Creating Music for the Oxford Passion Play 2024

Interview with Malcolm Atkins

How did you get involved with the Oxford Passion Play?

Lizzy and I were asked to help with the Passion Play. I work as a musician for Littlemore Church but also set up a range of community music initiatives in Oxford which is very backwards on community integration. Lizzy is a dancer and singer and helped with choreographing movement. Outside of composition for a range of uses (and styles) I do a lot of work accompanying dance and facilitating live interaction between dance, music and visual arts.

People should recognise the ritual power and emotional depth that music can add. It is a more powerful conduit to spiritual experience than the spoken world unless that encapsulates the poetic. The English are often obsessed with declamation and need to be reminded that words can work more effectively with music and dance. For me, music captures more than probably any other art form the spiritual world, which I don’t think text can capture. Text can only capture the spiritual if it moves into the realms of poetry and transcends the limits of material documentation.

I would identify a lot with ideas of people like Vaughan Williams, who was atheist or agnostic. You can see that he really valued the spiritual aspects and the traditions of spiritual expression within his culture. I tend to work across culture. I’m very interested in Sufi, especially Punjabi Sufi singing and other cultural expressions. I work a lot with refugees. I work a lot with different communities. I work with a community choir which I’ve been building up as a multicultural choir respecting the value of each cultural tradition and incorporating that.


How did you go about creating music for the Passion?

The brief was to create 4 or 5 pieces that would be appropriate for key scenes, and then I did incidental music. Atmosphere was discussed and was pretty easy to agree. So the decision was more what to leave unaccompanied by music for dramatic effect. I realized because there was a good sound system there that it was better to play stuff through the sound system. So I pre-recorded key songs. and then I took over the sound singing just with me and Lizzie when it was quieter, when we were just supporting the action. But for the key moments it was pre-recorded sound. The music went through most of the performance and the structure was recorded songs and sound played from the sound desk (including some of the music on the playlist) interspersed with live reaction by Lizzy Spight singer and myself (keyboards, violin, drums, vocals). I improvised a lot and also set up soundscapes that created atmosphere and I created sound worlds interspersed between these songs using loop pedals and violins.


What music did you use for different scenes?

Wedding scene

We started off with the wedding scene and I used a Dabkeh dance style for the wedding scene because Dabkeh is contemporary in the levant and particularly Palestine. I used a Syrian melody and because I’ve done quite a lot of Dabkeh dance music, which is Palestinian dance. We thought, well, that Palestinian dance is very appropriate for the wedding scene, because that’s actually, you know, that’s from that area. I actually used a song which I learned from Syrian refugees called Yamw. Yamw means mother, and it’s actually a very emotive song for Syrians, which is why they taught it to us. I adapted that to use a Palestinian style, Dabkeh rhythm, and recorded it as the opening song, because very lively. People want to get up and dance to it so that seemed appropriate.

for the ending we wanted a transcendental feel. I used a 12th century O Maria for the Virgin Mary and Lisa Goi, which is the Hebrew text that no nation will ever fight anymore. And again, it’s quite easy, for it was quite easy for the group to learn, because it’s a simple canon, but it’s actually a very emotive thing. And it’s very important that it’s actually part of a of Hebrew tradition.

Road to Calvary

For the road to Calvary we  used Motherless Child – a desperately bleak spiritual with a powerful drum pulse that caried on through the Crucifixion. We decided to use this because it’s such a desolate spiritual. You realize that the power in spirituals, of people who were systematically repressed, and some of these were written, or a lot of them were written during slave times.


Then there was the ending. It should be uplifting, but not too kind of too happy, somehow or not too kind of skippy kind of happy. We were going use an African glory but I just didn’t feel it was appropriate. So we use the Sanctus I’d written which was based on a melody that a Fijian refugee gave me, and I adapted into a four-part harmony. And it’s a beautiful melody. The melody is very much in a South Seas tradition. If you hear the melody you kind of recognize it.


What other music did you use for atmosphere and character?

Outside of that I used quite a lot of other incidental music which I just played during scenes. I would either play it with my partner, Lizzie, singing because we work quite a lot together. So, for example, I used the earliest notated piece of music in the world, which is the Song of Seikilos, written in first or second century and found in Turkey. That system of notation was a series of accents over the words and I thought that was quite interesting to bring in, because it’s the nearest thing we’ve got to a contemporary piece of music. I put jazz harmony to it, so it was slightly different. Quite a lot was piano and voice that contrasted with electronic landscapes and improvisation which also included use of loop pedals to build sonic textures.

As incidental music I used a Sanctus that I’d written, which was based on an early French tune, and a twelfth century cantor ‘Oh, Maria’ which was half French, half Latin. So I’ve adapted that and I harmonize that. So whenever kind of Mary comes on, I would say I would get Lizzie to sing that with me, so they were like lead motifs for different characters, but they were quite subtle, working very softly while Mary gave two monologues.

Then for Pilate and Caiaphas, I tended to use a more threatening electronic sound world. I had a electronic drones that were quite threatening and quite unsettling, so they contrast it with the more uplifting kind of melodies. We had a very strong beat in it, which carried on after the song, so that when they were banging the nails in, this strong beat was just rooted the cast to follow a particular pattern and rhythm.

Looking for a musical resource based on the Stations of the Cross?

Born for This is a moving and powerful depiction of the Stations of the Cross in words, music, and drama. As with many projects of this scale, Born for This is a work that has evolved over several years. After reading Jude Martin’s powerful, poetic reflections on the Stations of the Cross in January 1994, Jo Boyce agreed to write songs to accompany them. The beauty of Born for This as a production is that it is accessible on many different levels and can be presented in many ways, depending on the resources you have available. You can also join an online workshop at the link here.

Hear from the team that put on a Passion Play in Liverpool with these resources:

Liverpool is a very artsy city – music and dance, and the Beatles culture. We used ‘Born For This’ with the actors singing and dancing at the same time. There were three elements – readings taken from scripture, then performance, choir of twenty and five piece band which drew people, and dance/movement. Weeping women of Jerusalem moving really well to the rhythm of the music. Jesus taken off cross and laid to rest with his mother for a time before taken to the tomb really touched me more than it had before the past. Song ‘Jesus stripped from his garments’ and how people have lost their dignity and how that manifests. How we can gain strength from what we’re seeing/doing here. How we can make it relevant to our personal lives.


Download free score: A Cornish Anthem to Music

A Cornish anthem to music is a story about Christ’s visit to England. I was leading a Passion play committee a few years ago, and know how difficult it is to get the balance right to attract crowds. This is free for anyone to download! From Roger P. Thomas MCSD