The Seven Last Words

Responding to Haydn's 18th century composition hasn't been easy for author Jan Carson, yet the classical collaboration has still presented its own creative rewards

Photo by Laura Conlon

I’m no stranger to collaboration. Two years ago I worked with local singer songwriter, Hannah McPhillimy to create an EP of songs based on the characters in my first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears. Last year, after the release of my short story collection, Children’s Children, I worked alongside Orla McAdam as she created an exhibition of new art work, (Everything Leaves Marks, Even Water), in response to the collection’s themes. There’s something really precious and difficult to define which occurs every time I collaborate with another artist. It’s about fresh perspective and community, honest conversations and a generous dose of humility. Collaboration usually also involves late nights, wine and an enormous amount of strong coffee. I always emerge a better writer from having worked with someone who sees the world through a different artistic lens.

I was on a train somewhere between Amsterdam and Hamburg last summer when I first heard about Laura Sinnerton’s Northern Accents Collective. The WiFi was intermittent. I didn’t get a chance to read the email properly but saw enough to understand she was offering me the chance to collaborate with a string quartet. I was instantly sold. I’d never worked with classical musicians before. I don’t even really listen to classical music. I thought it would be good to push myself beyond my artistic comfort zone. Later, I found out more about the project and realised just what a challenge it was going to be.

Laura, who is originally from Ballymena, though now playing viola with the BBC orchestra in Cardiff, had secured Arts Council funding to develop collaborative projects between Northern Irish classical musicians and artists who work in different mediums. I was to be involved in the first of these projects, writing short texts, inspired by the seven themes associated with Christ’s last words from the cross. These readings would be woven through a performance of Haydn’s string quartet, 'The Seven Last Words’.

The concert would take place in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Easter Saturday. Since its creation in 1786, ‘The Seven Last Words’ has a long history, of combining spoken word with musical performance. Over the years many imminent writers have crafted responses to Haydn’s seven sonata themes, creating powerful pieces of both sacred and secular liturgy. It’s fair to say I was incredibly intimidated by the scope of the project, but also keen to see what I could learn from engaging with an art form I’m so unfamiliar with.

Laura and I met, (and drunk a lot of coffee), very early on in the project. We discussed the vision we had for the performance both from a literary and musical angle and almost instantly agreed that, with all artists involved hailing from Northern Ireland, we’d like the written pieces to be bound to the local context. Looking at the thematic headings for the seven movements, words like forgiveness, abandonment and comfort, resonated very strongly with my own experience of growing up here. Both Laura and I felt strongly the pieces should engage directly with notions of local identity.

I quickly began immersing myself in the work of other Northern Irish writers, looking at how their writing had engaged with Haydn’s seven themes. I focused on poetry, (being new to classical music I thought I might as well avoid the prose writers I’m so familiar with and allow myself to venture completely out of my comfort zone). I spent hours in local coffee shops, studying Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Sinead Morrissey, Medbh McGuckian and others. I tried to steal their ideas. I tried to adapt their ideas. I realized early on that I’m not a good enough writer to appropriate the beautiful truths of Heaney or Carson, with any sort of believable skill. I’m not a poet. I can’t write with the same careful lilt or lyricism and yet the music seemed to be demanding poetry. I became somewhat overwhelmed. I almost quit. About three months into the writing process I scrapped every lofty, pseudo-poetic thing I’d written. Nothing was working. I decided to write from my own perspective. This was the only voice I felt confident enough to articulate with any kind of authenticity. I knew how to write in my words about the Northern Ireland I knew. This was the moment the project finally began to feel manageable, even a little fun.

Composite Jan

Jan Carson (photo by Jonathan Ryder) and Laura Sinnerton

This decision meant the work would be secular in nature, rather than the traditionally sacred writings usually associated with ‘Seven Last Words’. However, as I began to develop the pieces, I found it almost impossible to separate religion from the Northern Irish narrative. It is such a deep seam running through almost every aspect of our culture. Similarly, I found myself struggling to reign in humour and story. Whilst most writers have approached the ‘Seven Last Words’ texts from a liturgical, almost poetic, perspective, I couldn’t curtail my own love of narrative and dark humour. I wrestled against this tendency through several, rather disappointing drafts, before realizing that Northern Irish culture is built upon bleak humour and tremendously rich storytelling and perhaps I should stop trying to suppress this in my texts. I’m pleased with how the seven pieces have turned out. They’re little observations about my city. They sound like the Belfast in my head.

It hasn’t been an easy process crafting these pieces. On several occasions I’ve felt like calling the whole thing off. I’ve spent hours driving round Belfast listening to Haydn in the dark, hoping to hear what my wonderful musician friends can hear crouching between each note. I haven’t been that inspired by the music. I’ve had to humbly admit that I am wired towards words and narrative and telling stories. This does not make me less than a poet or a musician. It doesn’t make me more either. Sometimes collaboration doesn’t expand your horizons. Sometimes it just helps you understand your creative self a little better.

Jan will read her new texts between musical performances of Haydn's ‘Seven Last Words’ by Joanne Quigley McParland and Michael Trainor (violin), Laura Sinnerton (viola) and David McCann (cello) at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on April 15 (Easter Saturday). The concert will be bookended by an informal talk by Haydn scholar, Donal Bannister and the opportunity to meet with Jan and the other artists involved. Tickets (£8 - 12) can be booked from www.crescentarts.org.