Another sea song for another brilliant Norwegian choir, Vokal Nord from Trømso. This one revisits the world of Saltwater Lament, urgent and fierce.
for German choir, women’s choir, percussionists
H.M.S. Belfast, London
Directed by Emma Bernard
Lighting by Chahine Yavroyan
Sound by Richard Nowell
This film is an edited version of one of the performances.
The Belfast spent most of the years 1942-1943 in the dangerous icy waters of the Arctic, as flagship for the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, which was responsible for protecting convoys taking supplies to the Soviet Union.
On Christmas Day 1943, the Germans sent their battle cruiser Scharnhorst, her decks adorned with traditional Christmas decorations, to attack convoys JW55B and RA55A as they passed the northern tip of Norway. Britain intercepted and deciphered the German signals and sent nine ships, including the Belfast, to protect the convoys and attack the Scharnhorst. On Boxing Day, in a battle conducted in freezing conditions and total darkness, the Scharnhorst was sunk. Only 36 members of her crew survived.
Our response to this event is a thirty minute site-specific piece, taking place on the Belfast itself, for German choir, women’s choir and percussionists. The performers occupy all the decks of the ship. The audience is on the south bank of the river.
The percussionists are boys in their late teens. They use the ship as a giant percussion instrument, playing rhythms based on the last Morse Code transmission from the Scharnhorst:
steuere j tanafjord j an standort qu aaa ccc vier neun neun zwo
fahrt zwo nul sm xx scharnhorst hco
The women’s choir, made up of women of a certain age, sings love songs and lullabies. The German choir sings about the battle, including a queasy version of the song No Roses Bloom On A Sailor’s Grave, which was apparently sung by some of the drowning sailors.
HAND OVER HAND
A vocal consort – the Hilliard Ensemble - that is coming to the end of an extremely successful and adventurous career; and three consorts that are just starting: Hand Over Hand is a simple, almost naive response to this context. It’s a playful, emotional piece about handing over to the next generation. The music is a series of relay games, some serious, some exuberant, some sentimental. The lyrics, too, are like a relay – one word, one phrase implying the next, sometimes inevitably, sometimes unpredictably.
in my end is in my end
is my beginning
the clock ticks the tick tocks
stop the clock!
start the clock!
hand me down up down the up down right turn over turn over turn round house hold the line out come out come out right
over hand down turn right turn out come up
up turn up right
time for a change over to the old new young new younger for
you are my torrential rainbow tide me down river flood plain speaking in tongues of fire down below life boat slow burn down heart break down deep down deep end game boy insatiable boy hood winkle little star light up my life longing for you are my perfect storm in a
the clock ticks the tick tocks
stop the clock!
start the clock!
clock hand down up hand me down up
down hand stand me down stand up
stand down stand up
I have tended this garden for many years.
Now it’s yours.
Here are my spade and my secateurs.
Don’t forget to deadhead the roses.
So long....so longing....don’t forget.......
STROKE ODYSSEYS DERRY
for vocal soloists, chorus, small band
Laura Sheerin, Kathryn O’Callaghan sopranos, Eoin O’Callaghan tenor
Michael McGinty double bass, Kevin Murphy clarinet, Sean McTaggart guitar, Seamus Devenny violin and drums, Ruth McGinley piano, Sarah Murphy flute and baton
Chris Rawlence of Rosetta Life, film-maker and writer, travels backwards and forwards to Derry/Londonderry – Stroke City – sometimes with me in tow, sometimes without. In a long series of conversations he elicits the stories of a group of people who are living with stroke, and their carers. The stories are not just stories of stroke and recovery, but, crucially, of life before stroke. He distills the stories into song lyrics, often making poignant connections between before and after; and I set them to music. With the help of the wonderful Sarah Murphy, we assemble a stroke chorus which includes most of the people who have, as it were, donated their experiences to our project.
