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Under the Surface

Composer and academic Toby Young writes:

‘Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living and art helps’ (John Cage)

Music and breath are inseparable. From a singer inhaling audibly before launching into an epic chorus, to a conductor grunting and gasping as they tear through a dramatic piece of orchestral music, these audible gestures of breathing pervade our understanding of music-making. This tension between the musical work as an abstracted object and the musical performance as a physical, dynamic thing, created by real bodies, is an interesting concept. The physicality that these sounds remind us of is so often expected – implicitly, in most cases – to be invisible, avoiding distraction from the elegant and graceful surface, like the frantically kicking swan.

But in many ways this connection between the physicality of musical production and the music itself is crucial to our understanding of the power of music. Rather than an abstract thing, music is an interactive, communal one; a physical action, shared by people unified in the artistic act. The physical sounds we here on a recording or in a concert remind us of the ‘lingering aura of the musicians who produced them … On recordings, breath becomes a tool through which musicians and recordists can construct the embodied authenticity of the recording’ (Gregory Weinstein, Air Flows, 2016: 118).

This tension between invisibility and physicality reflects deeply the core aims of the Life of Breath project, and provided me with the initial inspiration (pun intended) when approaching my commission for a new musical work inspired by the breath. It inevitably led to the choice of title too – Under the Surface – and the choice of choir for its ensemble. As Richard Middleton has observed, the voice is ‘commonly understood … as the profoundest mark of the human (Studying Popular Music, 1990: 262), and as such is probably the best vehicle to explore profoundly human issues such as illness.

Under the Surface uses two separate choirs, a larger group (the Bristol University Singers) and a smaller group (award-winning vocal consort the Brabant Ensemble, captured during the performance in the image above, conducted by their director Stephen Rice, far right), who sing in a call-response fashion in order to create different characters and moods throughout the piece’s 20-minute span. When approaching this piece, it was important for me that the texts engaged as closely as possible with individual and real world experiences of breathing disorders. I decided to achieve this in three ways. The first was to work with poet Jennifer Thorp to create new texts inspired by hearing the stories of people affected by breathlessness. Jen produced the most amazingly powerful texts, dealing a huge range of issues including struggle, invisibility, stigma, frustration, anxiety, fear, pain, anger, interaction, loneliness, and safety; and in doing so her texts touch on elements of the spiritual, physical, social, and emotional impacts of breathlessness. Here are the final texts:

My breath is moss. It pushes through my lungs
And furrs the filaments of rib and heart.
A hanging garden sweats along my tongue.
I am nocturnal, growing in the dark.

Its thickness is botanical, it clings
Like water to my overflowing skin.
I am bromeliad, a tender thing.
Cut to my core: such sweetness swims within.

Stop panting, like a dog. It could be done:
We’d slip the skins of nature and be free
To breathe ourselves into some other lungs,
The lift and sigh of animal release.

Soft snarl of apes, the slowly trembling deer:
A life’s a pattern drawn by exhalation.
O we aspire, but what we breathe is fear.
By shifting souls, we learn by aspiration.

We measure time in breath, we count its run
Through gain and loss of air. The tide is out,
The season shifts, the newest year is come:
A throat can tell the gap from flood to drought.

Love, if you stutter, where is time in you?
Have you grown faster, bought your seconds dear?
And if breath’s held or stopped or slender few,
Can I give mine to keep your counting clear?

The second way to engage with the real world experience was to consider the relationship between the singers performing the music and their own bodies. In many ways, singing is the most innately human form of making music. Singing begins with the breath, and the breath is constantly present in the continuation of its technical production. It serves as a ‘physical reminder of the ephemerality, intimacy and alterity of the voice’ (Stephen Connor, The Strains of the Voice, 2004). and as such is closely connected to the very act of singing. There is an interesting tension here between ease and struggle:

Everything that is said about the exercise of the voice – by coaches, experts, trainers, and voice professionals of all kinds – implies that it should be easy and relaxed, as effortless effect of the breath. The voice must be produced without inordinate stress, which will damage or distort it … But there is no voice without strain; without the constraining of sound in general by the particular habits and accidents that, taken collectively, constitute a voice, and the constraining of the body to produce voice. The breath is drawn as a bow is drawn, by applying a force against the resistance of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. The power of the voice is the release of the kinetic energy stored in these muscles as they return to their resting positions. ((Stephen Connor, The Strains of the Voice, 2004: 1).

I wanted in some way to use this direct connection with the body to express the idea that the experiences are difficult to express and impossible to share, but very obvious to the person experiencing them. In order to help convey these experiences, and those described in these testimonials, Under the Surface explores one of the most commonly described physical factors; namely limitation and lack of breath. To achieve this, multiple points in the piece challenge the singers physically: multiple repetitions of the same phrases, extreme dynamics (both loud and quiet) and perilously long held notes all challenge the singers, forcing them to be made aware of the struggle between physical technique and artistic aim.

The final way this piece deals with individual experiences was to include recordings of interviews with breathlessness suffers – in this case affected by COPD – throughout the piece, both interspersed with the other material as interludes between the choral movements, and to accompany the choral singing in dialogue with the music. These testimonials added an important reflective element, offering commentary and depth to the choral elements, as well as making clear the emotional and physical struggles faced by the interviewees. By sharing these unheard stories, I hope that this music can help challenge stereotypes of people with breathing disorders, raising awareness of their experiences, and offering an artistic point of interaction between those affected, the healthcare professionals dealing with them (including their carers), and the general public.

Under the Surface was premiered on the ‘Night of Breath’, on a double bill with the dance work Breath Catalogue, both of which appear in a short film on our YouTube channel

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