Songs of Lear

Kandinsky 2
Director Grzegorz Bral described a Kandinsky exhibition as the inspiration for creating a series of songs as ‘paintings’, so maybe this is what listening to Songs of Lear looks like…

I’ve tried writing words about Songs of Lear, and it’s completely pointless. I just can’t. So I’m going to write around it as best I can and that gaping maw in the middle, that unnamable, missing, essential thing; that’s what it feels like to watch it.

A few weeks ago, we recorded some original music for a radio drama I’m working on. We had six musicians and three actors, in a much larger studio than we’re used to. I’ve had to listen back to the tracks a few times since, and every time I do, with my eyes closed, I can’t help but see again the physicality of the cast when they were singing. Carl would take a run and bounce up to the microphone before the beginning of each piece. Kevin would punctuate each syllable with a thrust of his arms. Rhiannon was surprisingly still; just swaying gently.

I love that I get to see this on a regular basis because it fascinates me; actors’ movement when they are giving only a vocal performance, when they don’t care who’s looking, when their body is in that moment only the vessel of their voice. The ways they expand, turn, twist, gesture, the facial expressions they make; all convey nothing but the necessary emotion or energy of the sound that they need to produce. They are exaggerated; the faces you would make at a baby, or the way you would dance with a toddler. Sometimes they look like they’re conducting a one person orchestra of themselves. It’s great, because radio studios are these weird, alchemical places where you’ll be given directions like “Could you be a bit smellier?” or asked to walk on the spot on some gravel that’s been scattered for you, and then five minutes later enact the deepest of grief – it’s all a bit ridiculous and a bit brilliant, but all that matters… all that matters, is the sound.

Watching Songs of Lear is crazy alchemy; sharing that sensation with an audience, but seeing it intermingled with deliberately performative movement that makes it dangerous to shut your eyes too long and let yourself be carried away, lest you miss something. My instinct is always to close my eyes when I want to hear; at work we explain to first time radio actors that the director isn’t despairing of their performance – sitting in the studio cubicle with their head in their hands – they’re just listening. Before I ever knew anything about anything about sound or music, I used to buy a five euro ticket to the concert hall at my university and go listen to an entire classical orchestra with my eyes closed.

Song of the Goat don’t let you; their performance weaves and changes and pulsates in a way that won’t release you. It plunges you from boiling water to freezing and back again. Though the ensemble are primarily focussed on the music, there is a magnetic purpose in their physicality. You can’t not watch them making those sounds. Those paintings. I love the idea of stillness that brings (Bral calls stillness the highest form of movement), of containment and texture, but unlike him I’ve never found a painting that has made me feel this way. Afterwards I’m raw and ragged and totally alive. I’m not quite convinced I fit in my own skin anymore and don’t know whether I want to fight someone or fuck someone or jump off a waterfall.

Music is primal. That’s news to no one. But as I’m listening again now (my flatmate and I scrambled for the merchandise desk afterwards), knowing that it feels so oddly out of place, nothing like the same when the music isn’t actually bodily throbbing through you, when Maciej Rychły isn’t weaving between the performers like Bob from Twin Peaks, playing what look like uilleann pipes; I still keep catching myself staring glassy eyed into the distance; not typing, not actually looking at anything. I’ve become pretty convinced that Bral is on to something when says that the spirit of the piece is the most important thing; that the language doesn’t even matter (English, Latin, the Coptic gospels of Thomas, and Romanian, as it turns out – but they could have been singing lorem ipsum on repeat and it wouldn’t have mattered). That the text can be chucked. Spellbinding is a trite word; so imagine one that means that but more meaningful and fundamental. Something that scrapes away at the core of you. Maybe they have it in Coptic. Because, honestly, I didn’t really experience King Lear in Song of the Goat’s evening. I recognised it, sometimes, when I was shown, and the themes are here now to find afterwards. But on the night, all I knew was that I could hear the haka, the didgeridoo in a human voice, the Battlestar Galactica Soundtrack: Season 2, Track 11: Scar, Éowyn’s lament at Théodred’s interment in Return of the KingSongs of Lear sounds like the tapestry of sounds that you’ve built a life out of, and yet like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

But to base something on a text and then say the text doesn’t matter? That it’s incidental? FUCK YES. Bring on the revolution! Here, the bodies are the text – we all have those. The sounds are the text – we all know those, or now we can hear them. Feel them. All your intertextuality is right here in this room; someone get Stoppard his smelling salts.

Monica Dryl (Cordelia) wept openly in the final lament. From almost the back of the space, I could see the tears falling on her dress. And I stopped breathing, because there’s always something about performed grief that makes me uneasy, and aware that it’s not real, but whatever she was drawing on to do this, whatever training this group have put themselves through, whatever magic they make behind closed doors; she was openly keening and beating her thighs, but in her own inner world. I’ve only ever seen that in one other place – when I worked in a maternity hospital and was with women in the final stages of labour. At that point, they look powerful and terrifying, human and godly, something you can’t possibly touch. Never is the rest of the world more irrelevant than in that moment.

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