Pepys Show: An Interview With Benjamin Till

Shortly after midnight, 350 years ago to this very day, in the City of London bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane, a fire began. London was no stranger to fires, but this particular one would proceed largely unchecked, destroying an area of the City that far exceeded the damage wrought by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz.

We owe much of our understanding of what took place over the two and a half days of fierce burning that became known as the Great Fire to one man, an upper middle class Cambridge graduate and member of parliament called Samuel Pepys. Pepys is synonymous with the diary that he kept for some nine and a half years, beginning on 1st January 1660 until he ceased writing nearly a decade later after fearing – unfoundedly – that his eyesight was failing him. His writings represented a concise, unadorned form of reportage that gives us powerful insight into a period of massive upheaval in Britain’s capital – the Restoration of the monarchy, the Great Fire, the Great Plague, the Second Dutch War – all of which had a major bearing on the topography and conceptual fabric of London as we know it today.

Pepys’s obsessive documenting of his own affairs (more on that later) and the events unfolding around him in London is paralleled by the work of composer Benjamin Till, whose extreme meticulousness can be heard on his new album, The Pepys Motet. A choral work for twenty singers, Till’s work is an intense, immersive aural soundscape where the listener is literally surrounded by sung passages taken from Pepys’s diaries, executed in collaboration with Paul ‘PK’ Kendall, a producer and engineer for whom soundscaping of this nature is just as fastidious as either Pepys’s writing or Till’s approach to composing.

Till will be familiar to Erasure fans for his Channel 4 work Our Gay Wedding, which featured a stand-out performance from Andy Bell, and which featured Till as one the grooms. His Pepys project began in 2009, when he was asked to conceive a Pepys tribute to commemorate the anniversary of Pepys putting pen to paper by St Olave’s Church in the City, where Pepys and his wife Elizabeth are buried.

“I’d never really thought about Pepys before,” admits Till. “Obviously everyone knows Pepys and the Great Fire and the Plague, but for me that was about all I could think of.” His obsessive approach to pretty much everything he does forced him to invest himself fully in the Diaries, reading short and long versions fervently, in the process consuming around a million of Pepys’s words.

The work he began on 1st January 2010 was inspired by both Pepys and the massive choral work Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis, which Tallis had written as a forty-part motet, a polyphonic choral work typically sung in churches. “I wrote for eight choirs of five individuals, each of whom represented a different aspect of Pepys’s life, and each of them also represented a different choral tradition,” explains Till of his approach to composing The Pepys Motet. “I had a choir of five gospel singers who represented Pepys’s home life; I had a choir of five opera singers to represent his social climbing, five folk singers representing anything he wrote about what was going on in London itself; there was a choir of musical theatre singers who represented his debauchery and his love of theatre. There was a choir of early music singers who represented anything to do with religion or royalty, and then there was a choir of five children to represent the children he never had, a choir of five men from the Royal Navy to represent Pepys’s job as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. Finally there were five singers from Magdalene College Cambridge, where Pepys studied.”

Till wrote solidly for eight months on the original version of The Pepys Motet. “It was a proper labour of love,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed the process of trying to write forty unique lines with no repetition whatsoever, with no-one doubling anyone. Obviously they don’t all sing at once, but sometimes forty singers sing forty different lines, and that was quite exciting. I made sure it happened once in every movement.”

Till scribed a daily blog from the day he started – the 350th anniversary of when Pepys put pen to paper for the first entry in his Diaries – and which continues to this day. The blog, the modern form of a diary in many ways, captured Till’s fundraising efforts to finance the Motet, progress on the forty-part work, the genesis of other projects, and, for the first two years, a précis of what Pepys had been doing on that very day some three and a half centuries prior.

Three movements from the forty-part motet were performed at St Olave’s at the end of 2010. “It was quite an extraordinary experience,” says Till. “The choir sang in a circle around the audience and moved around a lot.”Till had five of the six movements he had composed recorded at that time, but felt that the scramble to complete the work had left him with recordings that weren’t up to the exacting standards that he’d set himself. He then began a painstaking process of scaling back The Pepys Motet into the form displayed on the new album.

“There was an unfinished business aspect about it all,” sighs Till. “Since the original recordings, I’d set up a choir called The Rebel Chorus, and we recorded another of my compositions called The London Requiem, which was created from gravestone inscriptions from across London, and which PK also produced. There were twenty singers in The Rebel Chorus for that album, which made me realise that it made sense to downscale the Pepys project.”

Taking the piece down from a forty-part work to a twenty-part composition required Till to spend around six months of 2012 hacking it down to size. “I was looking at what didn’t work quite so well with the forty part version, and tried to thin it out,” he explains. “Fortunately, with The Rebel Chorus, a lot of the members of that choir came from that original group used for the forty-part motet, so I kept that sense of there being gospel singers, opera singers, musical theatre singers, folk singers, soul singers and so on. I was writing for the specific individual known voices, for their strengths and their ranges.”

