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Freya Waley-Cohen and Manchester Collective: Spell Book

Grainy, greyscale photo of Freya Waley-Cohen overlaid with grey and turquoise paint swirls

Many of Freya Waley-Cohen's recent works play with myths, magic and the occult as lenses through which to look at the contemporary world. Tonight we hear two of these works, including the premiere performance of her complete Spell Book.

I had a set of images in mind when I was writing Naiad. I couldn’t find a word to sum them up, but they are things like the way the light catches on the scales of a fish swimming through a shallow sunlit stream, or when it’s morning and you can see the dew in a spider web in the grass and it has a tiny rainbow if you look close, or the patterns that bees fly in between flowers, or when you’re walking in a forest and the sun makes dapples on the grass through the leaves of the trees. It is constructed a bit like lace, with tiny details in delicate patterns creating a larger pattern or picture when you look at it from further away.

From early on it is made up of two layers: a slow-moving melodic duet and a faster moving filigree figure that at first appears like an embellishment. These two elements hang together in a delicate balance, variously shifting between foreground and background. This interplay is coloured by quickly changing orchestration, settling momentarily on duets within the ensemble here and there.

Naiad was commissioned for the Proms for a concert dedicated to Oliver Knussen who was a deeply inspiring, incredibly kind and generous mentor, teacher and friend to me.

Spell Book 
In the spring of 2019, I read WITCH by Rebecca Tamás. Tamás’s witch is full of desire and power: she doesn’t think about the same things that other people are thinking about, but she is neither bad nor good – she exists outside that framework. I was captivated by the world outlook in these poems. While reading it, I started to have strange and witchy dreams and felt a strong impulse to engage creatively with what I found.

Among other longer poems, WITCH contains several spells. In the book Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry of which Tamás is co-editor, she writes that ‘Spell-poems take us into a realm where words can influence the universe’.

A spell asks to be performed out loud in a ritual setting. It seemed fitting and almost natural to bring these incantations into the ritualistic setting of the concert hall. In each spell I’ve looked for the moment or method of transformation. Sometimes this is a specific moment of change within the song, sometimes it’s a sense of accumulation, and sometimes a shift of perspective. These songs are a sung Spell-book.

The set opens with the 'spell for Lilith'. In Jewish folklore, Lilith is the first woman, created at the same time, and from the same clay as Adam. She refused to be subservient to both Adam and God and left the Garden of Eden. She was given the option to return or to become a demon, and she chose to become a demon. The singer summons the image of Lilith, luring her into the space with flirtation and flattery, until the moment of transformation lets us glimpse into Lilith’s own world, unruly and joyous, and still out there somewhere.

The 'spell for sex' starts with a tight focus on an object, an ingredient and an action. It is a set of instructions to follow. The last line takes us out from the domestic setting and into the vast, dark openness of the night.

At the opening of 'spell for women’s books' a viola line coils around a list of three ‘vellums’. Each suggests a story in which a reader might become trapped, but, as the spell continues, subversive lines take us on paths that might lead us to escape these fates.

'spell for joy' is a pure conjuring. Each sentence gives action, movement and imagery, creating a profusion of ‘yesses’ that add up to a total and reckless joy.

While 'spell for Lilith' is in the first person, creating an immediate and intimate connection between the speaker and Lilith, 'spell for logic' is in the second person, addressing you, the audience. It brings togethers layers of logic, from the shallow, binding logic we use to try and organise and control our time, to the deeper logic of the earth and sea and its inevitable tides. And it is you, the listener, who is receiving these directions, and it is for you to consider ‘what you wanted from this’.

Imagery in 'spell for change' (receiving its world premiere today) is that of geothermal, deep tectonic change. The earth cracks open and the singer asks us: ‘are you scared yet?’

'spell for reality' speaks to the quiet domestic rituals of life, and their ability to conjure larger meaning and vivid images, as well as a quietly intensifying connection to the earth’s seasonal rhythms.

'spell for the witch’s hammer' (also a world premiere) refers to the Malleus Maleficarum, translated as the ‘Hammer of Witches’, a demonology treatise first published in 1486 which became a bestseller, second only to the bible for nearly 200 years. It focuses on how to identify and punish a Witch and was hugely influential in making witchcraft be seen as heresy, and therefore punishable by death, as well as solidifying the idea of the word ‘witch’ as being inherently linked to women. At a time when the printing press was changing the way information was spread, it was published with an inauthentic Papal Bull to claim legitimacy, and the ideas caught on like wildfire across Europe. This spell conjures accusations and tropes from the treatise, inverting them, taking ownership of them and then destroying them by devouring them.

© Freya Waley-Cohen

Programme and performers

Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad
Spell Book 
'spell for Lilith'
'spell for sex' 
'spell for women’s books' 
'spell for joy' 
'spell for change' (world premiere)
'spell for logic'
'spell for reality' 
'spell for the witch’s hammer' (world premiere)

Manchester Collective
Héloïse Werner soprano
Fleur Barron mezzo-soprano
Katie Bray mezzo-soprano

Song texts

Artist biographies