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Amber Read talks to composer Ross Harris and poet Vincent O'Sullivan about their latest collaboration.

The Scars of War

Between two beloved masterworks from English composers, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations, lies a very special international co-commission paying tribute to the Kiwi pioneers of plastic surgery.

“Facial injury is one of the most intimate and disturbing things that could happen to a person,” says composer Ross Harris. Marking the conclusion of the WWI centenary commemorations, Ross Harris and poet Vincent O’Sullivan’s new work Face explores the aftermath of the war for those people whose lives were irrevocably changed in the most dramatic way. “For men like that,” says O’Sullivan, “there’s no conclusion to the war. There is no armistice. For the rest of their lives, they lived with the day of that injury.”

Face draws on the pioneering work of New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies, who worked with injured soldiers at the Queen Mary Hospital in London alongside Henry Pickerel from the Otago Dental School. “It’s about the machines of war against the machines of repair,” says Ross. Barry Cleavin’s artwork ‘The Soldier’s Face’ gave inspiration to Face, and artist Tim Gruchy uses this artwork to create an evocative video element for the concert performance.

“Gillies especially worked on the principle that you’re not just operating on a man’s face, you’re operating on his soul, his whole personality,” says O’Sullivan. “He was enormously popular with his patients because he didn’t regard them just as in medical challenge, but he always approached them as individuals.” Harris and O’Sullivan tried to accomplish a similar blend of medical and personal elements: “It’s that mix of conventional romantic motifs and language with much more hard-nosed, pragmatic facts, that’s what we’re trying to do,” says O’Sullivan. “We’ve tried to make music, to make songs out of medical facts as well as emotional ones.”

A soldier whose face has been destroyed, his fiancée, and the surgeon are represented by a trio of soloists through whom Harris and O’Sullivan explore the relational and medical angles of the scenario. There is also a chorus, which “comments on the broader picture, the nature of humanity and the nature of the destruction of people by the violence of other people by the machines of war,” says Harris. The work is continuous, with each soloist singing primarily alone in arias, with some duet as arias overlap and a small ensemble at the end.

O’Sullivan, who was the New Zealand Poet Laureate from 2013-2015, wrote the text specifically for this project. “When writing a song, the language you use as a rule has to be simpler than writing a poem, because you only hear it once,” he explains, drawing on many years of experience collaborating with Harris. “You can’t go back and read it again, so simplicity and directness is essential.”

Face is Harris and O’Sullivan’s 11th collaboration, and their work initially owed much to Barry Cleavin’s artwork ‘The Soldier’s Face’. Artist Tim Gruchy has created a video composition based on this image which will be part of the performance. “This is not about creating soundtracks to films or films to music,” he says. “The visual accompaniment is very much like an emotional enhancer. We’ve all been enjoying classical music without pictures for a long time, so if you start putting up pictures with the music, it’s not about trying to draw the people’s attention, it’s about trying to set a mood that enhances the experience for the audience to what the music is trying to convey.”

Cleavin’s artwork is a composite image, with the soldier’s face formed of many smaller elements, all icons of war, such as toy soldiers and cannon wheels. Gruchy will recreate many of these smaller elements, fading them in and out over the course of the music, so that the solider’s face is slowly transformed, with the final image being Cleavin’s work in full.

Although the topic of the work is a medical one as well as an emotional one, Gruchy decided not to use any medical images. “I think that would be gratuitous – an easy thing to do as sadly there’s an awful lot of horrific images out there – but early on I made a very clear decision not to do that.” Rather, Gruchy strategises to underscore the mood and meaning of the music and text.

Similarly, Harris avoids relying on aural allusion to the harsh, crashing sounds of war in his music: “Because it’s facing forward, it’s much more lyrical and reflective than you might expect – it’s basically a post-war piece about what’s left, the debris in people’s lives and so forth.”

While dealing with a primarily historical situation, the topic of Face should resonate with contemporary audiences – issues of loss, self-identity, and it’s impact on our relationship to ourselves and others, are as relevant now as ever. “Loss is universal,” says Harris. “One doesn’t get very far through life without loss.”

The world premiere of Face has been made possible with significant financial support. In addition to a special grant from Creative New Zealand and sponsorship from Naxos Music Group, the APO received generous donations from The William and Lois Manchester Trust, and the Gillies McIndoe Foundation. The names of these organisations offer a clue to the connection; Dr Harold Gillies pioneered plastic surgery and skin grafting techniques to treat WWI soldiers, and he was joined in the 1930s by Dr Archibald McIndoe and at the onset of WWII by Dr William Manchester, both of whom trained under Gillies. They were part of a small group of New Zealand-born surgeons who developed radical new reconstructive procedures and also recognised the importance of rehabilitation. Manchester went on to set up the very first civilian plastic surgery unit in New Zealand in 1945, at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch.

Today the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute continues to serve the pioneering spirit of Gillies and McIndoe, with a focus on developing low cost and non-invasive treatments for cancer. More information about GMRI’s work can be found at gmri.org.nz

Face is generously supported by Creative New Zealand, The William and Lois Manchester Trust, the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute, and Naxos Music Group. The piece is an international co- commission with BBC Symphony Orchestra, who will perform it at the Barbican in London on 28 April. The APO performance will be recorded and released internationally under the Naxos record label.

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