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Julie Cooper (b1964)


The Oculus Ensemble, Jessica Cottis (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2023
Masterchord Studio, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Allen
Engineered by Jonathan Allen & Ronan Phelan
Release date: February 2024
Total duration: 59 minutes 9 seconds

Oculus is Julie Cooper’s second album on Signum—an eye into the world of colour in music, and inspired by the talent of the artists recording the tracks, by paintings, dances and architecture of the Italian Renaissance, and by the vividly descriptive synaesthetic colours experienced by conductor Jessica Cottis.

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‘Oculus’ means ‘eye’ in Latin, I have always loved being able to look up through a glass skylight or an oculus at the top of a dome at the clouds and the sky—a window into the universe. The chamber orchestra formed for the Continuum album recording at Abbey Road in 2021 is also called the ‘Oculus Ensemble’ and features again on the Oculus album.

The Italian Renaissance was seen as a cultural rebirth of the arts and science, a time of intense creativity and revolutionary development much needed coming out of the very grim ‘Dark Ages’. A time not dissimilar in devastating effect to what we’ve just been through with the Covid pandemic, and likewise an essential ‘Renaissance’ needed for our Arts.

Drawing on new inspirations and feeling a strong sense to look upwards, I found myself rediscovering my love of the iconic Italian Renaissance artists and their groundbreaking discoveries of techniques exploring the effect of light, creating illusionism and understanding perspective through vanishing points.

For me the greatest inspiration for all my writing has always started with the artists/musicians I am writing for. The album Oculus also draws inspiration from the synthesis of colour and music through both Italian Renaissance paintings and my fascination with the vividly descriptive colours the Oculus Ensemble’s synesthete conductor Jessica Cottis sees when conducting in specific keys, a gift I wish I shared! Therefore the colours in the track titles refer to the keys they are written in.

And so the album journey began …

‘Ascensio’ in Latin means to rise, to climb and to soar. It was the first track to be written for the album in May 2022, inspired by and written for the incredibly gifted Romanian/Nigerian pianist and founder of the African Concert Series, Rebeca Omordia. We met and became friends through the social media frenzy of both our lockdown album releases coinciding, Rebeca’s ‘African Pianism’ and my ‘Continuum’, leading to a desire to work together. I had just discovered the beautiful spiral ‘Tulip Stairs’ in the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London, built by the Renaissance architect Inigo Jones around 1630 and featuring an oculus lantern at the top to let the light in and to draw you up to the sky.

Perfect to inspire a piece for Rebeca and the first track to be written for the album Oculus.

The uniquely pure and hauntingly beautiful voice of soprano Grace Davidson never fails to inspire my writing and Grace has now featured on three of my albums, so you can imagine my joy to discover the genes have been passed on to her very talented ‘boy treble’ chorister son Joshua! Unnervingly similar ethereal sound to Grace, we both felt this precious moment in time needed musically capturing in a unique Mother-Son duet before Joshua’s voice changes. To a skylark uses text taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s evocative poem of the same name, which seemed the perfect text to set for Joshua’s story-telling lyric as Grace soars high above with an ethereal answering ‘vocalise’. It features Camilla Pay on harp with the Oculus Ensemble, led by Clio Gould and conducted by guest conductor Simon Hale.

Three tracks on the album are inspired by paintings, two Italian Renaissance paintings and an Austrian art nouveau painting of the 20th century:

Venus in sunlight grey is inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s ethereal beauty ‘The Birth of Venus’, depicting the arrival of Venus on the shore after her birth, a song without words written for Grace Davidson, with harpist Camilla Pay, the Oculus Ensemble and myself on piano.

Angel in dark green is inspired by the dark, sacred painting ‘Angel in Green with a Vielle’, a panel of the Leonardo Da Vinci altar triptych believed to be painted by his assistant Francesco Napoletano. Written for the multi-talented trio of Eliza Marshall on Bass Flute, Clio Gould on Violin and Grace Davidson with the Oculus Ensemble and Joby Burgess on atmospheric percussion.

The Renaissance Suite is a 4-movement suite of Italian Renaissance dances but with a contemporary twist. They are scored for harp and the Oculus Ensemble strings with soloists, opening with the spirited ‘Galliard in sky blue’ followed by the slow and stately ‘Pavane in burnt orange’ processing through amber Florentine streets, written for the distinguished violinist Clio Gould. The 3rd movement is an elegant dance duet, ‘Barriera in gossamer yellow’, featuring Eliza Marshall on flute, finishing with the 4th movement ‘Passacaglia in Klimt gold’ where the opening theme develops over a ground bass, constantly changing through flourishes and embellishment on the virtuosic harp of Camilla Pay. This final movement is inspired by Gustav Klimt’s opulent gold mosaic-like masterpiece ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ and is a theme and variations.

In October 2022, I was incredibly fortunate to perform a piece of mine with the Her Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the ‘Donne Women In Music’ concert, raising awareness of Women composers and musicians. The Her Ensemble was founded during the pandemic by the extremely gifted violinist Ellie Consta to address the gender gap and gender stereotypes in the music industry, whilst also celebrating the works of Women Composers. They feature on four tracks on the album.

Lullaby in valley green harks back to my homeland Wales with a nod to the traditional lullaby ‘Suo Gân’ that I grew up with. A solo cello leads with the lullaby, played by acclaimed cellist Cara Berridge of Sacconi Quartet fame, with the Her Ensemble, Camilla Pay on harp and myself on piano.

Echo is a song written for the combined talents of Grace Davidson and TikTok close harmony vocalist Anna Hale. A contemporary spin on the beautiful text of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Echo’ in which the word echo is never actually mentioned but instead refers to a memory of a lost loved one. It features the Her Ensemble, Camilla Pay and the Oculus Ensemble with myself on piano.

Moonglade in jet black is a soundscape inspired by how light from the moon falls on water in the black of night, a moonglade, fuelling again my fascination with the Italian Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei and his discovery of Jupiter’s orbiting moons.

It opens with a unique percussion instrument called a ‘space harp’, played by the acclaimed percussionist Joby Burgess whom I discovered in a concert 10 years ago at Union Chapel playing this unusually ethereal instrument, sharing the stage with an equally ethereal soprano also unknown to me then, Grace Davidson. What a double discovery! Joby is joined by a very much soloistic Her Ensemble, Camilla Pay on harp, the Oculus Ensemble strings and myself on piano.

The tracks Vanishing and Illusion again draw inspiration from art techniques discovered by the Italian Renaissance painters.

Vanishing is a duet once again between the contrasting voices of Grace Davidson and Anna Hale, a light-hearted interchange between ‘Baroque’ and ‘Contemporary’, with Camilla Pay, the Her Ensemble, Joby Burgess and myself on piano.

Illusion is an atmospheric musical illusion, reuniting the duetting partnership of Clio Gould on violin with myself on piano.

And so the album journey comes to a close …

The final piece to be written for the album is a short ‘epilogue’ for solo piano, Colour me in deep purple. Written in the key of B flat major which Jessica Cottis sees as a deep purple when conducting and also happens to be my favourite colour since childhood.

It therefore seemed an appropriate key to conclude the album journey in and one I saved for last.

I hope you enjoy the journey …

Julie Cooper © 2024

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