Has there been a new discovery of the social and civic aspects of song -its historic powers? What are the sources and its outcomes of such a movement? How did it start up, where does it happen, who takes part and where is it going? Neil Cooper went to see and listen to the NVC in Perth.
To Begin at the Beginning
It’s the quiet ones you have to watch in The New Vocal Club, Benjamin A. Owen’s fusion of sound and vision that held court at Perth Theatre’s foyer for a week in November 2022. Drawn from five years experimenting with live soundtracking in care settings and with community groups, Owen’s fifty-three minute film was punctuated at its opening event by a live performance by the Vocal Chord well being choir. Further interactions with the film came from improvising musicians, double bass player Seth Bennett and pianist/composer Shiori Usui.
Both Bennett and Usui appear in the film, as do many of Vocal Chord’s members. As words and music overlap in both the film and at the event, Owen tunes in on an array of criss-crossing stories that highlight the remarkable lives that made them.
With the choir gathered around the piano beside a hand made banner that might have been created for a radical street theatre ensemble, the most striking juxtaposition was when the choir sang Only You. Yazoo’s 1982 electronic ballad that saw former Depeche Mode songwriter Vince Clarke team up with Alison Moyet has become something of an evergreen standard in the forty years since its release. This was cemented a year later when the song was given a second life by agit-prop cabaret troupe The Flying Pickets, who took their a capella version to Christmas Number One.
Watching Vocal Chord member Richard in the film sing Only You solo from his living room armchair after he and his wife Mary speak about what the choir means to them is a moving and intimate experience. To then hear it live, as the full choir joined together as one to give full voice to it, the song was transformed into a poignant life-affirming anthem.
This second version of The New Vocal Club was developed following its first outing at the Wee Red Bar in Edinburgh in an iteration called Deeds Done in the Body (2022). In both, the polyphony of voices that speak out suggests there are a whole lot more than one singer and one song to be heard. Bingo callers, sports announcers, Gaelic speakers and puppeteers all have their say, as do carers and those in care homes with dementia.
The utterances that emerge aren’t the impenetrable, jargon-loaded mantras of bureaucrats, or the sloganising manifestos of polemicists and orators proselytising some hand-me-down testament or creed. Nor are they the easy-on-the-ear soundbites of wannabe celebrities and talking heads mouthing tabloid friendly platitudes in words of one syllable or less.
The New Vocal Club doesn’t roll its ‘r’s that way. In its physical mash-up that is part film installation, part oral history documentary and part found-sound collage, The New Vocal Club becomes a kind of Speakers Corner of the everyday. With each participant speaking straight to camera, rarely heard histories from a carnival of souls are put under the spotlight in a virtual speak-easy, where the wisdom of experience counts for everything, and talk is never cheap.
As Owen puts it, The New Vocal Club is not an artwork, but is a voice and a collective ideal. This gets back to the roots of art, music, whatever, as a way for people to connect. This has perhaps become most visible over the last few years by way of the increased popularity of choirs. But beyond singing and playing together, there seems to be an increased desire to join in with other things. This isn’t as passive spectators left in the dark in concert halls and theatres, but as active participants, taking part as one, en masse.
The fact that the latest edition of The New Vocal Club happened, not in a gallery or enclosed auditorium, but in the wide-open space of a theatre foyer, next to the bar, speaks volumes. This is where people convene and commune with casual intent before going on elsewhere, perhaps to a more formal do, before maybe letting their hair down later, falling and laughing in some kind of unruly unison.
It is telling too that the logo for the first New Vocal Club event featured the heads of some of the club’s members and participants collaged together as a group in a design modelled on Bob Pepper’s artwork for the cover of Love’s 1967 album, Forever Changes. Having played in bands in Bristol, Owen has experienced the gang mentality of being in a group first hand. Out of that, it is likely he recognises the unspoken synergy required to play successfully as a unit, as well as why it doesn’t work if things don’t gel. Some might call it chemistry, but ‘play’ is the operative word here.
The New Vocal Club operates with a similar dynamic. The interview process that partly drives the film is a crucial part of the work’s over-riding narrative, becoming an unconscious Brechtian device, deconstructing itself as it goes. Speech patterns too matter as much as the words spoken. Few people speak in straight lines without preparation, so the stops and starts, the ums and ahs, the repetition and the tos and fros of seemingly casual conversation create a kind of musicality beyond the work’s more straightforward function as oral history.
In this way, The New Vocal Club becomes part of an ongoing continuum of lived experience. It is the latest dot to be joined as part of a collective memory, linked, not just to Owen’s own back catalogue, but with everything that went before. These forebears didn’t so much ‘give voice’ to those least heard – often a patronising form of colonialism in which the ‘artist’ parachutes their way into a particular community for a short period of time before moving on to the next gig. Rather, they let them find their voice for themselves, even as they might talk over each other amidst all the other noises off that can sometimes drown them out.
Deeds Done in the Body
In Edinburgh, Deeds Done in the Body resembled a gig situation, with its opening event featuring a live improvisation by an ad hoc quartet of musicians – Bennett on double bass, cellist Semay Wu, drummer Casey Miller and trombonist John Kenny. As the audience drifted among and around them, the musicians responded to Owen’s audio-visual construction as recordings of his interviewees shared stories, criss-crossing in the moment as they historicised the past. The result was a kind of partly pre-recorded Happening that remained of the moment even as it archived itself.
