Helen Porter

Finzi Trust Travel Scholarship, Venice 21st April – 4th May 2008 Composition project: The Venetian Interludes

In the midst of a hectic life as a professional musician, it’s a valuable thing to stop for a moment and reflect on a unique experience of four years ago. I was granted the gift of a fortnight of undisturbed peace and tranquility in a convent in Venice, where my task was to set about working on four interludes for a chamber opera. It was a gift of time – the one commodity most working people are seriously lacking. The opportunity of two weeks away provided an oasis of calm – a tranquil island in the middle of a turbulent, raging sea. And despite it being one of the busiest tourist attractions in the world, it is not as difficult as it might seem beyond the massive crowds to find peace in Venice, as my diary from 2008 descibes: “The Convent is absolutely perfect, and I feel so incredibly lucky. My large marble floored, high ceilinged room, with it’s beautiful spotless bathroom, is on the ground floor, looking out over a large, sunny courtyard. I have a desk, shelves, and a solid chair – a proper workspace. It’s quiet and peaceful. I have landed in the most perfect place.”

The full days composing music in this blissful haven did not, of course, make the task of composition itself any easier, and at the time I struggled with all the usual frustrations and inadequacies. But the end result was an achievement I could not have anticipated – these ‘Venetian’ interludes stand independently from the chamber opera, and have been performed both in the UK and abroad. Without access to a piano, which at the time seemed a severe (though deliberate) denial, I was forced to approach composition from a different angle, and as a consequence the writing was very specifically for strings, exploring textures and effects to produce atmospheric pieces based on the elements – earth, fire, air and water. The quartets were like nothing I had written previously, and there is no doubt that it helped me to develop a confidence and a new direction in my work.

Not only this, but as a result of the performance of the Venetian Interludes, their reception and the enthusiasm and encouragement of the Eberle String Quartet, I can honestly say that it enabled me to believe in myself as a serious composer far more than previously. I am proud of these quartets above anything in my catalogue. Almost all of my work to date had been vocal and song music, and for the theatre, but these string quartets exist in their own right. Life has, inevitably, returned to it’s hectic pace, but reflecting on this time, and re-reading my report, has reminded me of the enormous value of this much treasured time alone to concentrate on one aspect of my work, and how that time enabled me to develop as a composer.