Rebecca Lee and Nastassja Simensky are participants in Sound and Music’s ‘Composer-Curator’ programme, which supports music creators to put on their own events and build audiences. Their project is centred on ‘Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth’, a piece they are developing in response to an archaeological dig at Malkin Tower Farm, Pendle. Its new iteration involves contributions from musicians Kelly Jayne Jones, Bobby Cotterill, Alison Cooper, Caroline Trutz and Sophie Cooper.
‘Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth’ will be presented at Preston’s Harris Museum on 8 December, and at Nottingham Contemporary on 25 January 2020.
Five Verses has been developed through some quite deep exploration and research. Where are you at now with it? And how are you preparing for the first performance in December?
Rebecca: Last year, in the first phase of development, we each had a palette –of colours, sounds, materials and references that we wanted to work with. Because the residency was 5 months from the dig to the first performance, it was a very quick process to work with the rich material that came from spending 4 weeks on the dig with archaeologists. So we came away with a draft performance but felt there was a lot that we wanted to revisit and develop and this year we can explore the nuances and focus on the detail.
Last year Kelly Jayne Jones sang as part of the ensemble and this year she’ll be working live with the field recordings, using those recordings like an instrument in themselves. We met with her recently to talk about one particular verse, which is about a piece of gritstone uncovered on the dig – it was one of the most significant finds because it proved that there had been a dwelling on the site. But the large flat stone broke into tiny pieces when it was dug up. So for that section we have the musicians playing, but we also have Kelly playing amplified rocks live – bringing her own practice into the work more.
Similarly, we’ve had more time to explore the interests and specialities of the whole group: vocal techniques with Alison and Caroline and approaches to extended sounds and improvising on trombone and bassoon with Sophie and Bobby.
One of the important things happening in the development stage is that we’re deepening these connections and collaborations. For example, Kelly wanted to know a lot of detail about the shape of that section and when to bring different elements in, so that really forced me to think through “what do I want?”. We’ve come up with a shared visual way of representing those decisions, like a graphic score.
The work investigates or reflects on many topics – local history, biography, archaeology itself. What does sound offer you as a medium for exploring things like this?
Rebecca: The way we’ve chosen to work with sound is partly about bringing different layers and levels of action or intensity, by combining different groupings – so in some sections there are musicians and then spoken word, in others there are amplified rocks and loop pedals.
It’s less about a particular sound and more about the way we produce sound together. I really like performances that mix sound that comes from a PA, stuff that comes from an amp, stuff that comes acoustically, because they fill the space and reach the audience differently.
Nastassja: For me, in terms of working with sound, there’s a sense that we’re not trying to replicate an experience of this dig last summer, or that same landscape in the 17th century, but that we’re trying to create an equivalent experience in terms of texture and atmosphere. I find working with time-based media, sound and live performance really allows you to do build that experience in a way that purely visual artforms sometimes fall short.
Rebecca: Related to that is duration. With the audience there’s a feeling that we’re all making the work together, and busily creating a space and time for people to engage with that production. Rather than just standing in a line or a semi-circle and playing at the audience.
Nastassja: Something that informs what Rebecca just mentioned is that everyone in the ensemble is themselves on the stage. Of course there are costumes, props, lighting and we are all performing, but the way in which we’re making and presenting it we hope to create a pretty open environment where there is a proximity to the audience and even though we don’t engage directly with them there is a mutual acknowledgement.
The piece has a strong connection to place. Are there particular audiences you’re trying to reach with it?
Nastassja: Yes, one of the reasons for doing the first performance in Preston is about returning to Lancashire with this new version of the piece that we drafted last year. We approached the Harris Museum, because we want the audience to not only be existing new music and contemporary art fans, but also people who may have heard about the dig because they’re local, or people who are interested in heritage or archaeology. We’d really like the audience to be a mixture of people who happen to be in the museum that day, as well as others who are coming because of their own interests.
Rebecca: The idea is to have a public conversation around the performance, which the museum are very interested in too. One of the project partners is UCLAN, so we’ll be seeing UCLAN archaeology students on the Friday before the performance, and we hope they’ll also come down and the performance will be challenging them to think about how archaeology can be communicated differently through working with artists.
In Nottingham, while people won’t necessarily have the same connection with this sense of place as the audience in Preston, we think the performance will still bring a sense of place with us as we go. Nottingham’s got a really vibrant visual arts scene and a lot of heritage venues as well, so we’re hoping to encourage a good spread of people across the city.
‘Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth’ was commissioned by In-Situ for The Gatherings, part of Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership, with funding from Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.
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