As with the Edinburgh show, beyond the opening event, The New Vocal Club was left to its own devices. With no captive audience, a more transient form of passing trade drifted in and out to look, listen and sometimes share in the experience, or at least give it a passing glance.
Stuck in the Middle
In terms of presentation, The New Vocal Club is in part akin to what artist Graham Fagen did at Tramway, Glasgow, with Clean Hands Pure Heart (2005), a video of reggae singer Ghetto Priest recording two Robert Burns songs, Auld Lang Syne and The Slave’s Lament, with producer Adrian Sherwood.
Screened in Tramway’s vast main space, theatrically darkened for the occasion, four bronze sculptures were dotted around the room, providing a choreographed stillness to the movement on screen as a real audience wandered through, pausing to watch and listen, as well a experience the sheer physical trouser-flapping oomph of hearing – and feeling – reggae boom out in a big room.
In similar terrain, composer Susan Stenger and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes collaborated with choreographer Michael Clark on current/SEE (1998), featured a score by Stenger and all-bass band Big Bottom. Fiennes’ film of the production was presented as an installation, with Stenger’s coruscating score played through a stack of speakers in an otherwise empty space as part of the Barbican curated Michael Clark retrospective exhibition, Cosmic Dancer (2020), seen in 2022 at V&A Dundee.
Where The New Vocal Club differs from both, however, is in its non-linear structure and disruptions of sound and vision. This relates to what recently deceased French film director and avant-provocateur Jean Luc Godard said about how ‘a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’
In execution and aesthetic, The New Vocal Club references many things, whether consciously or not. As absorbed influences operating in similar fields pass the conch and pick up the baton as they have done since forever, this helps foster, not so much a canon, with all the untouchable rigidity such an imposed orthodoxy implies, but an ever evolving way of being.
Rhythm is a Dancer
The New Vocal Club draws its name from The New Art Club, set up in 1940 by Leith born painter J.D. Fergusson and his lifelong companion, choreographer and contemporary dance pioneer, Margaret Morris. While the club only lasted two years, it gave rise to the New Scottish Group of painters. Fergusson and Morris’s vast archives are now held in the Perth based Fergusson Gallery, founded in 1992.
Almost thirty years before Fergusson and Morris founded The New Art Club, in 1911, writers John Middleton Murry and Michael Sadleir started an avant-garde arts magazine, which they called Rhythm. The title was taken from a painting of a nude by Fergusson, who drew a version of it for the magazine’s front cover. Fergusson became Rhythm’s art editor, working alongside Murry, Sadleir and associate editor Katherine Mansfield, who joined as associate editor in 1912, until the magazine folded the following year.
Fergusson and Morris met around the same time. With Fergusson having already developed an interest in painting female bodies in motion, Morris became a key figure in his life and work, particularly in his pictorial representation of dancers. Dance, like choral singing, is another form of communal and collective expression, which, entwined with music, can transcend the mundane, so a physical act becomes metaphysical.
Sonically speaking, The New Vocal Club might be said to draw inspiration from maverick Canadian pianist and serial documentarist Glenn Gould’s idea of what he called ‘contrapuntal’ radio. Normally applied to music, contrapuntal scores feature independent melody lines playing simultaneously. This technique is exemplified by J.S. Bach, whose work formed the core of Gould’s piano repertoire.
Gould first applied contrapuntal techniques to radio in The Idea of North (1967), an hour-long feature in which four different voices were heard – sometimes at the same time – relating their experience of living in relative solitude in the Canadian north.
Originally intended as a stand-alone work, The Idea of North was the first of what became Gould’s Solitude Trilogy, produced over a decade for the Canadian Broadcasting Company as part of the station’s Ideas programme.
The Idea of North was first broadcast in 1967, the same year Gould presented another radio documentary, The Search for Petula Clark, a satirical monologue that critiques, not just Clark and the composer behind her hit records, Tony Hatch, albeit without any mention of lyricist Jackie Trent, but of pop music in general.
The Idea of North developed into a more long-term project by way of its companion pieces, The Latecomers (1969), and The Quiet in the Land (1977). In each, different voices are heard simultaneously relating their experiences in monologues spoken to an unheard interviewer.
A television version followed in 1970, utilising the radio version’s soundtrack of voices, illustrated with the people behind them alongside images of the North itself. A narrative of sorts was added, with a staged encounter between one of Gould’s protagonists and a wide-eyed student travelling northwards on a train. Both radio and TV versions ended with the Allegro molto from Sibelius’ Symphony No.5 in E-Flat Major, Op.82.
More than a quarter of a century on from Gould’s recording, Shellac, Steve Albini’s band with bass player Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer, recorded a track called The Idea of North on their debut album, At Action Park (1994). It has been suggested that Albini’s mumbled lyrics set at odds with the song’s stark guitar lines and insistent drum patterns reference Gould’s distinctive way of sitting low at the piano.
