This isn’t a review of Undersong, by Verity Standen. Undersong is a piece of music, sung a cappella by nine people, and I don’t really have the critical faculties to get into the ins and outs of the music itself. But maybe you don’t either. I saw Undersong three weeks ago, at Mayfest, and I’m writing about it now because it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of performance I’ve ever seen, and I can’t get it out of my mind.
I saw it in the Chapter House of Bristol Cathedral. Chapter House was built by hand. Perhaps we can say that all buildings are built by hand, but when I heard the voices arching upward I looked at the irregular spines of the vaulting, the wobbly trapezoids descending towards the columns holding the ceiling up, and I thought about stone, and the hands that carved the stone, and the bodies buried under the flagstones of churches, and the sheer athletic accomplishment of singing such a complicated and demanding score. Tender flesh making stone ring.
This isn’t a review of Undersong, by Verity Standen, partly because my partner is one of the performers. He is, obviously, the bestest singer in the whole world, but his contribution to the piece is roughly the same as that of every other performer’s (apart from Standen, who sings as well as composes and orchestrates here), and largely irrelevant to what I find so compelling about the piece.
The text of Undersong. There are almost no words here. Language is stretched beyond the point of reason. For about the first two thirds, there is no language at all – although the conviction of the singers is such that I felt they could almost be speaking a language, a private language all of us in the church were struggling to catch. They move around and through us, we are lit just as the are, they are very close to us. But their language is beyond us.
As a playwright, listening, I felt a whole range of possibilities I had never previously considered open up. Undersong feels like a prism, separating sound from language, and language from narrative. It feels like a creative invitation – how can those of us who write for performance use sound independent of language, abuse language beyond meaning, melt narrative into pure sound? Through its meticulously technical orchestration, it invites you to consider the unintentional sounds of the performance space – a gasp next to me, the quiet sound of weeping, a creak as the stool a performer sits on spins round and round. Its dramaturgy exposes the true conditions of theatre – the presence of strangers, the acute possibility of failure, a weird and intentional ritual, as intense as it is brief.
“Those days are over now.”
What does it mean? We’re given no context. Am I falling into a trap by wondering what it means? I look at the graves in the floor and listen.
“You were the first. The beginning.”
Flickering candles as we walked in. This piece has journeys in it. Within the mass of sound, each voice takes its own choreographed path around the space. You lose people, and find them again.
Tongues. At a certain point the singers stretch their mouths, flick their tongues outside their mouths. Their chins shine with saliva. A child laughs, watching, and is hushed by its mother. I had the feeling it was all right to laugh. I had the feeling they’d stopped the classical music to play with their tongues because it was funny. I would love to know what kind of piece Standen would make for a young audience, even for babies – how the involuntary sonic accompaniment of humans who haven’t learned how to behave in a performance space would mesh with the phenomenal technical control shown by the performers, here.
For me, Undersong seemed to have no meaning at all, other than to create an unusual situation for the audience (to put it very mildly). It was a genuine shock. The audience is clearly lit, the performers move among us. People whirl around, follow different voices, cry. People have very strong and visible reactions to wordless music, very close to each other, without any cover of darkness. As I left, the older gent sitting nearest to me gave a sheepish smile and a low “whew.” I had been struggling with making eye contact with him during the performance – I didn’t want to, but something about the music made it seem really artificial, really pointless, to avoid his eye. But when I looked at him, hearing the voices all around us, in the very old church, our feet on hand-cut stone, I felt the appalling weight of his history – his face is still with me, sunburn, smile lines, clean shave, not sure where to look, who is he, where else has he sat and listened – all the possibilities of his life waiting in his face in the resonating stone room.
After the show I couldn’t catch the thread of any language for about twenty minutes. All of it was noise.
Verity Standen’s Undersong is on at St Mark’s Church until 9th June. More info here.