Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Poetry and music: the Sounds Lyrical Project, part 2

Regular Soapbox readers will know that for a year or two now I’ve been part of a collaboration involving four York poets and a group of classically trained composers. The Sounds Lyrical Project was set up to create opportunities for both poetry and contemporary composition to break into new venues and find new audiences. Our respective arts both have something of an image problem with the general public. Poetry is often perceived as twee and childish, or (at the other extreme) remote and unconnected to reality; whilst modern classical music, with its conventions of smart dress and a silent, serious audience, can have a whiff of intellectual snobbery about it. An avowed aim of Sounds Lyrical is to do its bit to combat this image problem by changing people’s perceptions of where poetry and modern composition belong, and who can access and enjoy it.

Our first concert, in March 2013, was very much in the classical mould; but recently, after a long period of repertoire development, we tried something new. Our appearance at Bridlington Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago made use of the classical set-up of vocalist and piano, but also brought in state-of-the-art electronics. The poets in the Project weren’t just listening to musical settings of our poems; we were also performing our own material, to the backdrop of musical samples and complete pre-recorded instrumental pieces by the Project’s composers. The poems we performed were carefully selected and choreographed so that poetry and music formed a seamless whole.

Rehearsing for this show was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had as a performer of poetry. There was a ‘light-bulb moment’ for me when, sitting over a cup of herbal tea in Lizzi Linklater’s living-room, I realised that the soundscape effects being played through Tim Brooks’ laptop were the perfect backdrop to an as yet unpublished descriptive poem of mine, and that properly handled, they could really enhance the performance of the poem. This was followed by a play-through of a recording of one of Peter Byrom-Smith’s instrumental works – a piece which had exactly the right rise and fall, the perfect complement of rhythm and cadence, to fit another one of my poems. My performance repertoire was suddenly taking off in a direction that would never have been possible had I been working on it alone.

The audience response at Bridlington was highly encouraging. One person commented that the choreography of my words to one of the pre-recorded instrumental pieces was so perfect as to make the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Others said it was much the most interesting poetry they had heard in a long time.

Of course, those who spend any time around the live poetry circuit (particularly in big centres like London, Manchester and Newcastle) will know that what we were doing was hardly revolutionary. Medieval bards were performing poems to musical accompaniment centuries ago. Beat poets revived the genre in the 1950s and 60s. Modern rappers have samples and backing tracks to provide the beat to their words, while the big names in contemporary performance poetry frequently collaborate with musicians to provide a soundtrack for their spoken word shows. Nonetheless, I think the Bridlington concert still provided us with a horizon-expanding moment. What we achieved was to take contemporary techniques into the setting of a very ‘old-school’ poetry reading, carrying those who were more comfortable with the traditional English poetry recital along with us for the ride.

So much for the audience reaction. I’ve found it even more interesting, during rehearsals and after the concert, to talk to my fellow performers about their own responses.

I grew up with music all around me. Although I never became a musical performer in the same way that I have done with spoken word, I’ve always felt that poetry as an art-form is even closer kin to music than it is to, say, prose or playwriting. For me, fusing music with my poetry has felt like a very natural thing to do, now that I have the opportunity to do it. There’s hard work involved, of course – you have to choreograph your performance of the spoken word so that its rhythm fits the musical backdrop, so that its rise and fall follows the rise and fall in the music. But rehearsing with the music, for me at least, is pleasure not pain.

I’m not sure it was that way for all the poets in the Project. One commented to me repeatedly at first that this way of working with her words seemed quite strange and alien. On the day of the performance, however, she choreographed her words to the music probably better than any of us.

Another of the poets in the group is a composer in his own right, with an extensive grounding in the classical vocal and choral tradition. For him, the fusion of his own poetic performance with pre-written music was far less interesting than the creation of new music to fit his words, to be performed by professional musicians. He rightly observed that there are loads of performance poets whose work has a musical backdrop, and they do it probably much better than us. But there are very few poets having their work transformed into modern classical song, or choral work, or opera. An audience who come mainly to hear poetry might be less engaged by the classical song settings than by the performance poems. But an audience who come mainly to hear music are likely to have the opposite response. What the Project’s composers have done so far, in setting our words in arrangements for single vocalist and piano, barely scratches the surface. We have scope to bring in multiple voices, additional instruments – to have our poetic words transformed into whole lush soundscapes.

He’s right, of course. But one of the joys of this project is that we’re all right. One way of working doesn’t exclude the other. The only real limits are those of our own creativity.

Two big pieces of news, post Bridlington, may well give us a pointer as to what’s next. The first is that the Project has been successful in getting an Arts Council grant to develop repertoire and put on our own concert series, which will begin in York in September. The second is that we’ve managed to win a booking for the Project to put on a fringe show at the Ilkley Literature Festival, bringing our music and poetry to one of the most prestigious literary events of the year. With just a couple of months to go before the first of these shows, we have a lot of rehearsing to do. But I think we’re starting to get a flavour now, of just how wide the possibilities are.

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