Either way, Albini’s own peccadilloes at the controls have seen him work on at least 1,500 records. Albini prefers not to credit himself as a producer, but as a recording engineer. The heart of this definition is that he doesn’t impose a sound on the recordings he makes, but lets them have their voice. He listens without prejudice.
Glenn Gould’s development of contrapuntal radio was fictionalised in Truck Stop, a segment of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), François Girard’s waggish compendium of vignettes looking at different facets of Gould’s life and work. Referencing both The Idea of North and The Search for Petula Clark, Truck Stop depicts Gould, played by Colm Feore, driving into a highway diner, with Clark’s best known hit, Downtown – another Hatch/Trent composition – playing on both the car radio and the one in the diner.
Clearly a regular patron of the diner, as Clark’s voice fades and Gould orders, he tunes in to a trucker telling a story about picking up a hitchhiker, discreetly marking out the rise and fall of the trucker’s voice with his finger. Gould then tunes into another conversation, the voice overlapping with the trucker’s, before he picks up another, listening to them weave across each other and ducking in and out of focus as he internalises his own wordless Eureka moment.
The miniature that follows sees Feore as Gould in a recording studio listening to a playback of The Idea of North, effectively conducting the recording while the engineers banter on the other side of the glass, unconsciously adding another layer to the spoken-word symphony.
Music was at the heart of François Girard’s work long before Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, as one might expect from a director who has overseen operas by Stravinsky, Brecht/Weill and others. Early work by the French-Canadian auteur includes directing the video for Celine Dion’s early French language single, Fais ce que tu voudras (1986), through to overseeing the concert film of Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live (1994) tour, and an episode of Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach (1997). Some of Girard’s fiction features too have music and musicians at their emotional centre, including The Red Violin (1998), The Choir (2014) and The Song of Names (2019).
In theatre, Girard’s production of Alessandro Baricco’s dramatic monologue, Novecento (1994), was a masterpiece. Baricco’s story casts an impoverished trumpeter as our possibly unreliable narrator, as he spins a yarn concerning the unseen musical genius that gives the play its title. Abandoned beneath a grand piano on an ocean liner as a baby, Novecento grows up to become a world renowned pianist, despite never setting foot on land, and goes down with the ship that was the only world he knew.
Baricco’s story had already been adapted by Giuseppe Tornatore for his film, The Legend of 1900 (1998) by the time Girard staged it. The two versions couldn’t have been more different. Where Tornatore opened out the story using flashbacks, with Novecento played by Tim Roth in a sentimental rendering that tugged the heartstrings by way of its Ennio Morricone score, Girard expanded the play’s emotional core in a different way to make something fantastical.
As seen at Edinburgh International Festival in 2001, Girard’s staging presented by Montreal’s Théâtre de Quat’Sous transformed Baricco’s original into a monumental epic. With American actor Tom McManus on stage alone for two hours, his solitary presence and low, amplified voice combined with Marc Parent’s sculptured columns of light and Nancy Tobin’s brooding soundscape made for a slow burning and transformative experience.
Baricco’s background as a music critic undoubtedly fed into his writing of Novecento, originally staged prior to Girard by Gabrielle Vacis. Baricco is also a best selling novelist and performer, who, with Vacis, actor Eugenio Allegri and musician Daniele Sepe, co-created and performed in a show called Totem. This was a literary and musical happening that saw readings and commentary of literature across the ages interspersed with music.
Baricco went on to work with electronic pop duo, Air, on City Reading (2003), in which he read passages from his novel, City, over a musical backdrop. Girard’s staging of Novecento, meanwhile, lives on in the memory as something mythological, which, like the trumpeter’s story, you’re not quite sure if it ever even happened.
Like Jean Luc Godard, another French film director who played with narrative and form was Marguerite Duras. Across numerous novels, plays and films, Duras drew from much of her own life, sometimes utilising the same stories across different platforms and perspectives. In her films, she also used sound in a quietly radical way, using voice, music and environmental ambience to create a poetic tension between what was seen, and what was heard.
Duras’ early film work included the screenplay to Alan Resnais’ film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which charts an affair between a French actress making an anti war film and a Japanese architect in the wake of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan.
Duras is arguably best known to many for The Lover (1992), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation of Duras’ 1984 novel, L’Amant, about an illicit affair between a teenage French girl and a Chinese man in 1920s French Indochina. While praised in some quarters, Annaud’s film was in part dismissed as soft-core titillation, with actress Jane March, making her screen debut, patronised by the tabloids as ‘the sinner from Pinner’. After being banned from the set by Annaud during filming, Duras distanced herself from the film, and penned another novel depicting the same events, The North China Lover (1992).
Duras’ urge to protect and reclaim her story and have control over its telling undoubtedly stems in part from her own experience as a director. Between 1967 and 1985, Duras directed around twenty films and TV works, beginning with an adaptation of her stage play, La Musica, in which former lovers meet by chance. Her final directing credit was based on a short story, Ah! Ernesto!, and filmed as The Children. Duras wrote all of the films she directed, providing the narration in voiceover to many.
While early directing credits such as Detruire dit-elle (Destroy, She Said) (1969) and Jaune le soleil (The Yellow Sun) (1971), both adapted from novels, appeared relatively conventional in terms of narrative, the use of sound in both was key to Duras’ aesthetic.
