Edinburgh-based Irish composer Gareth Williams’ career has featured all manner of large, eye-catching works, among them collaborations with Scottish Opera, the National Theatre of Scotland and the author Bernard MacLaverty, as well as smaller, more intimate projects.
Among the latter group of pieces is Songs from the Last Page, a chamber performance for three musicians – Aisling O’Dea, Justyna Jablonska and Williams himself – which toured book festivals and libraries in 2022, was released as an album earlier this year, and had a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.
Now enjoying a couple of tour dates, including one in Aberdeen at the Lemon Tree, it turns the final pages of great Scottish books into pieces of music.
“The last page is the place you’re most likely to find the essence of something,” says Williams.
“It’s a nice place to just stop for a second before you close the book, and hold on to that feeling for a few minutes and say, let’s wait here. We don’t always notice the end of things in real life, so there’s something a bit reflective and meditative to thinking, let’s stop at the end and wallow in it consciously for a few more minutes. It’s an elegy.”
Celebrating Scottish writers and readers
The performance, he explains, also celebrates and tells a story of Scottish literature, featuring works by writers including Ali Smith, Alasdair Gray, Jackie Kay and Ely Percy, and classic novels including Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Sunset Song.
“When we do these live shows, I invite the audience to reflect together and talk about the books,” says Williams.
“Not just the stories inside them, but the story of the book, who gave it to you, where you finished it, who you gave it to next. I wanted to celebrate not just Scottish writers, but Scottish readers as well.”
The whole project, he says, began as a way to pass the time during lockdown. “I usually respond to texts – to scripts, libretto and things that get sent to me – and turn them into songs. My job is to try and find the song on the page, but during the pandemic a lot of shows were cancelled, so I wasn’t getting any scripts through the post.
“Instead I turned to my bookshelves. I would pluck a book from the shelf, open a random page and see if I could make something with the words I found there.
“As I did this more and more, I moved to the final page as the framing device, and tried to find a song that spoke to the theme, whether it was melancholy or joy or sorrow or a cliffhanger. It started as a hobby, became an obsession, and coming out of lockdown I thought those songs were worth sharing.”
‘I’ve really loved this project’
Williams describes the line which gave him the idea for the project, the closing words of Andrew Greig’s novel At the Loch of the Green Corrie, and how “there’s something musical already in that line, it’s poetical and it steps off the page out into the world.” The only genre he tends not to approach is crime fiction, in case he accidentally gives out spoilers.
“I’ve really loved this project,” he says. “I’ve lived and breathed it for a couple of years, it’s totally changed the way I read books. I find myself glancing at the last page now, to see if there’s a potential song. I like the conversation it provokes about creativity. There are songs to be found everywhere, and this is one way of doing it.
“I’ve written maybe 30 or 40 of these songs already. It’s become a practice I keep coming back to in between other projects, I just find it very cathartic to sit at the piano and open a book and try and find a song. It doesn’t always work, but there’s no pressure, it’s a lovely thing to do. Who knows, maybe the sequel could be Songs from the First Page?”
Songs from the Last Page is at the Lemon Tree on Thursday September 7. Go to aberdeenperformingarts.com for more information.