The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; a large chorus made up of singers from the Hordeland region; Korvest; a children’s chorus; members of Fargespil; the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani; the Sri Lankan singer Manickam Yogeswaran; the Saami singer Wimme Saari; the South African singer Thandi Swaartbooi; the opera singers Hanna Husahr and Njabulo Madlala; the Hardanger fiddle player Nils Økland; a small band directed by Ole Farstad.
Conducted by Clark Rundell.
Directed by Olivia Fuchs.
I first went to Norway to work on the closing event of Stavanger2008 (or Stavanger-two-two-snorter as it sounded to my English ears). Coming from a country that had succumbed to neo-liberalism, first under the ghastly Margaret Thatcher and then, almost more shockingly, under the ghastly Tony Blair, and was already falling head over heels into an ugly financial crisis, Norway seemed a haven of social democracy and good sense. Of course there’s more to it than that, but the comparison was very striking. We made a gloriously ambitious event involving choirs from all over Norway, and I’m still working with some of them.
So when Mary Miller asked me to make a piece celebrating the bicentenary of the Norwegian Constitution, I immediately said yes. And then thought: hmmmm, from an English person’s point of view that is a seriously niche subject..... But gradually realised that it could be a piece, more generally, about how we’d like society to work, and about how it often doesn’t, a piece, in other words, about human rights, and idealism, and the abuses of power, and protest, and revolution. Potentially very interesting.
The piece begins with a quiet celebration of the 1814 Constitution. I was very struck by the idea of a diverse group of people – well, let’s be honest, a diverse group of men - arriving Eidsvoll from all over Norway, having made journeys which in some cases must have been very arduous. There is an almost sacramental aspect to the music.
In the main part of the piece, we look at the struggle for basic freedoms. First we hear part of an 1885 speech by the great feminist campaigner Gina Krog. In it she argues, brilliantly, not so much that men and women should be equal but that government would benefit from the particularly feminine qualities that women could bring to it. (How ironic that when we in Britain finally got a female Prime Minister it was Mrs. Thatcher.) We take a glimpse at the suffragette movement in Britain which was extremely drawn-out, passionate and, eventually, violent.
We move from Britain in 1919 to its colony India, and thence to Palestine and South Africa. The question is always the same: yes, we all agree in principle that everyone should have equal rights, but in practice are these rights really equal? And then: how do you achieve those rights? What kinds of protest are the most effective? Is it necessary to resort to violence? Can uprisings be spontaneous or are leaders essential? What happens next after a successful uprising?
To say that I have simplified 20th century history is an understatement, but I think the advantage of simplification is that patterns emerge – Gandhi and Mandela influenced by the British suffragettes, the efficacy of hunger strikes, Mandela influenced by Gandhi, the role of women in protest, Mandela’s discovery and subsequent renunciation of the need for limited violence, the Palestinians’ spontaneous discovery of limited violence, Mandela’s declaration that the fate of the black South Africans is bound up with the fate of the Palestinians…… And this process is unquestionably helped by ability of both music and theatre to make poetic connections – for example, ululation, common to black South Africans and Palestinians, though subtly different, as you’ll hear, in the two cultures. So, despite all the documentary sources, I’m not aiming at a history lesson, more a piece of poetry.
Finally we hear a new constitution, written by the extraordinary Astrid Niebur and members of Ole Hamre’s marvellous Fargespil. For me, the crucial words here are ‘dreams or reality?’ Do we actually want human rights or are we content with the idea of them?
The piece is written for a large amateur chorus – a lovely mixture of adults and teenagers, a children’s chorus, an excitingly diverse group of soloists, orchestra and small band. The chorus is at the centre of the piece. They are always present, whether they are singing a protest song, whispering the names of the Eidsvoll signatories, ululating, shouting slogans or responding to the soloists. The piece is not called Stemmer for nothing.
THE DURHAM HYMNS
in collaboration with Jessica Curry
lyrics by Carol Ann Duffy
The Centenary Choir with Voices of Hope
The Centenary Brass Band
Conducted by Alan Fernie
Chorus director Simon Fidler
Eight accounts of experiences in the First World War, by Durham people, distilled into lyrics by Carol Ann Duffy.