In Detruire dit-elle, a woman isolates herself in a hotel, watched over by the other guests. At the film’s opening, spare dialogue can be heard off screen as the camera focuses on an empty park that leads to a forest.
Jaune le soleil takes place in a single room where representatives of unspecified political forces and their captive enemy are gathered. A female character establishes the dialogue between these individuals and comments on the ideology of each. The film’s final few minutes sees all six of Duras’ characters artfully arranged around a chair on which one of them sleeps. Their insistent questioning becomes a call and response mantra, as everyone seems to rally to a common idea, all part of the same conspiracy, in tune with each other at last.
If a similar state of languor and despair pervade throughout Duras’ following features, Nathalie Granger (1972) and La femme du Gange (Woman of the Ganges) (1974), it is with India Song (1975) where things take a truly remarkable turn.
Based on an unproduced stage play commissioned in 1972 by Peter Hall, then the artistic director of the London based National Theatre, India Song is set in the 1930s at a reception held at the residence of the French ambassador in Calcutta. Here, the ambassador’s wife, Anne-Marie Stretter, conducts serial affairs in full view of her various lovers.
Though set in India, the film was shot in the Chateau Rothschild, in Boulogne, outside Paris. Delphine Seyrig played Anne-Marie, with Michael Lonsdale (credited here as Michel Lonsdale) as the besotted Vice Consul, and Claude Mann as Michael Richardson, another of Anne-Marie’s suitors. The action – if that is not overstating things – is a limpid portrait of jaded decadence. The terminal ennui that pervades throughout signals the symbolic decline of the wealthy society the colonial class inhabit behind closed doors, as the world outside decays unseen.
India Song’s depiction of a bored elite chasing after that ever elusive good time sees Duras’ characters occupying a kind of sickly fever dream, a limbo through which they teeter unsteadily, on the verge of emotional, psychological and political collapse. The party goes on, but anything resembling fun stopped a long time ago. In tone, this reflects that of Mother of Pearl and A Song for Europe, the two key songs on Roxy Music’s album, Stranded, (1973), released two years earlier.
If India Song’s depiction of faded glamour wasn’t enough, not a word was uttered by the actors on screen, who seem to sleepwalk through events by way of a ghostly choreography rooted in its own still life. The only words heard came from a series of disembodied voices, including that of Duras, who act as a chorus of narrators who seem to be spying on events going on through the windows from the grounds of the house outside. Are they the servants, or just local outsiders without an invitation, but voyeuristically fascinated by what they perceive to be going on inside?
Flourishes of ragtime and Palm Court Tango play throughout, with the India Song itself a woozy melancholy blues composed by Duras’ regular collaborator, Carlos D’Alessio, and eked out on a solitary after hours piano. As one voice makes it known, the tune causes them to “feel like making love…” This doesn’t stop the Vice Consul from howling with the devastating agony rejection brings with it.
All this makes for a hypnotic experience that gradually unveils an over-riding sense of desperation and loss amidst the fractured intimacy. This is laid bare largely by the film’s soundscape. It is telling that both D’Alessio and sound designer Michel Vionnet were nominated for Cesars, the French national film awards, for Best Music and Best Sound respectively. It is telling too that the soundtrack was described by Carlos Clarens in the introduction to an extensive interview with Duras about India Song in the Winter 1975 edition of Sight and Sound magazine as ‘contrapuntal’.
More than two decades on from Duras’ film of India Song, Flemish theatre director Ivo Van Hove recognised the emotional possibilities of her construction when in 1999 he brought it belatedly to the stage. Van Hove’s production was for the Dutch Het Zuidelijk Toneel company, who brought it to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of Edinburgh International Festival.
Van Hove followed Duras’ suit in India Song, using five recorded voices alongside a cast of six largely silent actors onstage. To heighten the story’s claustrophobia as much as its intimacy, Van Hove also put the audience on stage, sitting in close proximity to the – that word again – action, close enough to touch the actors.
The show’s score was played live by composer Harry de Wit, and included Beethoven’s Diabelli Variation nr. 14. Recorded music was provided by seven other musicians. As an added touch, assorted exotic odours from India were discreetly piped in to heighten the already giddy atmosphere.
Another decade on, Glasgow based theatre company Vanishing Point did something similar to Duras’ film of India Song with Interiors (2009). Here, director Matthew Lenton’s production contained his actors in designer Kai Fischer’s series of rooms behind the glass front wall of a Nordic looking house. As those inside silently interact at a dinner party attended by friends and strangers, a voice outside describes the assorted goings on in an increasingly mournful tone, as if a ghost of some kind, no longer able to join in. A brooding piano score by Alasdair Macrae plays throughout.
Vanishing Point’s production drew from nineteenth century Belgian Symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, Intérieur (Interior) (1895). The play depicts an old man and a stranger watching a family inside a house, as they argue over how best to inform them of the death of their daughter. Maeterlinck’s play was originally intended for marionettes, in keeping with his idea of ‘static’ drama. It later inspired Intérieur (There, Inside) (1976), a one-act opera by Lithuanian composer Giedriyus Kuprevičius.
