SINGING THE SUBJECT | FEATURE
Performer Kizzy Crawford, composer Branwen Munn and stage director Mathilde López have lit up the back end of 2020 with a musical trilogy of songs linking ancient Greek and ancient Welsh, reports John-Paul Davies.
Renowned stage director Mathilde López had a dilemma. The increasing restrictions of lockdown meant creating theatre, in any true sense of the word, was becoming impossible. Actors Joey Cornish, Kizzy Crawford and Catriona James couldn’t meet to rehearse. The dancers couldn’t dance – together – so Matteo Marfoglia’s choreography had already been reduced to a two-person performance, by Marfoglia and López, when self-isolation brought even those plans to a stop.
The choir couldn’t choir. The play wouldn’t play. López’s grand design of telling the history of love through ancient Greek and Sumerian texts was falling foul of the gods of chance. But like any creative true to themselves and their work, López was aware of her limitations and how to drive the project, presented by contemporary Welsh theatre company August 012, forward. “I’m not a film maker,” she says now; “I don’t know how to use cameras, and anything I’m going to do is not going to be as exciting as what you’ll find on Netflix.”
So that left the songs. After years of working together on increasingly challenging and engrossing projects, López knew that producer and composer Branwen Munn’s gift for sonic creativity could keep the fundamentals of her vision intact. And so Singing The Subject was able to continue.
By removing the main visual focus of physical movement the music, and more importantly, the text, was now the complete focus. Munn’s job became “bigger and bigger”, but the pre-production work on visuals and performance was established enough that she had an entire creative process behind her to draw from. “Even though you can’t see that in the finished project it’s embedded in what I did, musically.”
In fact, the final music videos now serve as a distillation of everything the creative team had envisaged. Surreal faces made of mouths give the background to the project’s genesis, followed by captioned videos with gold writing and shimmering lights to accompany the hypnotic music.
López had first heard Canu’r Pwnc 20 years ago when she moved to Wales. This sacred, traditional, primarily single-note singing style is the perfect conduit for the raw and visceral text Mathilde had chosen. The focus on one note, with the rhythm and meter of the music originally governed by the biblical text, places exceptional focus on the words. And, after all, it was the words of Aristophanes and Plato, along with the ancient Sumerian tale of Innana and Dumuzi, that inspired Singing The Subject’s focus on love – something López thinks is in short supply at present.
“We’ve had so little love, and so little affection because we are so far away from each other – physically, psychologically – and we’ve all been deprived of love. That word has been so overused, it becomes like a marketing thing. I was trying to find the primary idea about love.”
With the philosophical stakes set so high and the content so highbrow, Canu’r Pwnc was the perfect tonic to bring the meaning of the words back down to earth. “When you sing on one note you understand, after five or six phrases, that you’re not going to go anywhere. And therefore you start listening in a way that you don’t normally listen: actively, with your body. You fully listen.” Singer Kizzy Crawford likens it to group meditation. “Since the style of singing is repetitive and powerful, you are always returning to the same note and rhythms, like breathing.”
The sign-up community choir, physically isolated from each other, were able to record individually through Zoom group calls, with choir leader Gwen Mairi, to be brought together as a whole ensemble by Munn in the studio. Yet somehow, the feeling of collaboration and involvement still resonated with the performers. Munn sensed “an interesting, virtual connection that does feel like being part of a choir”; Crawford, as a professional musician, well-used to recording her parts in isolation was challenged by the context. “This project required me to take my voice out of its comfort zone, by exploring different emotions to portray a powerful character through singing in the style of Canu’r Pwnc.”
Watching the captioned videos for each of the song performances, it is incredible to think that Singing The Subject was going to be even more than it has become. The music, so intense; the text, so moving – or should that be the other way round? – now unadorned by visual performance, makes a striking statement of determination, collaboration and, above all love. Love for the creation and sharing of art and love for the artists and audience, for everyone, really and in every way.
With theatres currently closed, Mathilde López continues, seemingly undaunted. How to spread the love even further? “We have a dream, you know, to put it on the radio.” You’ve heard of a one-hit wonder – with passion like theirs, Mathilde, Branwen and Kizzy could create the first one-note wonder.
Singing The Subject’s first two pieces are available to stream now at www.august012.co.uk. The third will be live on the website at 12pm on Fri 18 Dec.
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES