Notes from Underground: Interview with Sean O’Brien

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Agustín Fernández & Sean O’Brien

We caught up with University of Newcastle’s Professor of Creative Writing Sean O’Brien to discuss the upcoming performance of Notes from Underground, part of the Poetry & Music programme on Wed 10 May at Sage Gateshead.

NCLA: In a piece you wrote for The Guardian, ‘How I fell under W.H. Auden’s Spell’ (2015), you mention that Auden’s ‘The Watershed’ (1927) gave an opening into what became the song cycle Notes from Underground, with the lines:  ‘one died / During a storm, the fells impassable, / Not at his village, but in wooden shape / Through long abandoned levels nosed his way / And in his final valley went to ground.’ I also read that you allude to the myth of Orpheus, Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy in your text. Can you explain your thought process there?

O’Brien: The reason that the lead mines are the setting for the song cycle is New Writing North wanted to commission a work for the Durham Book Festival set imaginatively in the region. The piece was premiered at the Book Festival in 2015 with funding from Arts Council England. I was asked if there was a composer with whom I would like to collaborate, and since Agustín Fernández and I had talked previously about working together, I was keen to invite him and fortunately he was interested. The lead mines are a very compelling imaginative location – being ancient, mysterious, no longer functioning and relatively remote. But you can’t write about the lead mines without touching upon Auden’s interest in them. All his life he was fascinated by the lead mines on Alston Moor. There was a map of Alston Moor in his workroom in Fire Island, New York.

Auden’s work touches on mining, engineering and industrial decline. If you’re going to write about that area you have to acknowledge these themes and find a margin in which to operate.

In a story that Auden recounts in “The Watershed”, a miner had died and because the weather made an overground journey impossible, his coffin was transported through the mine tunnels for burial. This very suggestive story connects to the character in the song cycle. He receives a summons from the underworld and undergoes an ordeal there, before returning eventually to the daylight world.

The imaginative attraction of the underworld has been very strong for me. I spent several years translating Dante’s Inferno, and Aeneid Book 6 and the myth of Orpheus are present to anyone interested in that imaginative terrain. The idea of being accused owes something to Cocteau’s film Orfée, his 1950 film about the myth. There is an underground committee in the film – the French Resistance – trying to decide if there’s a traitor amongst them. All these things coalesced and helped to stimulate the songs. Agustín is also interested in the underworld. He’s Bolivian – he’s from a volcanic country. So that’s how some of that came out.

NCLA: Can you describe the experience of visiting the mines?

O’Brien: In 1999 I made a radio programme called Reservoir of Darkness: W.H. Auden and the North Pennine Lead Mines, an exploration of Auden’s interest in that part of the North East. We did indeed go down the mine at Nenthead – an extraordinary experience. We were knee deep in running water, we had a guide, we had lamps. The mine shaft resembled herringbone brick. You had to stoop going down and from time to time, there were little inset parts which contain mine waste. Those parts are called the ‘deads’ – that’s obviously fascinating.

And there was the sense of being under a mountain. The whole area is riddled with adits and airshafts. It has a sense of being a secret world, which is completed by being active in the imagination.

Can you describe the process of collaborating with Agustín, as well as creating a layered and sonic text that included a chorus?

O’Brien:I find Agustín extremely enjoyable to work with. In my collaborations with composers, it tends to be that I produce the words first, so the composer has to be accommodating. Agustín is very accommodating and ingenious. His music is thrilling, richly atmospheric, richly textured. He gives a real sense of descent into the earth to a place where normal rules are suspended.

I felt very lucky to be involved. As you know all poets would really like to be composers.

What were the main challenges of writing a song cycle?

O’Brien:Writing a song cycle is akin to writing a sequence of poems. The parts have to form a coherent whole while providing the writer with a sufficient sense of being partly in the dark to animate the imagination. It’s possible to dry something out by being too aware of it so I look for prompts from the rhythmic and musical life of a poem. I think Agustín was quite receptive to the sense of mystery. And it’s for the listener to decide what exactly is at stake. Notes from Underground is not allegorical; it’s not illustrative. I guess from the composer’s point of view the challenge is to be both coherent and various in mood, tone and dynamics. Agustin’s writing for voices is particularly exciting.

In the same Guardian piece, you write that Auden viewed music as the supreme art. Do you feel the same?

O’Brien:There’s nothing original I can say on this topic. Music is free of language’s obligation to seek exact meanings. It invites the listeners to respond without prescribing what that response must be. In this sense, as Auden writes in his sonnet “The Composer”: ‘Only your song is an absolute gift’. But of course this is not to denigrate poetry. There are composers who can see the excitements of poetry as well.

EVENT: 18:00 – 18:45 Poems as Songs with Royal Northern Sinfonia

Notes from Underground
Commissioned by Durham Book Festival 2015

Conductor Hugh Brunt
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
with the Voices of Hope choir

Tickets for the entire Poetry & Music Programme:

£19.40 (£16.10 concessions) available from the Sage Gateshead website