I love both of these texts and the contrast they present. Alma is deeply evocative of Advent and speaks to me somehow of the darkness of a chapel before the carol service, or a distant medieval hall in Oxford in an imaginary past. The season of course represents something of that too, and a piece which hugely inspires me in that regard is the extraordinarily evocative opening of Bax's Mater ora filium - it's not hard to find an echo of this in my setting. This does of course require an element of nostalgia for an invented past, but I think there is something of that in Advent naturally.
Ave Regina is hugely joyful by contrast and I wanted to summon up something of the antiphonal style of the Renaissance period. I also wanted to try and write some contrapuntal lines here, not strictly, but with a keen move away from the purely vertical. The recurring 'Ave' also proved important structurally. The atmosphere here is one of great rejoicing and also I wanted to create a kind of choir show piece.
What’s the relationship between your settings and Howells’ music?
Howells is believed to have set the four Marian Antiphons, but only Salve Regina and Regina caeli are extant. They are all early works and were written for Westminster Cathedral - hopefully they will appear one day! The idea behind Owen's (Professor Owen Rees, Director of Music) request for me to write settings of the two other texts was to complete the set, not in any way as 'completions' and not as pastiche, but more that they might provide useful companions. Howells is probably the single most influential figure on my compositional language however, so it's fair to say that his presence very much runs through these pieces; what I do not do in any way is quote Howells or even imagine what he might have done in his own settings. It was a great honour to work on these pieces with that idea in mind, and I hope that they may in some ways have a link across the years and fit in with the sound world to some degree.
How important do you think it is for the composer to be present, if possible, at the recording sessions?
I like to be there if possible - not least as it was the first time I heard these pieces! It's sometimes useful to make the odd little tweak on a first hearing and to spot anything which might arise. I also love being involved in the recording process and seeing how people respond to your music.
Photo: Iain MacLeod-Jones