Steamsong notebook


“The piece will slowly infiltrate your mind, much like the diffusion of steam, and leave you intrigued.” — Maria Tang

Steamsong is a multimedia poem commissioned by The National Railway Museum (UK).  The work is scored for 12 voices, narrator, child performer, an ensemble of 7 instruments, video projection and digital sound.

“And she jumped to it like a live thing”. With these words, Mallard‘s intrepid driver, Joe Duddington, described how his “lovely blue streamlined engine” responded during its record-breaking run on the 3rd July 1938. Driver Joe’s words (used verbatim in Steamsong) encapsulate one of the opera’s key themes: that inanimate things might possess a life of sorts, an idea echoed in the suggestive, shape-shifting forms of that ubiquitous propellant of the industrial age—steam.

Steamsong‘s narrative embeds several vignettes, thematically linked and brought together in time and space. Associations are made between a piping hot cup of station tea and the morning mist of the Yorkshire dales, between the compressed fist of vapour driving Mallard to glory and those vulnerable wisps of ‘fearful breath’ that, four months later, escaped the mouths of German Jews persecuted during the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom of 9th November 1938 and the children being evacuated from Nazi Germany by train during the Kindertransport effort.

“Who’d dare say lightning never strikes in one place twice?” asks the mucky-faced LNER Chorus, alluding, on the one hand, to Albert Einstein’s famous 1916 thought experiment in which lightning strikes a moving train at both ends ‘simultaneously’, and, on the other, to the twin bolts of coincidence that saw the First World War replayed on the same ground a quarter of a century later. In Part X of Steamsong the Station Announcer conjures a wild-haired Einstein travelling in one of Mallard‘s carriages. And although the iconic scientist may have been inclined to side with German sceptics over the veracity of the British locomotive’s achievement, he would probably have waved enthusiastically (being a pacific sort of chap) to an observer watching from the platform when lightning struck again for British steam culture and driver Joe Duddington and fireman Tommy Bray blasted the A4 locomotive through Little Bytham at 125.88 mph (the first strike having been delivered four years earlier by the Flying Scotsman as it passed through the same Lincolnshire village at 100mph). Einstein might even have laughed at the thought of himself playing a bit part in one of his own fables—racing “end to end, violin in hand, playing tomorrow’s flashy cadenzas”, as the plucky narrator puts it.

Breath-driven and metallic, the sound of brass plays a prominent role in Steamsong‘s twelve brief ‘scenes’. Rendered raw and treated, live and virtual, brass is invoked in the words of the libretto, in the dynamic presence of the tuba—lending weighty tonnage to the antique video images of locomotives, lost property and driving coupling rods. Brass features too in the opera’s accompanying soundtrack, where time-stretched chords form an acoustical backdrop to a duet between the soprano and the violin, creating an appeasingly dreamy rendition of Vaughan Williams’ English pastoral, Serenade to Music, composed in 1938.

Amid the newly-composed material in Steamsong is a small pile of ‘lost property’ to be (re)discovered: British Transport Film Archive footage, fragments of pre and post-war music, ‘Chamberlain’s umbrella’, the sound of an A4 Pacific class locomotive’s chime whistle, the words of the modern-day residents of Little Bytham, and, as already mentioned, the testimony of driver Joe himself. We might wish to add to that list the Kindertransport children, depicted here in live and virtual form.

The last word in the work is given over to the inhabitants of a modern-day Little Bytham, who begin Part XI by giving voice to their thoughts, feelings and grievances about living now. The various ‘re-animations’ in Steamsong lend ironic inflection to past glories (“a well-known tune, time after time”, groans the narrator when relating the adventures of a speck of coal ash). All these elements are represented through a combination of music and sound, voice and language, gesture and action, object and moving image. Thus Steamsong might be thought of as an operatic poem whose structure is not unlike that of an umbrella (there are several in Steamsong)—when open the lines of narrative converge but when closed the fabric and folds face one another and touch.

In creating the piece, I had the pleasure of observing the workings of a railway museum at close quarters. Spending time at Locomotion in Shildon and visiting the National Railway Museum in York on several occasions taught me much about steam culture (including the significance of plasticene and aniseed stink bombs). I talked to visitors, staff, railway artists, train restoration experts and qualified train drivers, and was given privileged access to one of Sir Nigel Gresley’s beauties (Union of South Africa) to make a recording of its distinctive chime whistle (it took over seven hours for the boiler to generate enough pressure for the whistle to deliver more than a mere whisper). I attended a steam gala, took a ride in the driver’s cab of a steam locomotive, shovelled coal using an authentic fireman’s shovel, attended lectures and numerous model railway exhibitions; I searched Ebay for Acme Thunderer whistles and marvelled when, during an early rehearsal of Steamsong at Locomotion, the trains were put to bed to the sound of my music. Much generosity and friendliness was shown by staff at Locomotion and unstinting support came from Durham County Council’s arts team, which, in partnership with the Museum, commissioned the work.


photos©Frances Anderson

A/V Fit-up @ Locomotion