Two interviews with Trinity Laban Chamber Choir singers about the contextual elements of Drowning Songs. I received feedback from other singers via Facebook, which confirms that the positive experience of the ‘drowning tales’ was not confined to just these two.
These two interviews were recorded at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London, on 23 May 2014.
Interview with Angela Hicks (soprano, soloist)
AH: What I thought was, it was, it made it – it made me more aware of, like the… um. It gave it more depth, I think, especially under the boat. But what I found was that I felt a bit selfish, keeping all that information to myself and I kind of wanted to put it out into the piece so that people listening could also hear, if you know what I mean? But, I think it did raise, um… it made it more profound, rather than just going, you know just singing words and actually not thinking about it. I definitely was thinking about, yeah definitely was thinking about the um… the lost lives of those people.
CR: Oh great! cos that’s kind of exactly what I was going for
And I did find it quite eerie. It was partly the setting, but also it was… I dunno, the whole thing coming together into what I thought was very eerie.
It was interesting because Ulrike [Wutscher] said she thought that the audience should know, have that information and Stephen actually wanted me to do a, to consider doing a tape part with those stories in it, and I thought about it and then I just thought, actually no, I kind of want this to be a private thing for the singers so that you’ve got that…
I think that for us made it more, a more… what’s the word? Like more charged almost, rather than not knowing, cos there is a danger with these things just to kind of sing it through and not really engage at all. I think it’s very interesting.
Yeah, I kind of felt, cos I had it in the programme note, just like, you know, these are the names of real people but I think there’s a difference between somebody saying to you “these are the names of real people”, it’s like an academic knowledge and you go “oh right, OK, so they haven’t just been picked at random” and that has sort of one layer of meaning, and I think when you know how they died as well, it sort of becomes a little realer?
The way that they died as well and so many of them in such mundane, in such a mundane way. Such, like, they slipped and fell or they…
Coming back drunk or…
Something that we, I don’t know… it’s so everyday and normal
I think that was what really struck me when I was doing the research and cos there were, like, literally over a thousand of these things [stories]. I’d say about 80% of them had a little line about how they died and it just… it became quite overwhelming going through page after page after page of this tiny, tiny print – and then you get the occasional ones that are, like, just “Drowned” and so you get “Drowned, ditto, ditto, ditto”
[Together] ditto, ditto
And it’s like…
You add the water and it’s like suddenly those everyday actions become quite perilous, definitely
And in a way I think almost the ones that had just “ditto” were even more heartbreaking for me, so it’s like, I want to know about this person!
I remember when I fell, I fell into… I was cleaning my Dad’s canal boat, and I fell off the side… em… just because I’d reached a little bit too far, a bit too far than I could manage and I couldn’t swim because I was about 4 or 5 and then, I mean I must have been in the water for about 20 seconds, but I spent the whole of that time under the water and I was thinking “Oh my God, I’m going to die” and that was such a, like, a silly thing to do, just reach a little bit too far or misstep or something and then… yeah… eerie! And then it’s all green and horrible and you sink into the sea.
Interview with Lewis Raines (tenor)
CR: So, drowning stories in the score. So, I guess… Evidently, from the conversations we’ve had before, you found them useful. Can you elaborate on in what way?
LR: Well, it gives you sort of a justification to what you’re actually singing about and because you’ve given us such a good overview of the context and what you wanted to get across, we were able to sort of embody that as well and with our vocal effect but also you also in terms of your body as well because you HAD to otherwise you would, the piece would be interested by, wouldn’t make any sense but it sort of carried across that, and also it made you feel emotionally connected to the piece as well.
That’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to know! Were they in any way…
If you wanted to talk about some things that maybe as a singer I would suggest…
[Discussion of notation]
But like all these markings you had here, with like Rich… er… James Richard Tyler, William Pepper, you know, the amazing thing was actually, how many ways could you say that name differently. So as an actor you don’t say James Richard Tyler, you go James Richard Tyler, James Richard Tyler, and then you, then you start to embody, OK, who is this person? What would he be like? And obviously you’ve written at the bottom, he’s on the bottom of the page where he, how he died.
