Image: Jocelyn Pook © Hugo Glendinning

In between her work on various other projects, composer Jocelyn Pook took the time to answer our questions about creating the music for Akram Khan’s Dust, part of Lest We Forget.

Akram Khan’s Dust will be available to watch for free from Wednesday 29 April 2020 at 7pm BST on Facebook and YouTube, for 48 hours.

Tell us how you started working with Akram Khan?

Akram and I were introduced by his co-producer Bia Oliveira, who I’d worked with many years previously with the performance artist Bobby Baker. She introduced him to my music, and then he approached me to work with him on Desh, our first project together.

We then realised we had more in common than we thought: I’d recently written a score for a film project with a connection to Bangladesh, Brick Lane, and prior to that had worked with several Indian vocalists in pieces eg on my albums Flood and Untold Things, where I’d fused elements of kathak and Carnatic music with my own, which was a real surprise to him.

Video: English National Ballet in Dust © Photography by ASH.

How did you work on Dust?

Dust was our third project together, after Desh and iTMOi, so by then we had developed a good working relationship and a shared vocabulary – which makes the process easier, as you don’t have to over-explain everything: you’ve developed a good understanding of your collaborator and more importantly, trust.

Akram first came with a structure: he knew there would be three sections to the piece and we started working from that.

For example, the second section is for a group of women. We called it the factory section. Akram had a very specific rhythm he wanted, dance-wise, so we started by recording that sequence with a percussionist and I began to work around that. I tried so many different ideas for this section but none seemed quite right, then suddenly Akram remembered a sketch I had done for iTIMOi which we hadn’t used and I had completely forgotten about (Akram remembers everything!). He played it alongside the drum sequence and we felt this juxtaposition had something really unusual about it so I continued to develop it from there.

You used the recording of a marching song too…

Yes. I collect unusual recordings, and I’d had this recording of a soldier for a very long time. It’s from 1916, his name is Edward Dwyer, a young corporal: he did not survive the war, which I did not realise until quite a while later. I think it’s extraordinary, so poignant.

The full recording begins with a bit of talking, like a radio interview: he speaks about how hard it was being out on the front, having to endure long, gruelling marches and the important of singing, how it helped keep them going. Then he goes into that marching song: “we’re here because we’re here” set to the tune of Old Lang Syne. Akram loved it and that was an idea for a starting point that I brought to the table right at the beginning of the process.

I love the quality of this recording – a faint, distant voice from the past emerging through the crackling, urgently speaking to us about the horrors of war and what they’d been experiencing on the front; then the impassioned singing – it‘s very moving.

[Listen to the recording of Edward Dwyer below]

And what about the beautiful singing in the final duet?

Yes – I wanted to bring in another voice there. For some reason a male voice felt right to me, but I was drawn to the counter tenor range which embodies qualities of both male and female, so I worked with the wonderful counter tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, whose voice has quite an ethereal quality. I wrote a song, setting the famous poem In Flanders Fields by John McRae to music.

We find it so moving. There is something elegiac about this final section.

Thank you, that’s great to hear. I wanted to add some otherworldliness to it, and with Akram’s choreography, the lighting, the dancers, it just becomes something very special.

[Watch an extract from the final duet below, danced by Tamara Rojo and James Streeter. It features Edward Dwyer’s singing, and the voice of counter tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny]

Video: Tamara Rojo & James Streeter performing Akram Khan's piece Dust

Akram Khan’s Dust will be available to watch for free from Wednesday 29 April 2020 at 7pm BST on Facebook and YouTube, for 48 hours.