Vanishing Point’s production of Interiors moved Maeterlinck’s ideas on to create a haunting depiction of the everyday sadness and sense of loss that can exist behind a seemingly happy public persona. The play’s lack of onstage dialogue, with the stranger’s monologue the only words heard, has seen Vanishing Point more able to tour the production abroad, and it has been performed in Italy, France, Belgium, Russia, China and South Korea, its international visual and aural language easy to translate.
A decade on again, and in 2018, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh presented a dance theatre rendering of The Lover. This collaboration with Stellar Quines Theatre Company and Scottish Dance Theatre saw director Jemima Levick and choreographer Fleur Darkin fuse texts from both The Lover and The North China Lover in a production that placed actor Susan Vidler on stage with four dancers.
As The Woman, Vidler embodied Duras’ narrator, giving voice to Amy Hollinshead as The Girl, Yosuke Kusano as The Man and Francesco Ferrari and Kieran Brown as the Girl’s two brothers. While the quartet embraced the story’s sensual essence through raw physicality, the stillness of Vidler’s presence as she unravelled her story was a counterpoint that gave things a dramatic distance, as if the narrator was watching her poeticised past dance before her as she lived it anew.
If India Song was remarkable enough, Duras’ follow-up was even more startling. Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta) (1976), wasn’t so much a sequel to India Song as a second act that saw her return to what now looked like the remains of a crime scene in a property long condemned.
Using India Song’s already existing soundtrack of recorded voices and music, Duras’ new film had the camera move slowly in and around the faded grandeur of an abandoned and decrepit looking Chateau Rothschild. As the voices play out, rather than observing as in India Song, it is as if they are looking for clues amongst the emptiness, releasing old ghosts from the walls and floorboards as they explore the desolation within. A new ending saw images of waves lapping at the shore equally bereft, as if it had washed everything away, and only an ache remained in Duras’ eternal remembering.
Duras’ use of dialogue in voiceover goes back as far as Hiroshima Mon Amour, with the first fifteen minutes of Resnais’ production juxtaposing exchanges between the lovers against a montage of artfully posed close-ups of their limbs entwined in ecstasy and scenes of nuclear devastation as Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco’s score plays.
Similarly, one can date the anguished howl of the Vice Consul in India Song back to those that top and tail Moderato Cantabile (1960), Peter Brook’s film of Duras’ 1958 novel, in which a child playing Diabelli’s sonatas in his piano lesson is interrupted by the murder of a woman in a bar below. The child’s mother, Anna, played in the film by Jeanne Moreau, becomes obsessed with the murder as she falls in love with another witness, Chauvin, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. As their brief and unconsummated encounter comes to a close at the film’s end – spoiler alert – it is Anna who finds herself on the floor of the bar howling.
Other films by Duras after India Song and Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert followed. These included Entire Days Among the Trees (1977), and Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977). The same year, Duras, wrote, directed and appeared alongside Gerard Depardieu in The Lorry, the majority of which sees the pair sat together doing an on-camera read-through of a film script.
A series of short films followed. As with Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta desert, Cesaree (1978); The Negative Hands (1978); Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne) (1979); and Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver) (1979) did away with on screen actors entirely, juxtaposing images with her recounting her narrative in voiceover. Duras called her technique ‘l’image écrite,’, which translates into English as ‘The picture written’, or ‘written image’.
In The Negative Hands, we hear Duras’ voice as a camera travels around Paris from dawn to dusk by road, her words punctuated by a solitary violin score by composer Amy Flammer. Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne) does something similar as the camera moves along the Seine-Paris by boat. Both are offset against images that might otherwise have been perceived as psychogeographic travelogue. Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver) does away with external sounds entirely, with only Duras’ voiceover remaining as the camera pans across the deserted seashore and empty railway lines.
But there is something deeper going on here. The ‘negative hands’ of Duras’ title are the migrant workers who clean the streets at dawn, taken for granted by white Europeans in their beds as a continuum of the colonialism depicted in India Song. The two Aurélia Steiner films go further. Written as letters from an eighteen-year-old girl to an unnamed lover, they reference the Holocaust and its lingering effects just as Duras had done in Hiroshima Mon Amour concerning the dropping of the atom bomb.
Beyond their subjects, in terms of form, these four films convey ideas similar to Glenn Gould’s notion of contrapuntal radio. As with all of Duras’ work, the private lives depicted criss-cross each other as they conspire to convey an emotional barrenness as isolated as anything in Gould’s notion of North.
Duras went further. Agatha et les lectures illimitées (Agatha and the Limitless Readings) (1981) was filmed in and around the lobby of a deserted hotel in an out of season seaside town, and focuses on a sister and brother who meet there to discuss their possibly incestuous relationship. Bulle Ogier plays the sister, and Yann Andréa the brother.
As with India Song, nobody speaks onscreen, with a dialogue between Duras and Andréa conducted in voiceover. This was given an extra frisson by the fact that Duras and Andréa, who was gay and half Duras’ age, had developed a relationship, with Andréa becoming her companion until her death in 1996.
