In a very special Christmas commission for Opera North, Ivor Novello Award-winning composer and folk explorer Martin Green is about to pick a path through the plastic elves and tinsel to uncover the distant origins of Christmas customs, with a few revelations and a lot of magical music on the way.
Lighting the Dark, which sees Green and friends pulling together the older music and stories of Christmas, comes to the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17 December, and Sage Gateshead on 22 December.
Ahead of the concert, Mag North jumped at the chance recently to catch-up with him by phone from his home in a very snowy and Christmassy Midlothian.
We started (obviously) by paying homage to Lau, who have just been on tour. Green confirmed: “It was joyous to get back out and play with the band. We’re a happy little bunch – we’re not doing lots and lots of shows – but it feels special when we’re together.”
Martin Green and Opera North go back a long way: “They’ve been so brilliant to me. They were the first people that I ever did anything more than pure music with. They’ve got a very enlightened, open-minded idea of what an opera company might make. Which has been brilliant for a lot of people.
“An opera company looks at every facet of performance. What it looks like. What it means. And that was mind blowing for me when I started working with them – to think about more than just the music.
“They do everything they can to help you make the thing you’re trying to. Obviously it’s a tricky time right now – everybody has less money and higher bills – but they’ll do everything they can. I love ‘em.”
The publicity images for Lighting The Dark have Green presenting his best ‘dejected-looking’ face – and it seems apparent he and the show have some mixed-up festive feelings.
“Yeah – they [Opera North] asked me about doing a Christmas show, which is not something I’d ever considered doing – and it took a little while for me to work out what I might have to offer.
“Part of that is – I find Christmas a bit tricky – I think a lot of people do. There are many wonderful things about it, but there are also challenges. I think there are a lot of mental health challenges with it at this point in the year – and so the show and the reason for the stern-looking face is:
“The show follows a little trajectory of: Christmas is really difficult – but ultimately we need a way to get through the time of the year when there isn’t much light – and one of the remarkable things about Christmas is the seasonal music. I can’t think of another time of the year when you could stop someone in the street and ask: ‘sing me an Easter song’. ‘Sing me a Mayday song’. They’re not in the public consciousness like Christmas songs are.
“So musically there’s something to explore. But also some brilliant things have happened to me in terms of Christmas existing – in terms of connecting with people who live close to me, communal singing and so on –things that the rules of Christmas allow us to do.
“It goes on a little journey of me finding it difficult. It’s a fictional me – I’m not actually as morose or joyless as I’m presented in the show.”
Joining Green on stage are Irish fiddle player Ultan O’Brien of the band Slow Moving Clouds and an all-star brass trio: composer and improviser Laura Jurd (trumpet); Danielle Price, whose tuba can be heard on myriad collaborations including with Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat; and the brilliant young Glaswegian trombonist Anoushka Nanguy.
“Ultan’s from County Clare – and we talk a bit about Irish traditions. We look at ‘The Wren Boys’…on Boxing Day they hunt a wren, which is the symbol of the old year. They kill it – which is a bit harsh – and that leaves space for the Robin – which is the symbol of the ‘New Year’.
“So we look at the pros and cons of that tradition – and that allows us to get into some traditional music – we play some quite hardcore traditional music.
“Folk stories seem to have a purity about them – but just like everything else, they’re deeply inconsistent – so its been fun to look at those – and examine the fallacy of purity I guess.”
And there’s a bit of nonsense too: There’s great design from North East based Ainsley Henderson, who’s background is in animation – but for the show he’s made a series of musical sculptures – because Green feels Christmas iconography is also quite strange. He explains:
“Picture of a camel in the snow, next to a baby in a manger, with a penguin wearing a Santa hat… strangely this is not confusing to us. We know what that means, so Ainsley has made a Christmas icon ‘mash-up’. It’s a kind of musical machine a bit like a fairground type construction. Hypothetically it will play in time with the band. We call it ‘The Machine’.
And that’s where Opera North are so brilliant. They have a 360 aesthetic. They understand you want to consider how the stage looks…that’s their ‘bread and butter’ – but in a normal gig you might not have the support to do that.”
What are Martin and his friends hoping that we’ll take away from the show?
“Primarily – I hope it’s a joyous show. It’s not a curmudgeonly show – and partly my scrooge voyage is saying: Actually this is wonderful. We always had to find some way for humans to find a path through the dark – and Christmas is one way of doing that.
“It's quite a funny show. There are jokes – and I hope the end result is that people going out and being in a space together seems special – as things are difficult at the minute.”
If someone is a ‘Christmas Avoider’ – is Lighting The Dark for them?
“Absolutely. I definitely have the propensity to be a Christmas Avoider – and that’s were I thought I was at the starting point: ‘This could be really hard – so let’s find a way to enjoy it and I believe it’s important for us to get together and talk and listen to each other. In an increasingly secular world, we have to work out why it still makes sense – and that’s why we go back to the hunting of the wren – which is much older than Christianity. Part of it is pragmatism: we know on some level ‘that we need this’. If Christmas isn’t important for a lot of people – that doesn’t negate its social importance and worth – and that’s what we’re exploring.
“We’re cutting through the commercial tat that can be overwhelming for people – making it easy to say: ‘This is all bollocks isn’t it?’."
Making tickets accessible at £14 is an important decision given the current economic climate. Green is chuffed: “That’s amazing and thanks to Opera North again. It’s something that comes up a lot at Lau shows – we don’t have control of ticket prices. I love Lau…but it doesn’t mean I’ve got a spare £25 to go see them.”
And after the concerts in Leeds and Gateshead, what does Christmas look like for the Green family?
“We live in a little village in Scotland – and Christmas is lovely in our village. We have a long-standing tradition were we go into the woods near us at 11am on Christmas Day and have a glass of wine with the neighbours, then roll back home and cook the lunch. Always slightly frenzied – lots of kids. Lots of dogs – but it is a great thing. And I wont be sour-faced at all.”
And there’s a packed 2023 ahead. Green readily admits he’s terrified of not being busy. Lau will be back out on the road – and Lighting The Dark will be return next year too.
“We’re making more of these things that cross over between theatrical work and musical work – and we’ll be heading back to Yorkshire with a Brass Band next year – so look out for that!
“And I’m still trying to make a Brighouse and Rastrick gig happen at The Trades Club [in Hebden Bridge] – that would be magical. They’d take the roof off!”
Lighting the Dark comes to the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17 December, with a second performance at Sage Gateshead on 22 December. For more information and tickets, click HERE