Justin Hopper’s I Made Some Low Inquiries and Dead Rat Orchestra and James Holcombe’s Tyburnia comprise a double bill of avant-garde folk, part of Spill Festival of Performance. The performances share formal and thematic similarities: both are multimedia performances integrating poetry, music, image and video; both weave together history and myth through storytelling and song; both express fascination with blood rituals, death, and the spirits of the dead. However, they differ in their approach to arrangement and integration, and in their engagement with the times and places of their histories and myths.
In I Made Some Low Inquiries, Hopper reads poetry as singers and musicians create a sonic circus of voices, footsteps, drones, field recordings, and folk ballads with traditional and electronic instruments. Two of the ballads, Poor Wayfaring Stranger and Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows, were documented by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins during their recording sessions with Almeda ‘Granny’ Riddle in Arkansas in 1959. These Southern American strains mingle with rural and pagan English imagery, as images of crows, horseshoes, knives, frog skeletons, runes, forests, and constellations are projected against the backdrop. As the voices on stage speak and sing of haunted bones, crossroads, the search for and loss of true love, the bodies are imbued with white, red, and black.
Exploring the origins and transmutations of folklore, Hopper describes his intention to make work that ‘chaotically resituates folk ballads of the Ozarks and Appalachians into the East Anglian landscape (from which they may have sprung)’. The audience is prevented from settling into the historical and geographical particularities of the work; the words, images, and sounds hint towards patterns, but do not make them explicit. What is the relationship between Southern American folk ballads and the Norse symbol of the ‘helm of awe’, or between medieval star maps and haunted bones? The work invites us into its arcana, and withholds the key. Hopper is a conductor, layering texts and traditions, and directing the voices and bodies on stage (it is unclear to what extent this work is a collaboration between poet, musicians, and visual artists). He advises the audience to heed the words of the sorrowful lover: ‘I searched for high, and I searched for low, / And I made some low inquiries / But they all said, “No, we’ve seen no such, / We would have no such in our keeping.”’ The parts of I Made Some Low Inquiries do not always come together satisfactorily, but the work self-reflexively refuses to extricate and decipher symbols and meanings, expressing the melancholy magic of the search.
Tyburnia is a collaboration between improvisational folk musicians Dead Rat Orchestra and photochemical filmmaker James Holcombe. As two members of Dead Rat Orchestra sit facing each other in front of the stage with a stack of instruments, computers, and song sheets, Holcombe works from the back of the room, projecting three screens on stage. Holcombe’s ‘expanded performative film piece’ is an experimental documentary. Ostensibly about the history of the ‘Grand Gallows of our Land’, the film centres on Tyburn in order to think through issues of criminality and capital punishment, and relationships between state, religion, human life and the body. The three screens display shifting combinations of text and image: names and dates, facts, quotations, images of artefacts, newsreels, scenes of London. The film itself is processed with startling colours and effects; sometimes it looks as if the film shimmers and plumes between transitions, sometimes it bubbles and burns and threatens to consume itself. Dead Rat Orchestra provide a soundtrack of reworked 16th and 17th century broadside ballads, jigs and elegies, and electroacoustic soundscapes (curiously, some songs contain lyrics written in Thieves Cant, ‘a secret language used by ne’er-do-wells and underworld cohorts’).
Tyburnia is a heavily researched and carefully realised work. References range from the familiar (Tony Blair’s face, anti-capitalist protests) to the specific (William Blake’s Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Great Albion, images of Smugglerius, the dying Gladiator) to the obscure (extracts from ‘Ester Hath Hang’d Haman: A Defense of Women, Against the Author of the Arraignment of Women’: ‘They’ll call women whore, but their stakes they might save, / There can be no Whore, but there must be a Knave’). However, the structure of the work is devised in such a way that it enables, and is enlivened by, openness and improvisation. Dead Rat Orchestra seem to communicate with each other and with Holcombe, frequently looking at the three screens as they play. Holcombe activates the possibilities of the projectors, arranging and rearranging the layout of the three screens. They overlap to create thickly textured layers of text and image, or drift off stage entirely, bright pink rectangles rising onto the ceiling, fragments of blue light falling on the faces of the audience. The audience is drawn into the dialogue between the different elements of this work, and immersed in the intricacies and passion of the exchange.