Filmed at the same time in the same bleak hotel lobby, L’homme atlantique (Atlantic Man) (1981) focused solely on Andréa, with Duras delivering a heartfelt monologue, again in voiceover. In this short film’s final fifteen minutes, the screen goes dark, with Duras’ voice the only sensation present, as she declares how she has run out of images.
In 2017, actress Sandrine Bonnaire performed a series of concert recitations of texts from L’homme atlantique and Duras’ novel, L’homme assis dans le couloir (The Man Sitting in the Corridor (1980). Overseen by theatre and opera director Richard Brunel, these were accompanied by a live jazz score by guitarist Marcello Giliani and trumpeter Erik Truffaz. The production was later filmed for French television, with voice and music combining in the flesh to take things beyond l’image écrite.
If, in the beginning was the Word, then before Glenn Gould, there was Samuel Beckett. The Dublin born French émigré had already published several prose works and revolutionised theatre with Waiting for Godot (1953) by the time he did something similar for radio with All That Fall (1957). Charting the journey of a woman trudging her way to a rural railway station and back, and the people she encounters en route, its use of classical music and sound effects created a rich aural tapestry, the complexity of which inspired the founding of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Embers (1959) again used sound as an integral, and wilfully skewed part of its drama, about a man relating his life story as the sound of the sea courses back and forth throughout.
Beckett refused all requests for his radio plays to be staged during his lifetime. While his stringent instructions have been upheld by his estate since his death, several performances have occurred. Dublin’s Pan Pan Theatre presented All That Fall in a production that played a recording of the play to an audience sitting on deck chairs in an immersive environment.
For Embers, which takes the listener inside the head of a man called Henry, Pan Pan put a giant skull on stage as Henry points up the lapping of waves and the artificial clip-clopping of horses hooves that make up the play’s sound cues.
University College of Dublin Professor of Music Harry White described Beckett’s later dramatic work, presumably including his radio plays, as ‘Like listening to difficult music for the first time.’
One might argue that poet Dylan Thomas had got in a few years before with his dramatic polyphony of voices, Under Milk Wood (1954), a bawdy day in the life of a Welsh village so richly reimagined in 1965 as a jazz suite by pianist Stan Tracey.
Either way, the techniques used in All That Fall, Embers, and indeed in Gould’s The Idea of North are these days the stuff of BBC Radio Three’s Between the Ears series of impressionistic documentaries, or any number of sound works on art radio station, Resonance FM.
Such platforms make Beckett’s radio plays easier to recognise now as being closer to sound art installations than anything resembling a well-made play. The essence of this was stripped back to minimalist perfection in Breath (1969), a wordless 35-second matter of life and death that originally opened Kenneth Tynan’s erotically charged revue, Oh! Calcutta! (1969). Or at least it did before Beckett withdrew the rights.
Beckett’s final work – a poem – was written in 1988 after he recovered from a fall that rendered him temporarily aphasic, causing him to lose the power of speech. Beckett’s friend, American theatre director Joseph Chaikin, had suffered a stroke four years earlier, and he too became aphasic, albeit on a more long-term basis. Chaikin nevertheless continued to perform work especially written to accommodate his condition. These came from the likes of playwright Sam Shepard, who penned The War in Heaven for Chaikin.
The repetitions and stuttering, cyclic rhythms of Beckett’s new poem were familiar from works such as Not I (1972), a monologue in which the only thing seen on an otherwise blacked out stage was the mouth of the actress who spewed forth Beckett’s torrent of words. His new poem, however, was recognisably akin to aphasic speech patterns. Someone suggested Beckett send to Chaikin what in its original French was called Comment dire. Translated into English, this became What is the Word.
If Glenn Gould remained as dismissive of pop music’s simplistic ubiquity as he was in Searching for Petula Clark, one can only speculate what he might have made of Prisencolinensinainciusol (1972). This is a song released as a single by Italian rock and roll singer, Adriano Celentano.
In the 1960s, Celentano had been one of Italy’s biggest pop stars, copping his early moves from Elvis Presley and actor Jerry Lewis. Celentano was nicknamed ‘Il Molleggiato’ or ‘the flexible one’ because of his snake-hipped dance routines. This might be what got him the gig as a singer in Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita (1960). Since then, he has made more than forty albums.
Having observed the dominance of American inflected English in pop songs, Celentano wrote Prisencolinensinainciusol as a deliberate attempt to mimic how they sound to non-English speakers. Set to an earwormish funky glam stomp, Celentano’s free-associative vocal rush might sound like a familiar enough sing-a-long designed to get the kids united. In actual fact, other than punctuating each verse with an air-punching ‘alright’, his phonetically inclined declamations are actually gibberish.
Celentano’s construction sounds not unlike a delirious mash-up of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke’s 1971 hit, Resurrection Shuffle, Tokoloshe Man by John Kongos, released the same year, and The Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance. The latter was recorded in a Montreal hotel room by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, with an audience that included the likes of psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and poet Allen Ginsberg.
Also present was Petula Clark, who had sought out Lennon following her own Montreal performance. In a bi-lingual city rife with tensions, Clark found herself booed by English speakers when she sang in French, and was similarly jeered by Francophones if she performed in English. Clark ended up singing backing vocals on Give Peace a Chance, at last not having to mind her language.