Ah… William Jay and John…
Well, say like William Jay fell from the quay, I mean, that’s William Jay – it’s a tragedy, you know, and that’s… but because you’ve given us such a clear context of what happened to this man and it’s real, you say his name differently, you don’t just say ‘William Jay’, you actually already have now an emotional connection with him because he died because he fell in a fog and was never probably recovered. And that tragic sort of outcome makes you thoughtful. And like every singer, like, every vocal piece you get given, there’s always an objective – what is your objective, what do you want to achieve? And that’s a tactic, right there, is – you know – you’re trying to manipulate something by saying ‘he died from this quay’ so then you dictate to the audience or you sympathise with the audience or you… um… you know, even seduce the audience with that name. I mean, there’s so many ways of saying it and that’s the great thing about having context and a good historical understanding is that for us it’s just about doing what’s written, literally doing what’s written and not guessing so the only, and the other thing as well…
But even so you’ve got err… Jefferson Carter – Washed overboard by heavy sea during a gale. I mean, what an unlucky guy! I mean, how unlucky is that? And that’s the thing, we were reading it through and actually it was one of those things that came up in rehearsals – and this is completely true – was, and people actually went ‘oh wow. We’ve actually got the name and actually what happened to him’ and then you just think, ‘oh shit! How unlucky is that?’ You know? And how poignant is that? At the fact that he was just a sailor at sea.
Yes, I think that’s what really struck me when I was doing the research for this was that so many of these people just died in, like, really mundane ways, you know – painting the side of a ship or something
And they weren’t doing anything wrong or odd, except maybe the guy who was trying to catch a bird, but you know, for the most part they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary but they just died and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them.
It’s a sign of our innocence as well. It’s almost like the innocence of such a tragic and, you know, a death that could have been avoided. If Jefferson Carter had been standing a little bit more to the left or to the right, he might not have been washed overboard. So with this piece you get so much more, it’s so much more dynamic to me, and performing it, for me, at the Cutty Sark as well.
Yeah, I think the location did have a lot to do with…
Well, it was the highlight of it for, for a lot of people, especially my girlfriend, […] she said that was what was needed, it not over-layered with, you know overlayering musical or you know… it was just done and that’s what… you know. That for me – that for me is creating music, that is music, and also creating theatre as well so… It was a great piece.
I was really pleased with how it turned out – and you guys did an amazing job, you really did.
Even when you go to the last page there – just a fantastic attention to detail – the fact that every page you turn had a different story, and I really liked that cos you know, it made you discover something new.
Yeah, I had thought about only putting it on the pages that had names…
But I thought – that’s ridiculous! There’s a gap…
No, uh but that was quite, cos you know at the beginning of the rehearsal, we started actually reading every page – we weren’t reading the notes, we were reading the, George Dixon – what happened to him? What happened to…? And then people would go, oh Christ, this guy, you know, so that was… was the best.
I think that, having written the programme note too – and I have had encounters with performers where you write a very detailed programme note and say this is this and this is this, and write performance notes, and they don’t read any of it. And so, and I – and so in the programme note obviously it says that these are all real people, but I think there’s also a difference between being told ‘all these names are real people’ and feeling that these names are real people.
And that was sort of the difference I was aiming for with that.
But that sort of thinking, you can convey that through that, that these people were real people – and that’s the point – is that these are real people, and isn’t that what the actual – that’s the job isn’t it? It’s storytelling. In the end, that’s what we do, we are actors and we are singers but also, our job is to play and we’re there to tell a story, yeah, and when the story’s already real then all you’re going to get is, you know, you trying to get as real with that as you can you know. It’s a heightened naturalism.
Actually, one more question: Did the cover help at all?
© 2021 Caitlin Rowley