In a pair of Christmas commissions for Opera North, Ivor Novello Award-winning composer and folk explorer Martin Green picks a path through the plastic elves and tinsel to uncover the distant origins of Christmas customs, with a few revelations and a lot of magical music on the way.
Lighting the Dark, which sees Green and friends pulling together the older music and stories of Christmas, comes to the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17 December, and the Sage Gateshead on 22 December. Tannenbaum, his new sound installation, can be experienced as part of Harewood House’s ‘Long Live the Christmas Tree!’ display until 2 January 2023.
Accordionist with acclaimed folk adventurers Lau, Green is also a self-confessed Christmas curmudgeon. “I’m not what I’d call a Christmas person”, he admits. “I love people, music, doing stuff — but do I love Christmas? I’m not sure”.
I’m slightly surprised to discover I have made a Christmas show. The wonderful @Opera_North who have commissioned it, had but one request: “Please don’t make it creepy.” Happy to say I have nailed that brief. Ticket info in bio. 🎄
— Martin Green (@Martin_Green__) December 3, 2022
In Lighting the Dark he knits together folk tunes, songs and carols with the story of a spiritual journey from despair in the queue at Argos to a blazing, brass-led epiphany about the meaning of the season and its traditions.
Joining him are Irish fiddle player Ultan O’Brien of the band Slow Moving Clouds and an all-star brass trio: composer and improviser Laura Jurd (trumpet); Danielle Price, whose tuba can be heard on myriad collaborations including with Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat; and the brilliant young Glaswegian trombonist Anoushka Nanguy.
“Christmas is complex, and I was keen to explore that”, says Green. “MG, my thinly-veiled alter ego in Lighting the Dark, feels overwhelmed by the baggage of modern Christmas. For him it doesn’t seem to mean anything: gardens packed with light-up Santas and reindeer; exchanging presents that nobody really wants…
“His quest for authenticity takes him back to older things, and Ultan O’Brien, who’s a born storyteller steeped in the folklore of County Clare, introduces him to macabre rituals like the St Stephen’s Day Wren Boys. MG finds himself immersed in this folky, fireside world, but eventually he realises that this, too is essentially artificial, and he begins to find a route towards reconciling himself with the present.
“He discovers that the ancient and modern rituals both address our need for light in the depths of winter. Although they can be as flimsy as what surrounds us today, the distinctive thing about the old ways is that they acknowledge the cruelty of existence, without pretending to extinguish it. By embracing the dark, we appease it and rob it of its power over us.
“I love the way that we just keep the bits of tradition that are useful to us; I think that’s a wonderful thing about humans”, Green enthuses. “The Christmas tree itself is such an interesting phenomenon, being so much older than Christmas. The evergreen is very useful to us in terms of symbolism: I think it gives us the idea that we’re going to live through the winter. And we do the same with music as with bits of iconography: if we like it, we keep it. O Tannenbaum is a much older tune that became our Christmas tree song, and later still became The Red Flag.”
At the centre of Green’s installation in Harewood House’s sumptuous Gallery is an atmospheric recording of the two sets of lyrics featuring George Duff and the singers of the Balerno Folk Club, made at a folk session at the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh.
“What we recorded in Edinburgh feels like the closing chapters on a certain sort of tradition of unaccompanied song, and political song, that grew out of the 1950s and 60s. I go there a lot, and I think it’s a bit of culture to be celebrated; they’re brilliant, very natural singers. It’s also not like being in a studio because they don’t sing to an audience: they sit in a circle, facing inwards. So we made the recordings in surround sound from the middle, and they’re played back through a circle of speakers in the Gallery, for an audience gathered around the central fireplace”.
The brass of Laura Jurd, the brilliant improvising trumpeter from the Lighting the Dark band, was added into the mix afterwards. “There’s something about heraldic angels and Christmas that makes sense there”, says Green. “It also bridges the gap between the socialist anthem and the scale and grandeur of the stately home.
“Ultimately I think these two works celebrate the rich and instinctive collective imagination of our species in accumulating all these layers of iconography and myth to serve us – even if the end result is glowing Santas spewing out rainbow snowmen in every direction, or a reindeer in a jumper standing next to a camel in a desert, a bright star and a polar bear!”
Lighting the Dark comes to the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17 December, with a second performance at the Sage Gateshead on 22 December.
Harewood House’s ‘Long Live the Christmas Tree!’ display, featuring Martin Green’s Tannenbaum, runs until 2 January 2023.