Below are the opening words for the Anúna Summer School which I delivered yesterday. Looking at them now they're a bit flowery and I did fill in what appeared to be glaring gaps with ill-advised ad-libs and some equally ill-advised shorts. It's a brief description of my methods and thinking when designing shows, not hugely detailed but I spent a couple of hours writing it so I felt it needed to be inflicted on you (dear reader...).
"In March this year 26 years after the Anúna was formed, I took a group of young singers to the Nordic countries. We did three concerts in three very different venues.
In Oslo it was the flag hall of the medieval Askerhus fortress overlooking Oslo Fjord, a large room with an invited audience. The focus in the room was a compact raised stage.In Stockholm it was Sofia Kyrkan which was a more traditional church but with a huge area in front of the altar and seating almost “in the round”.The final venue was Temppeliaukion Kirkko in Helsinki. A highly unusual space with radiating aisles a nave that unfortunately we couldn't pair with the altar. In other words the natural and intended axis was usable but not relevant in terms of where the choir were processing from and there they would eventually end up [you can see the grey steps on the left hand side of the altar which was our performance area - a gift to all chiropractors]. Oslo was simple because the restriction of space and the size of the audience made the performance easy to work out. This was a secular venue so we played down the spiritual elements in terms of restricting movement in the space and concentrating on the sonic elements.
Sofia Kyrkan [built.1906] in Stockholm is a working Lutheran church and it’s design pertained directly to the method of worship. Because of the area in front of the altar I concentrated on movement, treating this space as the heart of the church, almost surrounded by the audience. The focal point shifted from the edges to the middle and culminated in a procession to the center. It was simply a device to draw the “congregation” into the performance, which in itself was a direct reaction to the space and nothing else.
Temppeliaukion Kirkko [built.1969] in Helsinki was a completely different issue altogether. The building was designed with intention and as a result every piece of potential ritual and movement was focused on one place: the altar. Over many years I have had to tackle spaces as difficult as this and when the natural axis of the building is disrupted [ie. we are performing in the wrong place] we improvise, constantly using what are perceived problems and turning them into advantages. In this case we opened with the Quis est Deus as a reaction to the restrictions. Our "angels" congregated at the altar and our lead vocal asked the audience “And where is God? Of whom is God and where does he live?”. In Architecture we used to use a process whereby our initial concept [usually a plan or section] would be sketched on butter paper and then flipped over so we were looking at it in reverse. There was probably a technical reason for this that escapes me. Since then when faced with concept on any artistic project, I always flip it over to see what results. So when it came to this particular performance of Quis est Deus this is what I did. We had to create a single moment of importance, a single event that would define who and what we were.
I decided that we were being hopelessly defeated on the processional ritual front. So I simply asked the lead soprano to show her hands to the audience on the final solo. A four-hour rehearsal before a two hour gig is draining but it was necessary to capture the significance of this so we did it over and over again and each time I told her to show her hands repeatedly. I didn’t know whether she was doing it right. In fact I wasn’t even sure that she knew that she was showing Christ’s wounds. We weren’t re-enacting any known practice that I know of. All I know is that when she knew she was doing it right, everyone else in the room did too. We were there in that moment creating our own ritual for that particular space and it became important because it was important to us. To me the irony of a woman showing Christ's wounds is significent for many reasons that I won't go into here but there were over thirty ambassadors in the audience. Also fully one third of these young singers were from Northern Ireland, significant in that we had been there at the end of the troubles and now we were here with our tiny country beleaguered by banks and politics and corruption, representing our whole island to the world on our national week. Were they asking who she was and what she was representing? Hopefully they were. Was she enacting something that they were supposed to understand? No idea. Did they see what was actually happening in front of them?
A tall young woman in a black dress was showing them her hands and nothing more. I knew it and yet the hairs rose up on the back of my neck when she did it. It was a moment that I wanted to go on and on and on. I don’t know whether the audience did. I can’t speak for the singers. All I know was that in that moment we were doing it right.
[as I turned over the wrong page I stuck this bit into the middle of the speech above and I'm pretty sure that the audience didn't notice. Well hopefully they didn't]
Human beings have been building processional monuments since they could pick up a rock. In Ireland there is a building called Newgrange, a vast passage tomb. At the solstice the sun shines through it’s main passage. It is ancient and magical, 1000 years older than Stonehenge and 600 years older than the pyramids in Giza. I studied it in college and I remember our lecturer (archaeologist Leo Swan now sadly passed away) telling us the story of the white quartz on it’s walls. When they restored it they assumed that it was stuck to the sides of the structure but Leo contended that in fact the quartz had been on the ground around it. When they picked up apparently fallen rocks around the sides, there was no quartz under them. This is documented as fact but it was his next theory that moved me deeply. He said that he believed that the quartz had been placed around the building to represent the heavens. What ancient man had done as an expression of wonder, modern man had interpreted as something else. So they picked the stones up and stuck them to the walls. I have no idea whether this is true or not but of all the things I heard in college, this was the one that stuck with me. It was serendipidity that lead me to Michael’s [the brother's] music while I was drawing up my projects all night and wearing his tape out with all the funny calligraphy on the sides. Michael was picking up the quartz and putting it down again. He didn’t pretend to understand what this ancient music and text was about. Nor did he impose his own interpretation of what it might have been. He simply wondered. When I listened to it so did I.
Over the years Anúna has undergone many changes. Singers have come and gone. Sometimes we have lost track of where we were going. Mostly the train slightly derailed but always found the tracks at the last moment and it's still running. So here we begin a week of work. You [the school participants] will learn things about your own voices. You will exchange and absorb ideas and you will sing. You may even learn what all true singers know; that you start with the song. It isn’t open to interpretation. It doesn’t have an ego or life or value. It sits and waits for your voice and the voices of those around you. It is your voice that gives it meaning."
I've stuck a few pics in to illustrate some of the points but they weren't part of the speech. I can't acknowledge the photographers as they're nicked off the web and I'll take them down if there's an issue. I took the one of Sofia. Anyone else have a comment? Please avoid the expressions "up myself" and the word "pretentious" when commenting.