Interview: Christine Tobin’s new W B Yeats project Sailing to Byzantium

Christine Tobin told me the story today of a phone call which she won’t forget:

“In May 2010 I took a call completely out of the blue. It was the National Library of Ireland. Could I give a talk about the work of WB Yeats, in five weeks’ time?”

The National Library’s round building in Kildare Street is one of the main landmarks of Dublin. There is a major international centre for Yeats studies, with an important Yeats archive. They attract high profile speakers….

Tobin was flattered to be asked, but it didn’t feel right…”I told them really didn’t want to give a talk. But I thought it was a wonderful opportunity, I asked them if they could be interested in performances of settings of Yeats poems. ‘I’m a singer/songwriter….rather than a speechmaker’, I told them.

“They agreed. So by the end of the phone call, I’d committed to set to music and to perform four new Yeats settings at their June event, and to get them rehearsed and ready for performance with Phil Robson and Liam Noble. Four poems. One a week. A challenge with such a tight deadline . Go for it, I thought. When I got off the phone I thought: how am I going to do this? ”

She got straight down to waork. The first lines going round in her head were from a poem she had known since schooldays, the opening of Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees.

That was the first poem Tobin set. Then came three others. Her familiarity with Yeats’ poems runs deep. “My first boyfriend in Ireland, in my teens, wrote poems, and used to recite to me from When You are Old:

take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once

The event at the National Library was a success. People who came to it were incredibly encouraging to Tobin. ‘You should do more.’….. ‘Are you going to make an album?’

“After I’d done the four songs, I thought : yes, this is what I really want to do as my next project . “

Tobin has started to record the songs, and we’ve had a preview of three of them

The Wild Swans at Coole (available on Soundcloud) sets the sensuous words delicately: “Unwearied still, lover by lover,/ They paddle in the cold, /Companionable streams or climb the air.” It has a beautiful part for cello, lovely dark sound and the setting of the moment at the end when when the swans fly away is breathtaking.

Long-legged Fly captures the sound of a bell, words proclimed to an insistent monotone, followed by a progressive filling in of texture.

When you are Old gives that langurous, unhurried (Irish?) sense of having time and space, lovers with an afternoon ahead of them, perhaps…..The spaciousness allows Phil Robson the time to let a melodic guitar solo unfold supremely.

Tobin will premiere all ten songs at the Purcell Room on November 15th in the London Jazz Festival, with Liam Noble and husband Phil Robson, with Dave Whitford on bass and Kate Shortt on ‘cello. The programme also has Robson’s IMS Quintet with US saxophonist Mark Turner

The next step after that will be an album, to be released on Trail Belle Records next year.
ChristineTobin.com/ Tickets for Purcell Room

Categories: miscellaneous

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