Alex Knox: heightening the drama of Joby Talbot's 'Path of Miracles'
This season we have had the great privilege to work with writer and actor Alex Knox for our upcoming concert, to bring an extra dimension to the highly atmospheric ‘Path of Miracles’ by Joby Talbot.
In this post, Alex talks about his creative process and how he drew upon the medieval text of the piece to develop a character that everyone can relate to.
How did Joby Talbot's score inspire you to create these vignettes? How did you draw upon the text and the choral sound of the Cantus Ensemble to create this parallel story?
Path of Miracles is such an extraordinary piece, and so vivid. Musical director Dominic Brennan played me a recording of it months ago when we were first discussing plans for the project, and the drama in this piece immediately came through. The sections are so varied, and you get carried along listening to it: there's hope, fear, exhaustion, love, and that’s just the beginning. It's also very uplifting.
At times, there's a real sense of a struggle in the music, and I decided that this was where I should start from when it came to writing a new text. The Camino isn't a walk in the park; it's 500 miles of sweat and blisters and pain.
I've been following the story of the Cantus Ensemble since it started, and I have lots of friends in the choir. It's such a committed group of young people, all doing so well in their various fields, who come together to make glorious music. I've seen and heard them blossom in recent years. They're one of the most exciting choirs in London, with tremendous musicianship and openness and commitment; and, of course, they make the most beautiful sound. The friendships people make on the Camino are said to be life-long and life-affirming. The same is absolutely true of this group. In many ways, you feel that this piece was almost written for them.
Were there any other sources that influenced your approach to this work?
My cousin has spoken so much about the Camino since he walked it two years ago. It changed his life. He's shown me the photographs he took, and told me the stories of the people he met along The Way, and how they've remained in touch ever since. It's always inspiring when he talks about it. Over New Year I walked the length of the Thames, which was a wonderful experience, and I had a lot of time to work out how I might approach the task of writing texts to accompany 'Path of Miracles'.
A long walk is a completely immersive experience: you escape the everyday, and you have a chance to see yourself and the world in a different light. It's a strange thing, but after walking for a long time it becomes easier to continue than to stop. A long walk connects you to the earth, to others and to yourself.
How did your research into the Camino de Santiago affect the characters and story you created?
The walk has been described as 'a metaphor for life'. Yes, it is a pilgrimage; and yes, many Catholics walk the route each year. But it amazes me how many people do the walk for other reasons. I got to thinking why someone today (who is, quite possibly, not religious at all) would want to put themselves through the experience: what might they be escaping? What they might be searching for?
Can you talk a bit about the idea of a modern pilgrimage and why people choose to put themselves to task in this way?
Walking is the best way of getting anywhere slowly. I forget who wrote that! Even though it's so obvious to say, it's important. In a world like today, I don't think it comes as a surprise that people want to slow down. It's a big commitment to take on the Camino: not just physically, but in terms of time: you need to book at least a month off work and completely disconnect from your everyday life. There's also the sheer beauty of the landscape, the churches, the towns and villages along the way; not to mention the sense of accomplishment at having completed it.
Talbot chose Medieval texts for 'Path of Miracles'. I suppose I was keen to shine a more contemporary light on the piece and on the Camino itself, but without detracting from the music, which is of course the main event!
Can you talk about working with director Olivia Howie to bring the vignettes to life in performance?
It's an absolute joy getting to work with Livvy again. We were at Manchester University together, where we sang, directed and acted together in more shows than I can count. This is our first time working as 'creatives' together, she's been so open to ideas, and her vision for the concert is so exciting.
We don't want this to feel like a typical concert. We'd like the audience to enter and feel like they've walked into a whole world. We'd like to give them a unique experience: something immersive - musical, theatrical and perhaps even spiritual.
What are some of the challenges involved with writing this specific type of drama, to go between movements of a choral piece?
The music has to remain the focal point of the evening so balancing my performance is something I have been very conscious of. My aim is that the audience will leave having learnt something about the Camino, but without feeling like they've just attended a lecture. There is a story that runs through the four movements, and my hope is that by setting it in the present day, it will help to make the Medieval journey of the 'Path of Miracles' more relatable to the audience of 2017.