A large chorus. A double brass band. Durham Cathedral. Difficult to go wrong.
More performances in the autumn.
The mine was dark, but darker is the trench.
No light to guide, and all around War’s stench.
Beside me now, the lads from my hometown.
Boys, bear me up, the hour when I’m brought down.
I’ll bear you up, should you slip in the slime;
each watch for each, as we vowed in the mine.
Relentless sorrow shrouds the way ahead.
No families waiting at this strange pit-head.
Boys, bear me up, the hour when I’m brought down.
We’ll sing together back in Durham Town.
We laboured hard, miners and soldiers all.
I’ll bear you up if you should stumble, fall.
In no-man’s land, the promise of a land
made fit for heroes steadies now my hand
to find the wounded crying for a friend
and bear them up until the tunnel’s end.
A sequence of six songs for the Armistice, including settings Gerrit Engelke’s rabble-rousing An der Soldaten des Grossen Krieges, May Cannan’s beautiful
Paris, November 11, 1918, and Primo Levi’s fierce Shemà, which was written shortly after WW2, but seems utterly appropriate in this context.
Paris, November 11, 1918
Down on the boulevards the crowds went by,
The shouting and the singing died away,
And in the quiet we rose to drink the toasts,
Our hearts uplifted to the hour, the Day:
The King - the Army - Navy - Allies -
England - and Victory.
And then you turned to me and with low voice
(The tables were abuzz with revelry),
‘I have a toast for you and me’, you said,
And whispered ‘Absent’, and we drank
Our unforgotten Dead.
But I saw Love go lonely down the years,
And when I drank, the wine was salt with tears.
Translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
ARMS OF SLEEP
On the last night of the Brighton Festival incarnation of The Arms of Sleep, Jo and I set the alarm for 1.30am, drive to the village of Firle, just outside Lewes, and walk to the church where the middle-of-the-night action is due to take place. Tim the lighting designer is in the graveyard smoking a fag. The church is already full of haze. Very death metal. The vocal soloists appear, say hallo, and do warm-up exercises. Tim goes round lighting the candles. It’s like watching one of those making-of documentaries. The atmosphere is at the same time other-worldly and mundane.
We hear a flute playing outside, far off. Cue for the singing to start. The soloists launch into a gentle, hallucinatory riff from my song Diving Dream. No one appears. They break off – no point in singing to no one (except Jo and me, and we don’t really count). The flute is suddenly close to. The singing starts again. The audience totter in, fifty people in identical green dressing gowns, looking like members of a cult, bleary, scarcely awake, come to witness some arcane ritual. Meanwhile Jo and I are wide awake, alert, gate-crashers, enjoying the surreal scene.
Sian comes down the aisle, lit apocalyptically from behind by a blue light, singing the solo part of Diving Dream, and the action begins. Adrian the pianist plays Liebestraum No. 2 by Franz Liszt. The formal justification for this is that, at the Assembly Rooms in Norwich where we created the event, Liszt came to perform in 1850. Remarkably enough, the concert was at one o’clock in the morning. (I can’t help wondering if in 1850 ‘one o’clock in the morning’ meant 1pm. Anyway.) The artistic justification is that when you listen to the piece, it’s like being asleep, it’s like being at the bottom of the sea, it’s like being in love. The soloists sit down at a table in the choir, and start playing cards. They sing my arrangement of Liebestraum. I’ve jettisoned about 95% of Liszt’s notes, leaving a skeleton of lurching, yearning music. Adrian plays a Chopin waltz, and the singers dance together. Mark the MC reads, from the pulpit, a section from David Edelman’s Sum, about the afterlife. We all drink elderflower cordial and eat seed cake. It is like being in a beautiful version of purgatory.
Sianed leads the singers out, playing the violin, and the audience follows, still bleary. We walk out into the very beginnings of dawn. The moon and the sun in balance. Birds singing. Firebowls in the graveyard. It feels like a privilege to be up and about at this moment, inhaling the glorious Sussex countryside.
We drive home and fall back into bed.