The Rebel Chorus

Recording sessions for the album began in 2013, and Till consciously decided to record the choir in groups of five, with each of the singers in a different booth, something that’s relatively unprecedented in classical music. “I wanted the flexibility of being able to do whatever I wanted to the vocal stems,” he explains, earnestly. “Also, when you’re writing for twenty voices it can be a cacophony of sound if you can’t control or differentiate the individuals. One of the things I love about The Pepys Motet is that suddenly you’ll get this gospel singer or a soul singer or an opera singer will kind of come out of the mix. Recording the singers individually allowed us to separate the sound and then PK could put reverb on one singer if he chose to, or completely take the reverb out, or give an effect of everyone going around in a circle around the ears.”

Till’s approach might sound like overdriven controlfreakery, but the album benefits from that exacting approach to using the voices as a sonic tapestry. Words whirl around the stereo field, whispers have complete clarity and the whole thing has a controlled denseness more akin to a soundscape or musique concrète composition.

“It starts with the first words Pepys wrote in his diary with each singer in turn singing a syllable each –’Ble-ssed be God‘ – and it sort of zooms in on itself, and then the next group start, and it becomes like a spiral,” he continues. “I recorded everything with very close mics, so it meant that we could ask the singers to whisper, or sing really, really quietly. The whole piece was written for a lot of vocal gymnastics, and extended vocal techniques. There are a lot of growls and snarls and harmonics and things like that, which, if you’re close mic’ing somebody singing overtones, you get the whistles and the really interesting things that you’d otherwise lose.”

The approach that Till and PK took of allowing voices to interact, counteract, spin and overlap was inspired by the jump-cut style of Pepys’s writing. “He changes tack so often in his diary,” Till laughs. “He’ll be talking about the Great Plague and then he’ll say that ‘I’m really pleased to say that I’m now worth a thousand pounds!‘ You were literally just talking about death and now you’re talking about this! And then you’re talking about wanting to shag some woman and then you’re talking about how you hate yourself for going to the the theatre! It just keeps moving. It’s because he wasn’t writing for anyone’s consumption, he was just writing his thoughts. It’s very mercurial. Because he was writing his inner thoughts, he writes them in a very direct language. There’s none of the florid stuff that you find in his letters and his official documents. The letters were almost unreadable because he was so florid, as was the style in those days, but the stuff in his Diaries is just unbelievably direct.”

The most direct writing was reserved for writing about his sexual conquests and extra-marital affairs which, to prevent his long-suffering wife Elizabeth from detecting his illicit activities, would tend to be written in Latin, French or Spanish. “My favourite line in the whole thing is ‘And endeed I was with my hand in her cunny.’ Even after 350 years that’s still shocking and quite amazing. And that’s why the fifth movement in The Pepys Motet, about his affair with his maid Deb Willett, is jazzy and sleazy, because that felt like the right style to be writing in.”

Till reflects for a moment, gathering his thoughts and sipping from a mug bearing the legend ‘Big Fella’. “There’s this weird thing where there’s so much freedom” he muses. “When you decide you’re going to go up to the bell and ring it, I think you might as well just go for it. That’s why there’s gospel bits in it, and all sorts of other things. This is what London is today, a collection of all of these different groups of people, and that’s also what London was back then. That’s why it was such a pleasure to feature all those different voices.”

Getting that diversity of voices, and the detailed approach to isolating and mixing each voice individually, as well as part of a broader piece, wasn’t without its challenges. For a start, the process would see Till and PK rack up something like 300 hours of mixing – a critical step that was required to execute Till’s vision for the pieces, but one that was unprecedented and exhausting for the pair.

“We also made a decision to use Melodyne on every single voice,” Till continues. “That way we could have the absolute precision of tuning but we didn’t smooth anything. That took an extraordinary amount of time but I almost wanted to treat the voices like a synthesizer, and I wanted the voices to have that extraordinary precision. If hadn’t have done that, we wouldn’t have been able to have the control, and it would have been a less sonically precise experience. I’m really quite anti any sort of tuning software, because I think they can ruin the inherent beauty of a voice. I had massive issues with it to begin with and I started to wonder if it wasn’t real music because of what we were doing to it, but it was only being done so that we could get that precision.”

PK, who has worked on numerous pieces with Till over the last few years, represents the perfect collaborator for someone looking for so much control over the sound. Across his production career, Kendall has consistently looked to fully involve himself in the fabric of sound waves, operating from an immersive position that’s more elemental than compositional.

“Sometimes he would kick me out of the studio,” laughs Till. “He’d turn to me and say ‘Ben, I’m going in, can you go home?’ and he’d put his headphones on and just enter the music. Those were the most amazing times because he’d send me something the next day that he’d done and there’d be these clouds of sound, or he’d have chosen one voice which just cut through the rest. You can trust PK to go away and just do his thing, and if you trust PK you get the best results. I don’t care what he does; whatever he does is going to be better than I could imagine it.”

