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Commentary

27 Nov 2018

Unknown, Remembered: in conversation with Shiva Feshareki

It sounds like a question from a BBC Radio 4 quiz show: what links Handel’s cantata for solo contralto, La Lucrezia, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and the post-punk band Joy Division?

Unknown, Remembered, Spitalfields Music Festival 2018

A preview by Claire Seymour

Above: Shiva Feshareki

Photo credit: Igor Shiva

 

The answer is Unknown, Remembered: a site-specific production which interweaves diverse materials, memories, media and meanings, and which will be presented at this year’s Spitalfields Music Festival , between 4th and 9th December. I met with composer Shiva Feshareki - who has composed a new work setting lyrics by Joy Division which, as Unknown, Remembered unfolds, will interact with Haroon Mirza’s 2010 film The Last Tape and Handel’s musico-dramatic characterisation of his tragic, desolate heroine - to discuss the ways in which these varied forms of expression come together to articulate a complex, multi-faceted, three-dimensional narrative which charts a journey from trauma to euphoria.

Shiva begins by explaining the genesis of her own contribution to Unknown, Remembered. Spitalfields Music Festival’s Artistic Curator André de Ridder was keen to centre a new work around the rock band Joy Division, formed in the 1970s and fronted by singer Ian Curtis. Shiva began exploring the lyrics of the band’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures (1979), thinking about ways of restructuring the narrative and finding a way of assimilating and communicating the voice of Deborah Curtis - the wife of Ian who took his own life in May 1980 aged just 23-years-old.

The desire to present a female perspective and voice, which might counter, engage with, reflect upon and assimilate the perspective of the male poet-narrator of these songs, was clearly central to Shiva’s artistic aims. But there is no ‘literal character’ in this work - which will be performed by soprano Katherine Manley, accompanied by viola da gamba, piano and live electronics; rather there is an accumulation of sung sentences that gradually coalesce to form a visceral echo-chamber of memory, experience and mediation. Shiva explains that she selected ten sentences from Curtis’s lyrics which during her 30-minute composition are presented in different orderings, arranged so that there is always ‘sense’ but that this ‘sense’ evolves as the permutations unfold. The use of live electronics, which create a ‘delay’ resonance, further complicates issues of time, place, meaning.

There is no defined ‘starting-point’ and preconceived ‘destination’; rather there are words which infuse, cohere and conflict to create what Shiva describes as a ‘sonic sculpture’. Linearity is rejected in favour of an aesthetic based upon accumulation, engagement and interaction. I ask Shiva whether there is any aleatoric dimension to the performance, and she explains that the use of live electronics does mean that there is an element of chance, but that it is fairly small. The chosen ten sentences have been carefully selected and arranged, though it is the physicality of the sound rather than its intellectual conception which is clearly at the forefront of Shiva’s aesthetic. Sound and movement, sound and space, the geometry of musical sound, the psychology of this geometry: these are her preoccupations and expressive aims and stimuli.

I ask Shiva about her approach to text-setting and, in keeping with the above described aesthetic, she speaks of the vocal line as being a spatial concept - a sculptured musical text - in which repetitions, silences and spaces between words define meaning. At the start of her composition the sentences are longer and more fluid; subsequently, there is more animation, shorter textual units, increased velocity.

Feshareki Rupert Earl.jpgShiva Feshareki. Photo credit: Rupert Earl.

I suggest that, while Shiva feels her conception of ‘sculptured sound’ is something new, one witnesses such ‘sound-worlds’ - the communication of lives, minds and hearts that are defined by the sonic architecture of voiced experience - in music from Monteverdi to the composers of the modern-day. I mention Richard Strauss’s early operas, Salome and Elektra, Schonberg’s Erwartung, as well as the work of Stockhausen and others who developed concepts of spatialization, not only in electronic music: after all, Stockhausen called for new kinds of concert halls to be built, ‘suited to the requirements of spatial music’. Shiva agrees that Stockhausen’s aesthetic is relevant to her own work; but she seeks a simpler, more ‘stripped back’ form of expression, one which communicates more directly. And, she explains that the music of James Tenney - in particular his conception of the psychology of sound, and his use of text - has exerted a stronger influence on her own work.

We come back to the varied components which will contribute to the audience’s experience of Unknown, Remembered. Haroon Mirza’s The Last Tape was first presented in VIVID’s garage space in Birmingham’s industrial Eastside district in 2010, and comprises film and sculpture, bringing sound and light together to form a literal and metaphorical electric current which is kinetic and immersive. An actor-musician, Richard ‘Kid’ Strange, reinterprets Beckett’s last play - in which the protagonist, Krapp, looks back at the events of his life as recorded onto tape - using previously unrecorded lyrics written by Ian Curtis; Mirza’s film presents Strange enacting the lyrics onto magnetic tape as the actor engages with audible sounds created by accompanying sculptures. The latter include furniture, radio and an LCD screen, as well as turntables which Shiva herself will manipulate, in an improvised fashion, during the video.

Unknown, Remembered is described by the Spitalfields Festival as being ‘site-specific’ although Shiva explains that while the relationship between sound and movement is always ‘specific’ to a performance venue, this aspect is not the starting-point for the projected evening performance. It’s important to create a work that is fluid; that can sustain and develop a ‘life’ as it moves through time and across space. Each repetition of Haroon’s installation involves an exploration of context and fresh experimentation and interaction.

And, then, there’s Handel, whose dramatic soliloquy will also part of the aesthetic mix. Emotions such as love and anger, betrayal and anger, seem to hover over the diverse components. But, if I’m honest, I’m both bewildered and fascinated as to how the parts might form a ‘whole’. I guess I will have to let go of concepts such as coherence and submit to immediacy and interaction, dialogue and dialectic, though Shiva - who leaves me to head to the first staged rehearsal of Unknown, Remembered - is still herself to see how the various parts might speak to each other and embody sonically and spatially expressive architectural forms. She speaks too of her appreciation of the unusually broad expanse of time that has been available to develop, create and rehearse Unknown, Remembered.

For those who want a foretaste and further explication, there’s an insight event at 4.15pm at Chapel Royal of St. Peter Ad Vincula, HM Tower of London at which at which Handel’s La Lucrezia will be performed, and when André de Ridder, director Marco Štorman and Shiva Feshareki will host a Q&A session. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for my cogitations after the performance on Sunday 9th December.

Claire Seymour

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