Celentano’s deceptively serious wheeze regarding communication ended up as a novelty hit in several European countries, and made him a staple of gaudily coloured Italian light entertainment TV shows.
If one might presume the success of Prisencolinensinainciusol to be the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of 1970s bubblegum, think again. The seemingly nonsensical thirty-four-letter word that gave Disney’s Sherman Brothers scored musical movie Mary Poppins (1964) its breakout hit had actually been around since the 1930s.
The Oxford English Dictionary records this compound of five words meaning ‘atoning for being educable through delicate beauty’. It had been immortalised in the Syracuse University Daily Orange’s A-muse-ings column as a word that ‘implies all that is grand, great, glorious, splendid, superb, wonderful’.
Prisencolinensinainciusol may not have had the hip-thrustingly hormonal impact of ‘A–wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!’ the opening line of Tutti Frutti (1955), Little Richard’s libidinous onomatopoeic vocalisation of an imagined drumbeat, but it comes from the same lingua franca. Also, see Cocteau Twins.
Celentano went on to be referenced in Ian Dury’s list-based song, Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 (1979), alongside John Coltrane’s saxophone playing, then again in Fellini’s 1986 film, Ginger and Fred.
Noel Coward summed all this up best in his comic play Private Lives (1930). As Marguerite Duras’ would do later with her play, La Musica, Coward contrived a chance meeting between former lovers. ‘Strange how potent cheap music is…’
32 Sounds (2022) is Sam Green’s latest adventure in live cinema that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, before Green brought it to Edinburgh International Film Festival. Green’s most recent film follows on from Annea Lockwood/A Film About Listening (2021), a close-up portrait of composer Annea Lockwood and her world of sound. This was commissioned by Scotland based experimental music festival, Counterflows for an online edition of the festival that also featured Lockwood’s composition, For Ruth (2021), drawn from 1973 recordings of phone calls with her late wife, fellow composer Ruth Anderson, shortly after the couple met.
Green first came to prominence with The Weather Underground, (2002) a feature-length documentary co-directed with Bill Siegel, and which looked at the American radical group who embarked on an anti-establishment terror crusade in the wake of the Vietnam War. While largely conventional in realisation, Green’s film went on to inspire “underground” (2008), a contemporary dance piece created and choreographed by David Dorfman Dance.
Green’s films that followed include Universal Language (2011), a thirty-minute study of the history of Esperanto, the language invented in 1887 by Polish ophthalmologist Dr. LL Zamenhof, with the aim of bringing the people of the world together as a global community. In English, Esperanto translates as ‘the one who hopes’.
One wonders what Zamenhof might have made of Prisencolinensinainciusol, which epitomised the sort of global communication the good Dr Esperanto was encouraging the world to embrace almost a century earlier. Such is the international language of pop, as meaninglessness as it is profound.
The Fabulous Stains
Sam Green’s idea of live cinema is that, rather than have his works play for short runs in arthouse cinemas or else streamed online to those enjoying the sort of isolation Gould’s characters in The Idea of North might appreciate, as with The Weather Underground and Universal Language, cinema becomes an of-the-moment event. This usually involves a series of one-night shows as a band might tour, and which feature in-person narration by himself, as well as a live soundtrack. The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller (2012), for instance, had American band Yo La Tengo playing alongside the film.
As Green explains in the Adobe Creative Cloud film profile, The Utopian Cinema of Sam Green (2018), the idea of live cinema was first introduced to him by his late friend, Sarah Jacobson. Jacobson’s brief career saw her direct I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993), Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996) and, with Green, Making of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains’ (2004).
The latter film profiled Lou Adler’s 1982 cult feature starring Diane Lane and Marin Kantervas as two sisters who form an all girl punk band. The film also featured Ray Winstone as a Johnny Rotten-like frontman of a band that featured real life ex Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, plus Clash bass player Paul Simonon. Jacobson sadly died in 2004, aged 32.
In the Air
Green has developed his aesthetic of live documentaries to the point where, in A Thousand Thoughts (2018), co-directed with Joe Bini, contemporary classical string ensemble The Kronos Quartet play live alongside musicians on screen.
In 32 Sounds, Green goes further, equipping his audience with headphones to make something both immersive and participatory. Accompanied live by Green and former member of bands Le Tigre and MEN, JD Samson, Lockwood’s work is in there in Green’s very personal audio-visual playlist. A hockey puck, a purring cat and a whoopee cushion are also in the mix.
As with Girard’s film, this evolves into a grab-bag mash-up of form and content, ranging from simply listening in to something, to a more layered and obviously documentarian aesthetic it both subverts and disrupts as it goes. This is the case with Green’s visit to the British Library’s sound archive, where he films the person who led him there listening to the archive’s recording of the last two living Moho braccatus birds. Along the way are room tones, birdcalls, and even someone blasting out Phil Collins’ piece of 1980s bombast, In the Air Tonight (1981).
