want to write, but I cannot find the right poem, so my approach is more granular.”  Tom adds, with a smile, “I wish I were a better writer.”

Anna Dennis (c) Jet

One work in which Tom has employed a very different approach to text is his chamber opera, Violet, a co-commission by Britten-Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales, the planned premiere of which, at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2020, was scuppered by the pandemic and will now take place in 2022.  In composing Violet, Tom worked with the playwright Alice Birch.  “Neither of us had written an opera before so it was a nice opportunity to do things differently.  Indeed, the director Jude Christian is also coming to opera for the first time, so it’s been exciting that we are all approaching the work from our own angles and bringing fresh perspectives.”

I wonder if the sort of ‘textual mosaic’ practice that Tom has described is something that he employs in his compositional process too?  He explains that he does sometimes assemble musical fragments which haven’t previously had a ‘defined home’, but on other occasions the structure of a work is immediately clear.  And, what about writing for particular musicians and singers?  Wholesome Counsels will be premiered by the soprano Anna Dennis and pianist John Reid: did he compose the cycle with Anna’s voice specifically in mind.  Tom pauses for a moment.  “At first, no.  But, I have worked with Anna before and when I asked her if she would perform she agreed, and at that point … but one chats to all singers about their voice, and that can inform a piece.  It’s a sort of education, and the more conversation there is, the better.  That said, while you want to respect a singer’s voice and body, you also want to the work to be performed by other artists too.”

Anna Dennis and John Reid will perform Wholesome Counsels on 18th October at the Church of St John the Evangelist, in a lunchtime recital, ‘Clippings and Fragments’, which will also include Four Newspaper Announcements (1926) by Alexander Mosolov, works by the latter’s Russian compatriot Georgy Catoire and songs by Henry Purcell, and which will be preceded by a ‘Composer Conversation’ with Tom.  The day’s programme is titled Ephemera & Inventions and later that day, in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, pianist Adam Swayne will give the second world premiere of a work by Tom at this year’s Festival: Gymnopédies (2020) – five short movements which Tom has described as ‘emulat[ing] the studied simplicity of Satie’s models’.  Swayne will also perform Inventions (for Heath Robinson) (2019), the title of which Tom has described as conjuring both the rigour and craft of Bach’s keyboard works of that generic title and a Heath Robinson-style mad inventor, ‘working with pulleys, cogs, engines and Sellotape’, as well as ‘a composer’s imagination taking flight – conjuring worlds that don’t exist yet, embracing the elation of creating artistic things’: three definitions which seem to capture Tom’s creative energy, exuberance and achievement perfectly.

The 20th Oxford Lieder Festival, Nature’s Songbook, runs from 8-23 October, in-person and online.

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Tom Coult (c) Timothy Lutton

[1] See ‘The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: About the Collection’ at https://www2.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/johnson/about (accessed 20 September 2021)