A point of inspiration for this part of the project is TV footage of Western reporters and journalists reporting from war zones. There tends to be a jarring juxtaposition between the reporter facing the camera and the devastated cities burning behind their backs, and a contradiction in the refined language of the message transmitted while its content is severe and violent.
I called upon artist Monica Ross whose recent work features the recitation of the 30 articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. I have witnessed this work by Monica Ross in various stages of development and in different contexts. In the most recent performance of the piece in London in Autumn 2009, Ross, dressed in black with her long grey hair tied back, stood in a loose circle with a group of people in a gallery space. She began reciting the Declaration of Human Rights and pausing after each article, at various points, members from the people congregated in the circle stood forward to recite one of the articles. The recitations were in English and other languages. Given that the style of language used in the Declaration is formal and somewhat legalistic, that it is several pages long, and that the recitation is by heart/from memory, there are a number of factors that render the performance of this text difficult. In addition, given that the voices of the performers are not amplified and the clarity of each word is important for the coherence and comprehension of the rather difficult text, there is an element of fragility to the performance, which is exposed both to noise and the mechanics of memory operating under pressure. It is the combination of vulnerability, dignity, and seeming oscillation between mental absence (when trying to recall the text) and pure physical presence of Monica Ross’s recitation that transform a formal document (the Declaration of Human Rights) into a moving and a thought- provoking experience.
Behind the cool presence and serious tone of the recitation, Monica Ross’s subtle ‘struggle’ with endurance, concentration, memory and vocal delivery against ambient noise make a battle of her performance. And this is precisely what I wish to highlight and experiment with in collaboration with Monica Ross in the context of XENON. I'm interested in placing Monica Ross’s narration in a different sound-context which shifts the work radically. On one level, random loud sounds create distractions and prevent concentration. On another level, Ross's vocal delivery must adapt to its surrounding and fluctuate in relation to its sonic context. There is something about the ‘purity’ of the sole reciting voice and its utopian declarations of our fundamental rights as humans that is challenged when the voice has to rise itself above the ‘noise’ to be heard. In our experiments, I found it difficult witnessing Ross's struggle to concentrate and recall her text while trying to be heard and hear the sound of her own voice.
The ‘noise’ is produced by a choir. The word ‘noise’ is not to be taken literally – it refers to material I have generated with a group of vocalists, all of whom I have collaborated with on numerous occasions over the years, and whom I have brought together especially for XENON. The group consists of: Juice – a female vocal trio, doing exciting work in contemporary music in the UK and abroad. E.laine – avant-jazz singer, a classically trained soprano with a lot of experience in contemporary music and improvisation. Amy Cunningham – a visual artist and a soprano with experience in Early Music and folk. Ben Crawley – a young tenor, recent graduate from the University of York. The group includes Conall Gleeson, Irish contemporary composer and viola player.
In November 2009, the XENON group of vocalists, viola player/composer Conall Gleeson and I went on an intensive 3-day residency in Kent (UK) during which we generated material for the project. In preparation for the residency, I handed out a score/set of instructions for 10 different vocal studies, which I named ‘Vocal Impossibilities’. Each one of the ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ imagines a series of circumstances which disable or render singing near-impossible. For example, ‘Vocal Impossibility 1’ instructs the singer the following:
You suddenly realise you have lost your voice: ‘sing to me’
Therefore, the piece begins with the assumption of the loss or destruction of the medium of singing, that is the voice; the performer must face and overcome this difficulty in order to perform. In fact, the entire performance consists of this overcoming. The seminal film ‘Persona’ by Ingmar Bergman has been a point of inspiration and a reference. The movie begins with the depiction of the destruction of celluloid film as a projector becomes jammed, the celluloid catches fire and burns the image away; the destruction and absence of the medium of representation (film) finds expression in the main character’s condition which renders her voiceless, in other words, in that her voice as the medium of her speech, itself a representational medium, is lost.
‘Vocal Impossibility 1’ continues with more detailed instructions to the vocalist re breath, gestures, sounds and actions. In our XENON residency in November 2009, each vocalist was invited to perform each of the 10 ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ by interpreting the score imaginatively, individually and freely. We all presented our own versions of each of the ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ to one-other, providing critical feedback and giving suggestions to develop the work. All this work was recorded for me to go through, assess and continue the compositional process.
This way of working marks a change in my compositional approach. Although my approach to working with my own voice has been referencing the very materiality, plasticity and sculptural properties of the voice as a medium, as well as its relationship with my body and subjectivity on a psychic-socio-political level, my approach to other people’s voices has usually followed musical rules of harmony, referencing music history in a direct, albeit de-constructed way. This suggested however, not only that I had taken the voices and ways of singing of other vocalists for granted, but also that I imposed a composition authored by me upon them, while the singers themselves would tend to use modes of vocal production un-reflectively, ‘quoting’ specific music genres and histories out of habit and as a result of formal voice training. For XENON I asked the singers to take nothing for granted – breathing, posture, vocal production and presentation were all questioned. As a result, we became uncertain yet inventive with our voices, coming up with a variety of new techniques of vocal production.
To summarise, this far, ACT II includes a narrator (Monica Ross) reciting the Declaration of Human Rights from memory, while a group of vocalists (Juice Ensemble, E.laine, Amy Cunningham, Ben Crawley) and a viola player (Conall Gleeson) perform material (Vocal Impossibilities) which highlights and challenges the acts of voicing, speaking and singing.
The above sets a sonic stage for a dancer’s performance. I have been working with Amsterdam-based dancer and choreographer Maurice Causey (former principal dancer for W. Foresythe and a ballet-master at Nederlands Dans Teater). Maurice’s work is intensely visceral, and informed by classical ballet and avant-garde dance. We are developing a choreography based on the ideas of inhibited and impossible movements. A visual element with which I have been experimenting for Maurice’s dance costume is that of inflatables. In addition to air being the element that the vocalists struggle to manage, contain and shape in their ‘Vocal Impossibilities’, it is the element that, when contained in inflatables and placed in specific points on the body, inhibits and deforms movement patterns performed by the dancer. In other words, the dancer tries to negotiate his compromising physical limitations and changed bodily condition imposed by volumes of air on his body which appear like enormous blisters. There are of course secondary readings in the use of air contained in balloons to inhibit movement that might have to do with the invisibility of obstacles, but I am still in the process of meditating on that.
In addition to the performers negotiating and coming to terms with their own physicality and personal limits and abilities, in ACT II I wish to change the boundaries of the space inhabited by the performers and the audience. Two actors in the role of officials or soldiers redefine the boundaries of the performance space and the auditorium with the means of police/hazard tapes or partitions. Performers and audience continue doing what they do, while at any point they may be spatially divided or united, dislocated, and their views rendered limited or restricted.