Over four weeks in July 2013 I collaborated with composer Richard Bullen on The Seven Arches; a site-specific choral work made for the Dartington International Summer School, which responded to architectural features in the Hall’s gardens.
During this time I also worked with composer Simon Eastwood on a piece for children’s choir titled the Song of the Spanish Trees, and with fellow poet Lydia White and composer Phillip Cashian on Tiltyard Fragments. These pieces were made as part of a wider collaboration, ‘Voices In The Garden’, a Royal Academy of Music and Dartington International Summer School project.
“Up against/ The wall/ Mother/ Holds her/ Hands straight up/ She rolled” (from The Seven Arches)
I’ve written about these other pieces towards the end of this post but I wanted to start with The Seven Arches as it is one of the pieces that has had the largest life beyond the initial project. The piece was published by Stainer & Bell in 2014 in their new ChoralNow range, performed by the Finchley Chamber Choir and documented on YouTube.
“We’ve got a song for you”, they said, as I walked into the studio on Curtain Road, and after the obligatory buzz of pedals being powered and the occasional hit of a snare, they played it: the form was fast and fragmented with gaps left for poetry.
‘As the law peals from the far edge of a glove darkly at night how everything turns/ In and to the white snow/ Turns’
Here’s the back story: Rumour Cubes, a band I’ve been working with since 2010, had been booked to play a gig on 18 March 2011 at an Arts Uncut event at the Bull and Gate (Kentish town).
That date, eighteenth of March, sound familiar? It did to me. The gig coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The show, not the Commune, featured comedians like Josie Long and speakers like Steve Hart, Regional Secretary of Unite the Union. It wanted to open up the anti-cuts movement to a wider audience and Rumour Cubes were going to help.
In 2006-7 I collaborated with Adam Stark (for the first time) to make the procedural poem (CODE_WORDS). The poem recoded a speech that was already highly coded: ‘On The Three-Part Comprehensive Settlement’. This was delivered by American Secretary of State Dr. Condaleeza Rice in Israel on the 31 July 2006 during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Some political commentators described Rice’s speech as a ‘coded message’ directed towards the Israeli administration, letting them know that they only had a limited amount of time until international pressure would make a cease-fire necessary.
In the poem/program (visualised above) pressing ‘Pause’ in the GUI activated a ‘replace’ function where the start word ‘birth’ was replaced with a pre-selected word from Rice’s speech. ‘Stop’ activated a ‘delete letter’ function, where letters from the previous word were deleted and then reordered to form a new word, and ‘Play’ operated a non-deterministic function where the computer chose, through psuedo-chaotic means, between two pre-programmed options where letters were added to the previous word, and then reordered to form a new word without any letters from the previous word being deleted. In other words, every word within the finite state machine had four other words leading from it.
(CODE_WORDS) can be downloaded here. It’s pretty lo-fi, and only runs on Windows, but it was 2006 and our first collaboration.
‘The time for sitting is over and the revolution begins. “Gather your weapons, grab what’s at hand, there’s an uprising and we’re all gathering”, the music seems to cry. Then, when everyone is gathered we hear the clear and articulate reading of a poem by Steve Willey. As the words end, the crowd stands there in sad and silent reflection. There will be no revolution today. It’s a non-Hollywood ending and I like it.’ (Echoes and Dust)
To make sound and live performance a central part of a poetics means to make poems where the external context of the performance becomes a creative element in the poem’s internal form.
In a live, improvised, or even practiced performance the form of the poem is located in the space where that performance happens. The poem is filled with history. Working with Adam Stark and Rumour Cubes has allowed me to enter new spaces, reach new audiences, and orientate myself and my work in different ways to the history that is unfolding around me.
The space in which The Gove Curve was written and performed was a space in which Conservative MP Michael Gove was proposing and initiating a series of education reforms. He was doing this in the context of economic cuts to Britain’s state and welfare institutions.
The Gove Curve was a protest against these reforms and the hostile ideologies that motivate them. To an extent, the logic of the poem rests upon one single pun: ‘school’ refers both to the interactive, social groupings adopted by fish and the educational institution used by humans. The Gove Curve describes and dissects them both.
The Gove Curve has been published by Critical Documents in the International Egg and Poultry Review (Cambridge: 2011), and by Max Czollek in the German language online magazine Kultmucke(2013). It has been performed with Rumour Cubes in venues across the UK.