So it was with high expectations that we sat in chilly St Leonard’s Shoreditch, MP3 players at the ready, earpieces in one ear, singers in shadow around the church, a speaker behind us, poised to follow the simple tune of ‘Poor old brother Ramon’ in seven ‘hauntings’ that took us through Bach to American hymns to Bluegrass and back again.
In fact, this musical journey would have been sufficiently absorbing in itself: to hear a melody move from folk song to Bach’s ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ and children’s round to fictitious part-song to lusty hymn (thanks to Wickham and Christopher Fox’s chameleon skill) was made more fascinating by the intriguing figure of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517) whose austere, crystalline Kryie crowned the evening.
But imagine hearing all that with tinnitus-like sounds ringing in your ear, and someone droning on about their experience of insomnia, or suffering a repetition of bars of a Schubert Quintet or hearing The Flintstones in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. As the Clerks hit the heights with a glorious rendition of Isaac’s ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ I didn’t want to be told why Webern might have been drawn to this composer (anyway I was too busy yabba-dabba-dooing with the Flintstones). Eventually, the rather spuriously connected narrative of Webern’s accidental shooting crept into the track and we were subject to transcripts of witness statements.
Where was the integration between track (mixed by Myles Eastwood) and performance? Music can do amazing things without verbal explanation. You have only to listen to Shostakovich’s 15th symphony to experience his compositional ghosts or the brilliant Morimur, in which the Hilliard ‘haunted’ Bach’s D minor violin Chaconne with his own chorales. Voices here talked about chimeras and constant repetition of phrases, but we never heard that enacted in the music: the meta-layers and psycho-acoustical effects produced in a piece like Reich’s Piano Phase is just one remarkable example.
This project only highlighted a disconnect between scientists and artists: one group seeking first principles, the other using a known language to ultra-sophisticated, even mystical, ends. Durham’s Hearing the Voice team are apparently exploring to what extent musical hallucinations are ‘a function of memory and to what extent an expression of creative imagination?’ Well, good luck with that. I’ll be checking out some more Heinrich Isaac, whose creative imagination and memory seemed to be functioning rather well.
A true marriage of words and music was made by Sonia Wieder-Atherton and Charlotte Rampling’s exploration of Plath, Hughes and Britten’s Cello Suites at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. We might not think of Britten as Plath’s contemporary but of course he was, and in his most personal, most introverted and yet extravagant music of the solo suites he matches Plath’s extremity, providing that huge dark space into which she stared. Rampling is a remarkable performer, feline, graceful, each poem almost sung with that gritty tenor cello voice, it’s meaning taken up by Wieder-Atherton’s intimately breathed cello playing, tolling bell-like pizzicati and ghostly keening harmonics building to a vast lament for all Plath’s unendurable sorrow.
While the honey stored in ‘Winter’ is celebrated in melismatic rising scales of Suite 2’s and the falling stars of the second poem conjured in the wide-leaping dance of xxx, the purple bruise prefiguring her death in Contusion is mourned over in the clear, funeral opening of Suite 3. In the second half the poetry of Hughes takes up the story. Atherton’s violence and gentleness were brought to bear on a devastating narrative: one only hopes this will be repeated elsewhere in the UK, one night only in London.