Composer Julie Cooper on Renaissance art and synaesthesia
BY Julie Cooper
6th Feb 2024 Music
4 min read
Award-winning composer Julie Cooper introduces her new album OCULUS, a classical exploration of synaesthesia that draws from famous Renaissance paintings
When setting out on the journey of writing an album, I have always needed a clear idea in my head from the offset of both the concept and sound world I will be creating.
What will inspire and enrich the journey? Which artist will feature and inspire the sound of the track?
My new album OCULUS is conducted by Jessica Cottis, who has the extraordinary gift of synaesthesia, meaning that she sees colours when conducting triggered by the key the music is in.
Sadly I don’t share this wonderful gift (known as chromasthesia in sound-to-colour) but having initially considered a career in art, I have always been fascinated by colour both in art and music.
I spent a year bombarding poor Jessica with questions about which colour she sees in certain keys, and her replies were so vividly descriptive and specific that the inspiration for the album was born. The journey grew from there, along with the titling of tracks.
Three of the tracks are inspired by paintings, two of which are from the Italian Renaissance, a period of huge creativity and development in art that I love and admire.
VENUS in Sunlight Grey
Inspired by the ethereal beauty of Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (painted between 1455-1486), Botticelli’s depiction of the Renaissance muse Simonetta cattaneo Vespucci as the goddess Venus arriving at the shore seemed perfect.
"VENUS in Sunlight Grey" refers to the key of the piece—Eb major. Soprano Grace Davidson, who is the muse for so many of my pieces, perfectly captured the ethereal sound that was in my head when writing this.
ANGEL in Dark Green
"ANGEL in Dark Green" is inspired by the dark, sacred painting An Angel in Green with a Vielle (1490s), the left-hand panel of the Leonardo Da Vinci altar triptych believed to be painted by his assistant, Francesco Napoletano, Leonardo had died before the triptych commission was completed.
I love Leonardo’s middle panel Virgin of the Rocks, but there was something in the left hand panel story that caught my imagination.
The painting already has an aura of music around it with the angel holding a vielle, but it also has a much darker, somber feel to it that I felt lent itself to the key of A minor, which Jessica sees as a definite, very dark green.
A gorgeously evocative key to write for the lower register of a bass flute (Eliza Marshall) to set the atmosphere, weaving the story through a solo violin (Clio Gould) with the ethereal voice of Grace Davidson taking us high into the heavens.
PASSACAGLIA in Klimt Gold
"PASSACAGLIA in Klimt Gold" is the fourth movement of The Renaissance Suite, a four-movement dance suite based on Renaissance dances with a contemporary feel.
The track is inspired by Gustav Klimt’s opulent gold mosaic-like masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-7). "Klimt Gold" refers to the G minor key, which the piece is written in, though it ends in a glorious G major.
BBC Radio 3 Drama, The Winter's Tale
Stepping away from the album briefly, one of the many BBC radio dramas I have scored was The Winter’s Tale, directed by Eoin O’Callaghan. His brief was to create an ethereal score using a "vocalise" soprano voice, sung by the distinguished soprano Claire Moore.
Aside from Shakespeare’s haunting text, I drew inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia (1851-52) by Sir John Everett Millais, depicting Ophelia from Hamlet singing before she drowns in a river.
Nature, astronomy and aerials
A lot of my music is heavily inspired by nature, astronomy and the universe that surrounds our tiny planet.
"Oculus" means "eye" in Latin. I have always loved being able to look up through a glass skylight or an oculus at the top of a dome at the clouds and the sky—a window into the universe.
Equally I am passionate about aerial drone footage over vast landscapes and seeing the Earth looking down from above—called the "overview effect".
"ECHO" is a duet written for the combined talents of Grace Davidson and TikTok-viral close harmony vocalist Anna Hale. It's a contemporary setting of the beautiful text of Christina Rossetti’s poem Echo, in which the word "echo" is never actually mentioned but instead refers to a memory of a lost loved one.
While writing the track and looking at the Rossetti text, in my head it was very much set in a misty dream-world, so creating a video for this single gave me the perfect opportunity to approach the extraordinarily creative landscape cinematographer Stephen Proctor.
Stephen lives near Portland, Oregon, so he managed to create stunning drone footage along the Lewis River in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mount St Helens.
MOONGLADE in Jet Black
The OCULUS album is full of colour references, so I wanted the album's journey to start from a point of black.
The opening track "MOONGLADE in Jet Black" is a soundscape written in F minor and inspired by the way that moonlight falls on water in the black of night—a moon glade.
It is fuelled, again, by my fascination with light, reflection and the Italian Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei and his discovery of Jupiter’s orbiting moons.
Banner credit: Nick Rutter
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