The soundscape of the sea

Ahead of Valletta 2018’s first flagship event – the term gets a literal edge here – we spoke to Maltese musician and composer Mario Sammut – who also goes by ‘Cygna’ – and former Musical Director of the Royal Shakespeare company Richard Brown, about how they set about crafting the soundscape of Valletta Pageant of the Seas, while also filling us in on their own musical journey over the years

Valletta Pageant of the Seas takes place tomorrow
Valletta Pageant of the Seas takes place tomorrow

Pageant of the Seas

Richard Brown: “Pageant of the Seas was an interesting project to compose, and collaborating with Mario Sammut has been great. Often a director will give a composer an example of the style he or she would like, and in this case [Valletta 2018 Artistic Director] Mario Philip Azzopardi mentioned ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland, and also Miklos Rozsa’s ‘Ben Hur’ theme. Since ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ also has a rock version created by Emerson Lake and Palmer this gave me a good indication of the range of styles I could explore. My twenty years as Musical Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has also given me huge experience of theatrical fanfare styles.”

Mario Sammut: “Just as I did when I worked on the soundscape for CHOGM – a similarly ‘large scale’ event – the main priority for me is to work with a cohesive frame of mind so as to keep the composition of the show secure. However, I did indulge in some unconventional moments here and there, though still using ‘conventional’ instruments. While these moments tend to be short and abrupt – and will be very evident to anyone who comes to the event – I do believe they make the piece more interesting.” 

Early influences and current sound

Mario Sammut: “I would describe my sound as a mixture of orchestral instruments backed up by synthetic frequencies. As for early musical influences I can list: classical piano, Chopin, symphonies, black metal and electronic music.

Richard Brown: “My style is filmic orchestral with some additional choral elements. My early influences came from being a chorister at Exeter Cathedral in England. Later when I studied for my music degree I became very involved in music for theatre and contemporary dance, so my influences became much wider, ranging from Stravinsky and Sondheim to jazz composers and rock styles such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd. My instrumental arrangements reflect these varied influences.”

How Pageant of the Seas builds on earlier career

Richard Brown: “My first theme is an extension of a ‘sea theme’ that I composed for an orchestral and choral piece about Cook’s voyage to Australia. I also drew on my fanfare material in another choral/orchestral piece about Hereward, the last Saxon warrior.”

Mario Sammut: I’ll certainly be carrying over my compositional style, which will also be reflected in the song by [fellow Pageant of the Seas performers] Walk the Plank. Another distinctive feature will be the sudden abrupt changes in the music, which kept me personally amused while I was writing.

Life lessons, in music

Richard Brown: “The most important thing I have learnt is that if the music suits the instruments and the musicians enjoy playing it, the result is always going to be better than music that is unnecessarily difficult or awkward. The second most important thing is to capture a mood or emotion, and this is the first thing I think about which informs the musical textures and melodies and therefore the choice of instruments.”

Mario Sammut: “First of all, I’ve learnt that time is more important than money. Secondly, that being a freelance composer is no easy task, and that every aspect of the job will be accompanied by its own headaches. Such as, for example, dealing with directors and producers – be it on a theatre production or on large-scale events like CHOGM or Pageant of the Seas itself. In my capacity as a solo electronic artist [Cygna], I’ve toured all over Europe and was pleased to discover a wider musical perspective that somehow feels genuine.

Valletta Pageant of the Seas will be taking place at the Grand Harbour tomorrow from 18:00