Claire Victoria Roberts, a young Welsh composer who makes the confounding of expectations part of her appeal, has just released a single track from her forthcoming album. Nigel Jarrett listened to it and places it in the shifting context of contemporary music-making.
Old-school reviewers might justifiably describe one or two of Claire Victoria Roberts’s publicity shots as glamorous and unusual for a composer who’s written dazzling music for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and others. But, for Roberts, sowing such confusion is part of her persona. Whatever a pigeon-hole is, she’s not about to be forced or enticed into one. Not to be pigeon-holed might be her musical reason for being.
Roberts is a rare exception to the view that most composers have neither the desire nor the ability to create in more than one style, still less to make from them something original. For many, the struggle towards meritorious achievement in one is full-time and often marked by stuttering progress. Roberts’s progression from one to another has a way of dissolving the parameters she crosses.
In addition to those glam snaps, describing herself as being based ‘in Carmarthen and Barcelona’ is a further pointer to how she moves, unclassifiable, from one genre to another. She’s the archetypal boundary-blurrer. To say that she’s just released a single from her latest album is to employ phraseology that might define her work as a certain kind of ‘commercial’ proposition – not one, for a start, recognised as a buzzingly-bright contemporary whose work has been played at symphony concerts and kindred events.
She’s a composer, singer, and violinist working in jazz, orchestral, folk and what one might at a stretch and in terms of her public persona describe as ‘pop’, except that as soon as one begins mapping anything she does the labels self-detach and blow away. The new album, due for release in June, is called Inconsistent and the single from it, available from this month, is Swooping Of Swallows.
Alongside young jazz musicians James Girling (guitar), Tom Harris (piano), and Jeremy Brown (bass), Roberts presents a ‘smorgasbord’ of four songs and four instrumental interludes. Trumpeter Alexandra Ridout, a winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician contest, joins for two songs, and an orchestra of Mancunian friends and colleagues perform her lush, Hollywood-esque orchestral arrangements.
The release of Inconsistent follows a host of awards for her writing in the contemporary ‘classical’ field, including a Jerwood Arts Composer award, a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition prize, and a Young Composer award from the Welsh Music Guild (Cymdeithas Cerddoriaeth Cymru). She’s performed, among others, at Brecon Jazz, the Black Mountain Jazz Wall2Wall Festival, and the Begues Jazz Festival (Catalunya).
The album’s original compositions make up eight tracks which focus on the inconsistencies and inadequacies which Roberts believes make up our being, from Jealousy to Bad Decisions, to our distance from nature and distorted sense of time in Swooping of Swallows with its whimsical line: “A thousand stars which could be ours each night, But we can’t find the time.”
Four wordless pieces take the form of an intro, finale and interlude, and showcase Roberts’s scoring and David Coyle’s production and mixing (Coyle’s credits include orchestral recordings for Classic FM and the BBC). The intro throws wide open the stylistic gambit, taking the listener through microtonal soundscapes to sweeping melodies then back to the raw and intimate setting of agile vocals and Girling’s guitar accompaniment. Hard-driving swing on the bonus track Bad Decisions sees Roberts at home in the traditional scat and sparkle of Great American Songbook-style vocal jazz; it’s a fast-tempo, tongue-in-cheek tune which unites with Ridout’s horn solo.
More divergent in its origins than the rest, Jealousy encounters a singer speaking directly with her emotions in a stripped-down verse of guitar, harp and cello, before branching into layered vocals in a choral finale. The piece is influenced by the singers and composers she has encountered in the diverse jazz scene of Barcelona – such as Rita Payes and Silvia Perez Cruz – as well as singer-songwriters who move freely between jazz and acoustic styles, including Melody Gardot, Esperanza Spalding, and Joni Mitchell.
Roberts says: “I wrote the songs and interludes during lockdown, when I was also working on several classical commissions, an operatic work, and a piece for BBC Radio 3. It was a time when people were so focused on self-improvement. I felt like I wanted to write songs which acknowledged the inescapable contradictions and inconsistencies we all have within us, and to do so musically.
“When I receive a classical commission, do I have to treat it differently, as though I don’t listen to a million other genres, as if I don’t feel moved by the artistry of Laura Marling, Lianne la Havas, and Laura Mvula? If I’m making a plea to my emotions as a singer-songwriter, why can’t I include a reference to Renaissance polyphony? Who gets to decide which styles fit in which boxes? I am as inconsistent in my everyday thoughts and feelings and listening habits as I am in my compositions.
“The album as a whole is a mixture of genres as each track leans more one way than another, but also the tracks themselves combine styles too. In the songs, I wanted to incorporate sounds which link directly to the text and it involved using musicians from other traditions; for example, I wanted to create a birdsong section in Swooping of Swallows, so incorporated classical string players and wrote a part for them to play; in Jealousy I wanted to create a kind of Renaissance-type song which I thought of as asking for forgiveness, and worked with two choristers from the choir I used to sing with. The interludes are primarily classical but feature some improvising musicians, such as myself and Tom.”
To the suggestion that inconsistency is an undesirable trait and that we are always aiming to resolve contradictions, she says: “I think consistency is something in keeping with brands, labels, having a clear image which can be marketed, fitting into a genre box or category. My ideas change a lot and I am constantly listening to new things or re-thinking what type of sounds I want to create. With this album, I decided to go with that and embrace the different parts of my output. In these compositions I was looking to find connection with other musicians, beauty in sound, and curiosity in timbre, which needn’t lead to a resolution of any kind but I guess I am hoping that the interludes welcome listeners into the sound world before the song begins!”
Claire Victoria Roberts and others interested in effacing stylistic and genre boundaries might be in a position to attract new audiences who appreciate the mixing of styles but who would not normally be attracted to a genre in its pure state. It was tried in in jazz when guitar-led rock styles began to interest jazz musicians. Not everyone was convinced that jazz or rock maintained their integrity in what resulted. “I think people are a lot more broad in their listening habits since using streaming services,” Roberts says. “What can be difficult is that my sound world is perhaps hard to pin down, and much as I love having the space to create what I like and what feels true to me as a musician, it doesn’t fit with the world of selling to audiences, being a brand that can be easily marketed, can let venues know what to expect, or can fit with one label.”
While that Wales-Spain nexus she works around is part of her complexity, the Spanish music scene is important. “I am hugely inspired by Cruz and Payes as two vocalists who collaborate with lots of musicians and write their own songs that combine jazz with classical, flamenco, bossa, folk, Iberian songs,” she says. “They are amazing. I also like the audiences there: lots of small festivals with people sat outside listening to jazz standards. It’s more open and less kind of ‘niche’ than the scene in the UK. There are still certain jam nights I go to and feel intimidated, or certain parts of the scene that are very different from the music that I perform; but, on the whole, I love how much appreciation there is for jazz and live music generally.”
Claire Victoria Roberts grew up in Ferryside, Carmarthenshire, and was educated at Oxford and Manchester universities. Inconsistent‘s release is timed to coincide with her appearances in Carmarthen, Fishguard, Wrexham and Llantilio.
Nigel Jarrett is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review. He won the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Award, both for short fiction. His sixth book, a fictional memoir, is Notes From the Superhorse Stable; it appeared last summer from Saron Publishers. His fourth story collection, Five Go to Switzerland, was published in November 2023 by Cockatrice Books.