Investing himself in a project, to the kind of levels that seem almost fanatically purist, is just what Till does. For London Requiem, he would break into Highgate Cemetery at midnight to capture environmental sounds that could then be used within his composition. For Oranges & Lemons, which rounds out the Pepys Motet album, Till once again took a hugely detailed approach to tackling a song familiar to many generations of school children. For this project, Till and a soundman trawled the churches of the City to capture the sound of every single bell referenced in the song, as well as uncovering lost verses that amplified some of the darker sections of the lyrics.

“There’s something exciting about place and an aspect of documentary,” he explains, “but with Oranges & Lemons, there was an almost autistic fanaticism about making sure that every single bell in every single church wasn’t just recorded but was featured in the recording, including little handbells. For the bells of St Helen’s Bishopsgate for example, the church there doesn’t use bells as part of the worship, so those bells are still hanging but without any clapper mechanisms. We climbed up into the belfry and we hit them with a rubber mallet, just to make sure we got them.”

If recording the bells presented logistical challenges – including putting feet through floorboards, getting covered in decades’ worth of black dust and generally getting spooked by weird, spectral noises being picked up on the recordings – it was just as bad trying to process and analyse the recordings. “A bell is so complex in terms of the different harmonics,” Till groans. “What the bell is meant to be ringing is often not what it is actually ringing.”

Ringing the bell at St Catherine Cree, before it was melted down

Stitching together all of the bell recordings in order took five agonising days in total. “For the first day I was thinking it sounded like shit because it was so freakishly out of tune,” Till laughs. “Sometimes you’d have a minor chord where you wanted a major chord, so it would all just sound horrid. And then at a certain point I just went ‘Fuck it – I really like this’. That was the epiphany of Oranges & Lemons, but it nearly killed us. I worked with Julian Simmonds who works at DIN Studios and he used to get these migraines on a daily basis about 4pm because I’d be saying ‘First hemidemisemiquaver, St Helens E. Second hemidemisemiquaver, St Botolph G’, and so we’d be putting them into this file one by one, place by place. I think that almost drove him mad.”

True to his intense reading of Pepys, Till avidly researched the forgotten elements of Oranges & Lemons that throw a much darker hue on the playground song. “We found this extra bit of text, which is the middle section where it goes ‘All ye that in the condemned hole do lie, prepare ye, for tomorrow ye shall die,‘ and it was a poem from the bellman from St Sepulchre, next to Newgate Prison. He would walk around the jail on the night before an execution reading this poem and ringing a bell. They were executed at the strike of nine from the bells, and the bell that you can hear ringing all the way through that sequence is the actual bell that they were listening to. That was literally the last thing they heard, that very bell. And then going into the Tower Of London, which is considered to be the location of the Bells of St John’s. The line ‘Pokers and tongs say the bells of St John’s‘ was about torture in the Tower of London.”

There is a bell whose ringing connects directly back to Pepys’s Diary, which also hangs at the Tower of London. The Curfew Bell would have been rung during the Great Plague to ensure that citizens of the City headed indoors, so as to allow the sick to take to the streets, ghoul-like, in order to get what little fresh air might have availed itself upon them. “It’s got this pulley mechanism which makes a really strange squeak,” recalls Till with what could be a pained wince. “There’s one moment in my Oranges & Lemons where you hear that spiralling right round the ears in that middle section, which is pretty creepy.”

Ringing the Curfew Bell

When combined with The London Requiem, The Pepys Motet and Oranges & Lemons represent Till’s London trilogy. And yet Till isn’t from London at all, despite his deep understanding of place and history suggesting that the capital runs deep through his veins: he was born and raised in Northampton in the Midlands. “It comes from not having a sense of belonging,” he confesses of his deep affection for London. “That comes from being a Midlander. Nobody talks about the Midlands like its a real place.”

“I think what I’ve done all my life is found myself looking to attach myself to some kind of sense of belonging,” he continues. “I studied in Yorkshire, and I feel a great sense of affinity with Yorkshire, but because I’m a Londoner now I feel a great sense of pride in that. My friend Philippa, who was born in London, says I’m the only person she knows who has become a Londoner. I’ve embraced London in quite a fanatical way. I am an obsessive, and I’ve always been obsessive, and everything I’ve ever done I’ve done with huge obsession.”

That obsession that Till returns to has produced one of the most enriched, enthralling and intricately complex albums you will ever hear, an album where Pepys’s voice is brought to life with vivid colour. It is an album whose significance will only grow, like Pepys’s Diaries has, in its capacity to document London life in all its many guises

The Pepys Motet and Oranges & Lemons album is available from Benjamin’s website. The album will be released on 2nd September to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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