Interview with Jennifer Castleton
conducted by Omar F. Miranda
OFM: Jennifer, first I’d like to thank you very much for all the hard work you have put into this commemorative project. I thought I would begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself and your interest in this project.
JC: My name is Jennifer Castleton and I am a musician, among other things. Music is something that gets me through life, it brings me meaning, dimension and joy. It has been a part of my life from a young age, where I began to learn the piano and participated in singing groups. I have spent hours and hours playing the piano with pieces ranging from classical to pop music. In my early twenties, I began experimenting with creating my own music, and now I spend hours and hours writing music.
My interest in this project came from you! I was unaware of this particular piece of music. As you said, a recording is nowhere to be found, so it is definitely not something I would have come across on my own. However I wrote a song entitled Prometheus Unbound, based on a portion of Shelley’s play. I posted it on the internet, where you found it. Thankfully, you contacted me, sharing with me Hubert Parry’s musical version of the play. Upon further research, I was surprised to learn that this work, in its time, was a big deal, so much so, that it was responsible for propelling Parry into his musical career. And yet there is no recording anywhere. How could something so significant in its day have become so obscure? For me, this wasn’t just about performing a piece of music, it was about bringing to light something that once had meaning, and something that I believe still has meaning to the musical world and to society as a whole. My hope is that my piano recordings will help make Parry’s music known to professional musicians, who will then bring it again to the world.
OFM: I know you have invested several hours into recording this music, and we are very grateful. How long did all of these recorded pieces take you? And, for the person not too familiar with such particulars of music, why did it take so long?
JC: I’d be estimating here, but I believe it took me at least 100 hours just in practicing this music leading up to recording. It’s easy to lose track of time when I’m practicing as I can get so focused on the music. Usually in a single sitting, I could practice 1-3 hours depending on how much I was trying to get done or how much time I had available.
There are so many components that go into performing a single piece of music. It’s not just about getting all the notes right. There’s the rhythm and speed of the music. There’s the dynamics, how loud or soft the music needs to be played. There’s my touch—how I attack each note physically with my fingertips. Also important is ensuring that notes aren’t run together, or that certain notes don’t dominate over others in order to maintain the integrity of the music. These kinds of things can make or break the feeling that needs to be communicated as the piece is performed, so a lot of times, a single portion of music needs to be practiced again and again, each time focusing on a different component.
OFM: What were your immediate impressions of Parry’s musical composition? And did those impressions change after you completed these recordings?
JC: Complex and intense. The timing is complex, the harmonies are complex, and there is constant movement, even in the slower and quieter portions of the music. Much of this music was not simple or intuitive. There was never a part I felt I could get an easy break. All of it was pretty intense and required a lot of focus and energy.
To be honest, just how intense and how involved this music was only increased as I practiced and came to know the music better. As I focused on those different components that I mentioned earlier, I discovered how the feel and difficulty of the music was different than I initially thought. This happened a lot when I focused on the tempo which is the speed at which the music is played. When I sight-read, or initially ran through the music, I played it at what I thought the speed was, but as I looked at it more in detail, I would realize that a certain portion would need to be performed much faster, or sometimes much slower, than I thought, and that would completely change the feel of the music...usually adding a lot more intensity!
OFM: If this were a full-on musical production, what would it look like? What would it include?
JC: To have this performed as it should be, there would be a full orchestra including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections. This includes instruments such as violins, cellos, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, tubas, and drums to name a few.
And of course, this music was not intended to be purely instrumental. It was meant to be sung. There is meant to be a full chorus of men and women singing up to four different parts simultaneously. Particular characters, such as Prometheus and Jupiter, are sung by soloists. Due to the nature of the music, this isn’t something that could be pulled off by a high school or community choir. It would take people who were trained and experienced, having a significant amount of musical knowledge—particularly when it came to the solos. This music really is grandiose and operatic in scope.
The piano part I played was challenging. But imagine all of that being shared by different instruments and vocalists. It would be so much more stimulating, so much richer in sound, and so much more intense. What I did is such a small representation of what Parry was intending this music to be.
OFM: A few years back, you recorded your own original – and beautiful! – music that you set to the “Life of Life” hymn from Act II of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (video below). Can you tell us how and why you decided to create this? What were your musical influences, if any? How does your piece differ from Parry’s adaptation of it?
“Life of Life” from Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound
Original Music by Jennifer Castleton
JC: I had actually never read, or was even aware of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound when I began writing the piece. I was having a creative moment on the piano, and a strain of music came out that I really resonated with, but I wasn’t sure of where to go with it. I felt it definitely had a Romantic feel. I could picture all of the things that I felt accompanied the Romantic Era. For music, that meant there was a lot of feeling to it. The sound was less about being technical or following a particular form, and more about being emotional. I imagined there being words, but I didn’t know what they were. I almost wanted to make some up, but knew that I was not capable of creating Romantic-style poetry that could be taken seriously. I was going to let it lie, but then I felt like I needed to try just a little bit harder. On my bookshelf was a literature book from college that had works spanning through a particular period of time. I opened it up for inspiration, and the first thing I read was “Life of Life! thy lips enkindle With their love the breath between them,” and it fit exactly—the rhythm and the overall feeling. It was exactly what I was looking for. From there I used the poem as a focus for the music.
Initially when I wrote this piece, I was just experimenting on the piano. All influences were less conscious than they were unconscious. As far as influences go, I have always loved Classical as well as Romantic Era music. These include pieces by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Chopin is really a good indication of Romantic music to me. This is the kind of music I would love to just sit and play for the joy of it, so I’d say my influence for this piece came from hours and hours of playing the music that I loved, and it just became a part of me somewhere—enough to be made manifest in this song I wrote.
My interpretation of the “Life of Life“ poem is very different than that of Parry’s. The melody is simple. The rhythm is steady and straight-forward. Its emotion is in its simplicity.
Parry’s is very complex. There’s much more going on between the vocals and the accompaniment of the instruments. The harmonies are more complex, the rhythm is more complex. It’s more of a journey as it changes theme, tempo, melody and dynamics throughout the piece. Its emotion comes from the extremes in the music, which is also very beautiful.