The title of 32 Sounds gives an obvious nod to Girard’s Glenn Gould film, acknowledged by Green in his narration.Green’s exercise in a live listening – or ‘deep listening’ as composer Pauline Oliveros defined it,also draws from techniques used in The Encounter (2015), actor/theatre-maker and co-founder of Théâtre de Complicité Simon McBurney’s remarkable solo stage work. Like 32 Sounds, The Encounter utilised state of art binaural sound, with McBurney equipping his audience with headphones to experience the show.
The Encounter premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival in an international co-production led by Complicité. The show was inspired by Romanian writer and film director Petru Popescu’s book, Amazon Dreaming (1991).
Both the book and the show tell the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 got lost in Brazil’s remote Javari Valley, where he spent three months with the Mayoruna tribe, with whom McIntyre claimed to have communicated through a form of telepathy known as ‘beaming’. This involved an ancient ritual involving fasting, dancing, and ingesting natural hallucinogens that seemingly transported those who ingested them back to the dawn of time.
Beyond technology, The Encounter saw McBurney also look to Ways of Seeing author John Berger, with whom Complicité collaborated on shows including To The Wedding (1997) – a radio play full of voices, and first heard on BBC Radio 3; The Vertical Line (1999) – an ‘oratorio of faces, voices, darkness and light, and Vanishing Points (2005).
As McBurney explained in an interview with the Herald newspaper published on August 5th2015 in the run up to the Edinburgh premiere of The Encounter, Berger said that “the principal of storytelling is listening.” With Berger’s observation applied to The Encounter, McBurney said that “the heart of the piece is what you can hear. It also concerns, not just the book, but the fact that I’m telling a story in which the people I’ve met along the way come into things as well.”
McBurney went on to say that “The Encounter is about listening, and it’s about solitude. On one level the theatre is the least solitary place in the world, because there’s a collective consciousness there between the people onstage and the audience, and we hear laughter and so on, and we understand that we’re not alone.”
McBurney’s own sonic trip immersed The Encounter’s audience in a montage of sound and – imagined – vision coming into their headspace from all sides. Contrapuntal narratives, it seems, are all the rage once more.
But what of the members of The New Vocal Club itself? What of Richard and Mary, and all the others who sang Only You? What of Peter and Jill, Aileen, Ronnie, Edith, David, Leigh, Steve, Liam, Debra, Emma, Anne, Bruce, Irma, Jonathan, Christie, Kerry, Semay, Seth and Shiori? Where are their antecedents and ancestors, their contemporaries and their peers?
Are the puppeteers at Clydebuilt Puppet Theatre in Cupar, Fife, throwing their voices in the spirit of Lord Charles, Orville and Spit the Dog? Or are they looking to post-punk sax player Ted Milton, whose early foray into giving voice in the guise of Mr. Pugh’s Velvet Glove Show led to the spiritedly skronky call to string-held arms of Puppeteers of the World Unite! And what about the puppet shows of theatrical prankster Ken Campbell, and his comic protégé Nina Conti? Just how much did they give or find their voice?
These are all slightly facetious and wilfully contrary prime time TV comparisons that have little or nothing to do with Clydebuilt, whose work since the company was founded in 1987 has embraced puppetry as a serious art form in numerous shows for families that embodies a unique voice of their own to create something magical.
But what about the bingo callers at Kings Premier Bingo in Perth? Do they recognise their world in Bingo Master’s Breakout! (1978), an early horror story in song by post punk proles The Fall? Released as the band’s second single, Mark E. Smith’s fusion of arcane pulp fiction gothic and working man’s club compere demotic was still finding its own voice en route to even scarier urban myths.
And what about the carers and the cared for in the day centres or at home? Do their stories resemble those of the women in Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), Peter Symes’ award-winning BBC television film that filmed Alzheimer’s patients in Highroyds hospital, West Yorkshire. Symes’ film interspersed documentary footage with new works by poet Tony Harrison – a pioneer of poemfilms – and composer Dominic Muldowney based on interviews with three women residents. As performed by actors, this brought the women’s stories to beauteous operatic life.
I’ll Go On
“I am indeed a northern listener, then,” says one of Glenn Gould’s narrators in The Idea of North, “and the pity of it all is I’m not always able to select what I want to hear. I hear what other people inflict upon me, in all the noise, the noise of civilisation, and its discontents. No matter what we do to try and escape them, unless we select and understand and use what we hear, we are lost indeed. Not just lost listeners, but indeed lost people.
“I do believe that being able to select” the voice goes on. “I do believe that being able to reflect on that selection – makes you more than the mere analyst that most of us claim we are. You see, I think the world is ridden with analysts. I think it is hag-ridden with self appointed people that cut society apart and say, well, this part is worthless and this part is something else. In detaching, and in reflecting, and in listening, I suppose I’m able to synthesise, to have these different rails meet in the infinity that is our conscious hope.”
The New Vocal Club relates to all of this and none. It is both counterpoint to and progression from everything that went before. After all that, however, Owen’s work exists in a place Gould’s protagonist likens to El Dorado or Utopia. These parts unknown remain as mythical as they are an ideal to aspire to. Until they are discovered, The New Vocal Club is worth making a song and dance about.
The New Vocal Club was seen in Perth Theatre Foyer, November 4th-11th2022. All New vocal Club photographs by Benjamin A. Owen. Original design of New Vocal Club poster by Des Lloyd Behari.