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Opera North takes flight for Light Night Leeds

St John’s Church and grounds on New Briggate, Leeds will be filled with birdsong, light and the music of Rautavaara, Messiaen, and a new commission from Erland Cooper with Swan Song, our installation for Light Night Leeds on 10 and 11 October 2019.

With the Howard Assembly Room currently closed for our Music Works redevelopment, we’ll move across the road to the historic church for two captivating audio-visual collaborations – with Manchester Collective inside and Urban Projections outside – in association with the Churches Conservation Trust.

In the grounds of the church, flocks of tiny lights will ripple and flow in response to a recording of the Orchestra of Opera North performing Swans Migrating by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which mixes swelling orchestral melody with the calls of whooper swans.

The oldest church in Leeds city centre, St John’s was built during the “Eleven Years’ Tyranny” leading up to the English Civil War. Its Jacobean fittings and decorations include lavish carvings and decoration featuring natural forms and grotesque heads, ceiling reliefs, and appropriately, angels with musical instruments supporting the roof beams.

Inside the church, specially commissioned new music by Erland Cooper (The Magnetic North, Erland and the Carnival) will be live-mixed between each of the thirteen movements of Olivier Messiaen’s epic Catalogue of Birds, performed live by pianist Kerry Yong. Sharing the great French composer’s fascination with birds, Cooper took the avian life of his native Orkney as the inspiration for his debut solo album, Solan Goose, last year.

“I understand a live performance of Catalogue of Birds is something of a rare bird itself”, says Erland. “To me Messiaen’s work here sounds complex, not only for the performer but for the listener too. I’m working on responding to these thirteen movements by trying to give the audience a little further transportation or connection to the natural world.

“With 12 additional moments – one between each part of the Messiaen – and a different palette of sounds for reflection, I aim to gently mirror his work with extrapolated ambient layers, taken from the source material itself and cut into endless tape loops. There will be a combination of electronic sounds and field recordings but predominantly grown from the source material, like a recycled or up-cycled work.

“I write music inspired by nature, people and place and while responding to this music six decades apart, with our bird species diminishing by almost 30% in that time, it seems entirely fitting to try to think about how we improve our relationship with the natural world and through music, bring back the joy, hopefulness and wonder that the keen ornithologist and composer had at the time he wrote his original work”.

“We’re really excited to be involved in this fabulous commission for Light Night Leeds”, says Chief Executive of Manchester Collective Adam Szabo. “Erland Cooper is one of the UK’s most exciting artists, and working with him to shape these original vignettes inspired by Messiaen’s titanic Catalogue of Birds for solo piano is a dream. The whole project is a massive undertaking – original music, Messiaen, live sound, and a lighting installation – and I think our audiences in Leeds are going to love the chance to participate in this complete, immersive musical experience.”

Jo Nockels, Head of Projects, Opera North, comments: “Creating spaces of wonder, strangeness and beauty, these two very different installations by northern organisations Urban Projections and Manchester Collective each explore the fascination of composers with the songs and sounds of birds. Together they bring the importance of humanity’s relationship to nature to life in the centre of the city, in this time where it is under ever-increasing threat.”

Swan Song will open in St John’s Churchyard from 6.00pm – 10.00pm, and inside the church from 7.00pm – 10.00pm, on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 October. Like all Light Night Leeds events, it’s free, and there’s no need to book.

The UK’s largest annual arts and light festival, this year’s Light Night Leeds features over 60 free arts events across 11 zones in the city centre, ranging from large-scale light projections and interactive artworks, to music, dance and street performances.

Find out more

Commissioned for Light Night Leeds by Opera North Projects in association with the Churches Conservation Trust.

Visuals by Rebecca Smith

Sound design by Joff Spittlehouse


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