This piece originally appeared on the Gramophone blog. Reciprocity premieres on 10th June at The Forge, in London’s Camden Town

Although she dreamt of learning the cello, my sister never played an instrument. She loved to sing but her voice wasn’t especially good: our annual duet of The Boar’s Head Carol at Christmas was as close to choral performance as she ever got. And yet Darya’s connection with music was so profound, her sense of the musicality of life with its singular and idiosyncratic rhythms so innate, she was one of the most musical people I’ve known.

Darya died of breast cancer more than three years ago, and in less than a month’s time The Forge in central London will host the premiere of Reciprocity, a half-hour chamber work based on her poetry which I commissioned from the exciting young composer Daniel Patrick Cohen. Daniel caught the attention of the national media in the UK in 2012 when he was among a handful of composers selected by the British Film Institute to write scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies. The PRS for Music Foundation pointed us in his direction in what has turned out to be a stroke of matchmaking genius.

He’s male of course, and shockingly young to boot, so Daniel didn’t fit my preconceptions about the right fit for this delicate project. But among the composers who submitted proposals for Reciprocity, as the project has come to be known, it was clear from our first exchange that Daniel’s response to Darya’s poetry was visceral and acute. And curiously, through months of intensive work together I’ve discovered that Daniel has much in common with Darya. They share a restive curiosity, deep sensitivity, intellectual confidence absent arrogance or smugness, and an aesthetic sensibility unbounded by labels and categories. They would have liked each other.

I recall very clearly the day any lingering doubts about Daniel’s suitability were put to rest. He was working from Word versions of the poems, which had been transcribed by Julia, Darya’s literary executor, from the teetering pile of notebooks Darya had left behind. Confused about the correct order of a few sentences, Daniel asked to see scans of Darya’s own written copies. Julia obliged and Daniel instantly became obsessed with these originals, laboriously penetrating the meanings behind arrows and underscores and scratched out words that were replaced and then occasionally restored. Soon he’d spurned the Word documents altogether and began working from Darya’s versions instead. This exacting approach in which meaning can be embodied in a comma, or its absence, brought to mind the painstaking craftsmanship Darya had employed to create the experimental films she made in the 1990s, and the clothing she designed under the label My Brilliant Career after she was diagnosed with cancer. Kindred spirits, I thought.

If I had to locate the ‘beginning’ of Reciprocity, it was close to three years ago at the National Portrait Gallery café over tea and a soggy, microwaved scone with my friend, the journalist and novelist Jessica Duchen. Jessica is well known for her concerts linking themes from her novels with classical works, and like me she lost a sister to cancer. Talking about what to do with the piles of poetry Darya had entrusted to her Julia, Jessica said ‘why not commission a song cycle?’

Whilst the idea instantly struck a chord (yes, a pun), in the months that followed I sometimes wondered why. Some of Darya’s work had already been published, for instance, so surely it would make sense to put out a collection of her poems? Alternatively, as a writer and sometime-memoirist myself, I could write a book about Darya and our childhood together. Or for that matter a talented painter might capture her spirit, not just her likeness.

And yet all of these ideas seemed predictably literal compared with the thought that had taken root since my chat with Jessica. Darya wanted desperately to live, not to be frozen in time. I didn’t want to memorialize her in a tribute, or commission a ‘cancer piece’ that would reduce the richness of her life to the cause of her death. I wanted a work that could be joyful, dramatic, and even dissonant perhaps, for Darya never fought shy of messy contradictions. Embedded in my mind was the notion of a piece of music in which her poetry would commingle with its score of notes and rests to create a new art work entirely. After all, music is unique in being a living art that leaves plenty of space for its listeners’ own imaginings.

Naturally, the path from those aspirations to next month’s Reciprocity premiere has been strewn with delays, setbacks, and the myriad prosaic challenges that sometimes sink hope and ambition. But from Darya’s work Daniel has created something miraculously new, and together we have dared to thumb our nose at death.

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