RPS Award for Tokaido Road composer

With just over a week until we premiere at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, we’re delighted that Tokaido Road composer, Nicola LeFanu, has been awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Elgar Bursary 2014.

Nicola_Lefanu_composes05The RPS Elgar Bursary provides financial support for mature composers, to allow for the creation of a new work which “may push back musical boundaries, but not at the expense of accessibility and integrity: in short, a work of which Edward Elgar himself might have approved.”

Previous winners include Dominic Muldowney and Edwin Roxburgh. The award will support Nicola’s writing of a new orchestral work which will be premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2016/17.

rps_logoCongratulations to Nicola! Find out more on the RPS website here: Tokaido Road premieres at the Cheltenham Festival on Sunday 6 July, about which more can be found here.

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Five Questions: Nicola LeFanu

Five Questions to composer, Nicola LeFanu.


What first attracted you to the idea of the Tokaido Road project?

Nicola_LeFanu_PetersLots of things! The opportunity of working with Okeanos again, and the chance to discover writing for koto and sho. The poems – I loved them, and their relationship with the woodblock prints. I already knew Hiroshige’s work, so it was great to embark on a project that would showcase it. The chance to write a music theatre piece, which combined visual and aural elements equally. Whereas in opera, everything is structured through the singing voice, in music theatre it is a case of weaving together diverse strands. But in both opera and music theatre, it is the overall pacing that is crucial.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

As the composer, my job is to write the music! But it is a great deal more than that. Shaping the libretto and working with the librettist is at the heart of it. It was quite a long time before I discovered the dramatic focus that I wanted. When I realised that using that terrifying picture of the skulls and skeletons (The Vision of Kiyomori) was the key, things began to fall into place. In other words, Hiroshige was not only discovering the power of landscape painting, but he could bring home to people the truth of famine and persecution that existed because of the military government.

I love the fact that I am working in a team. Composing is solitary, but making theatre meant I could work with Nancy, with Caroline and Dominic. And the key person behind the whole project is Kate Romano. Nothing would have happened without her imagination and tenacity.

What excites you about contemporary arts?

That there us so much going on. It is a bit like the sixties, so much creativity and energy in so many fields. But it is harder than the sixties, as there is so much more bureaucracy now. We just got on and made things happen, without having to jump through so many hoops.

It is funny that people still tend to be derogatory about the sixties. I don’t think they understand what a heady time it was. In music, there were wonderful performers developing new repertoire, and so many opportunities for us who were beginning our professional careers.

What has the project taught you / shown you / made you aware of?

As this is my eighth work of opera or music theatre, I suppose it has reminded me of how addictive I find it!

More seriously, it was fun to explore spoken text alongside sung text. I can’t bear spoken text in opera because it falsifies the whole nature of the medium. But in music theatre it works fine. And I loved exploring the koto in relation to the spoken text, it is such a resonant and expressive instrument.

What relevance, for you, does the project have to today’s cultural environment?

I think I answered that already!

Tokaido Road: a commisioner’s perspective

Boy, am I proud of this. Here’s the score and instrumental parts for Tokaido Road.

The Road starts here...

The Road starts here…

Tokaido Road is Nancy’s words, Nicola’s music, but I have a strong bond with this work. I like to think that I gave it some space to grow and goals to aspire to. I’m like a surrogate mother or doting aunt – there’s a duty of care in commissioning a new work. You have to nurture it. You want to see it flourish, contribute to a culture, speak to an audience, to be representative of its time. And like all new things, you want it to develop, grow, mature.

Tokaido Road was born of an artistic idea, a deep curiosity and an ambitious desire to change things. The relationship between Hiroshige’s prints and Nancy’s poems was already rich enough in artistic possibilities. The opera quickly became a framework for a set of questions: what is the ‘complex and murky relationship’ that exists between the arts? Tokaido Road is a study in extended ekphrasis, a term that describes the use of one art form to ‘comment on’ or ‘illustrate’ another. How does this translate across a second culture? I wanted to present this powerful cross-cultural, cross-arts synergy as a rich and highly accessible source of pleasure, entertainment and education rather than a misunderstood and sometimes marginalized form of art. I wanted to make casual media labeling (such as ‘fusion’, ‘experimental’, ‘fringe’), often used as a result of uncertainty surrounding music that juxtaposes different cultures, redundant. I wanted to create a project that would appeal to as many people in as many ways as possible.

Anyone who had raised funds for new music will empathise with the immense hard work and perseverance needed to enable a project to happen. But the journey has fascinated me – there are challenges and opportunities to be creative at every level, even from a project-management perspective. Today marked the end of the beginning: now the journey takes a new path and I can’t wait to see where it will take us.

A Coffee With: Nancy Gaffield

Taking time out from her busy schedule of teaching and writing, I caught up with Nancy Gaffield and asked her about the impact turning her cycle of poems, Tokaido Road, into a libretto has had on her work.


What impact has creating a libretto from your cycle of poems had on the poems themselves ?

Nancy Gaffield

Nancy Gaffield

I was thinking about this, even before you asked the question. When you write, you are always aware that your work is going to be released into the world and become its own entity, although you’re not often mindful of this until you see a review! So you have no control over people or their responses to your work. But now I see people quoting my lines on Twitter! People are reading them in so many ways, and the poems take on a life of their own. Still, it’s surprising! Not negative; just surprising. Ownership is much more collective. I think Nicola now knows my poems better than I do…

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#IWD2014: Tokaido Road celebrating women in the creative industries

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating inspirational women and their achievements. As the website declares,

International Women’s Day events honour and celebrate the achievements of women all around the world, ranging from small random informal gatherings to large highly organised events.

Nicola & Nancy 2As part of this global celebration, here at Tokaido Road we are delighted to be championing an innovative, cross-disciplinary creative project that is predominantly female-led.

Brainchild of Dr Kate Romano, Deputy Head of Academic Studies at the Guildhall School of Music Drama, Tokaido Road is written by composer Nicola LeFanu, whose works have been performed, recorded and broadcast worldwide and who is a former Professor of Music and Head of Department at the University of York, with a libretto by Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. The chamber opera is directed by Caroline Clegg, Associate Director at Welsh National Opera, a freelance director working in theatre and opera and founder of the highly successful, award-winning Feelgood Theatre Productions.  And the set and costume design is by Kimie Nakano, who has a highly successful and international career as a designer in theatre, opera, film, dance and television, including working with Oscar winning Costume Designer Emi Wada on Peter Greenaway’s Eight and a Half Women and with the Akram Khan Dance Company on the ‘Vertical Road’ world tour.

A genuinely collaborative project, realised by an exciting team of women who are leading practitioners in ther respective fields. Tokaido Road is excited to be a platform for their achievements.

Image Gallery: the composer at work

Image Gallery: the composer at work

Composer Nicola Lefanu working on Tokaido Road in 2013. The photos were taken at the Centre d’Art i Natura di Farrera last year, a working place high in the Pyrenees where Nicola and her husband, composer David Lumsdaine, have often gone since it was first opened in 1996.

Images: David Lumsdaine