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Sonatas, Rituals and Folksong

Artists: Igor Yakovenko, Kate Huggett, Nwando Ebizie, Rosa van Hensbergen, Sam Walton

Series: Residencies

Ideas explored: developing new work, music and theatre, sound design

Sam Walton meets artists working at Snape Maltings on three projects on our Residencies programme.

On a humdrum February Friday lunchtime, back when the world still felt relatively normal, the lone figure of Nwando Ebizie — multi-disciplinary artist, curator, and sometime DJ — is spotted sprinting across an otherwise deserted Snape Maltings car park, her hair wrapped in a towel. Hugging her long jacket around her to ward off the driving rain, head down and determined, she grins slightly as she runs, as if to acknowledge the strangeness of the scene: after all, beneath her coat, Ebizie is dressed only in swimwear, not on account of this afternoon’s torrential downpour but because of a “hammam” bathing ceremony that she is leading today as part of her week-long residency at Snape. She just had to pop out, from one Biblical shower to another, to get something from her car; now, it’s back to the ritual cleansing.

Across the site, in one of Snape’s smaller performance spaces, Russian pianist and composer Igor Yakovenko works alone in semi-darkness, the only light provided by the midday gloom creeping in through high-set window panes. In front of twenty empty rows of tiered seats, he leans over a grand piano, testing out dreamily impressionist runs and dense augmented chords in a systematically inquisitive manner that almost suggests he’s panning the 88 keys before him for musical gold. He pauses occasionally to make a mark on some manuscript paper; the rest of the time, he just plays, steadily, singing along to himself like Glenn Gould from time to time, but otherwise the picture of quiet Muscovite seriousness. Yakovenko has been doing this, off and on, for the past four weeks, as part of his compositional practice while resident at Snape.

Meanwhile, 20 miles up the coast across the pancake-flat planes of Suffolk, on the other side of the Sizewell nuclear power plant that dominates the landscape, and just inland from the bleak winter beaches of Southwold, singer Kate Huggett and writer Rosa van Hensbergen stand peacefully in Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh. As they gaze up at the ornately carved ceiling, discussing the acoustics of the 15th-century building with sound engineer Jon Hart, sunlight abruptly streams through the stained glass at the far end of the church. As the aisle fills with afternoon light, Huggett begins to sing a folk tune that, melodically at least, resembles the traditional My Bonnie Boy. The lyrics, however, diverge from the recognised standard and into a new, experimental text by van Hensbergen who, by now, is perched on a pew, notepad in hand. After an hour or two of testing the nuances of different melodies and lyrics, making recordings and taking notes about different acoustic treatments, the pair head back to their base in the Jerwood Kiln at Snape Maltings, where they have spent their week as resident artists investigating the relationship between text and song.

This trio of scenes, on a humdrum February Friday, back before the phrase “social distancing” entered the common lexicon, this broad display of artistic study and exploration, is exactly what the Snape Maltings residency programme has become accustomed to; in short, all this is completely par for the course, as residents come and go weekly. On the other hand, though, zoom out for a moment and it is also utterly non-normal: after all, where else in the country could you expect these wildly differing practices to mingle, side by side and subsidised?

This is the story of that place, the story of those practices, and, perhaps most poignantly, the story of how diverse musical ideas, concentrated into time and space and in-the-flesh interaction, can bring such productivity, less than three weeks before the very idea of such comings together started to feel like social taboo.

“this broad display of artistic study and exploration is exactly what the Snape Maltings residency programme has become accustomed to”

The Dovecote Studio is the smallest building on the Snape Maltings campus, no more than 15 foot across in any direction. Freestanding on the threshold of the marshes, it consists of the derelict brick walls of a Victorian pigeon shelter, with a two-storey steel shell aping the original building slotted perfectly inside the ruin’s footprint, like a smaller Russian doll inside the bottom half of its host. Inside, it feels far more spacious than its diminutive exterior promises: double-height and lined with pale spruce, two huge skylights give it the feel of the outside inside, and, next to a small mezzanine platform, a window looks out over the reeds towards the sea.

From this platform, Igor Yakovenko is putting the finishing touches to a quadraphonic sound installation of local field recordings — birdsong and wind through the reeds, but also the buzzing of tractors — that he has been developing during his residency. He assembled his collage of sounds based specifically on their peculiarity, at least to his ears. “When I first took a long walk here, I was surprised by how the sounds of the forest are different to the Russian ones,” he explains. “The birds are different and the reeds are different, so I began to record these sounds, and designed and ordered them. I can make music from these sounds, and you can hear it, but every experience will differ because these are the sorts of sounds that are filtered by our hearing: I’m interested in some particular elements of those sounds, and you’re interested in other elements. In the end, I want the installation to be on a loop, constant, like birds — it’s singing and you just get used to it.”

Finished with the set-up, he pushes play on a MacBook hidden in one corner of the room, and the studio fills with transporting natural noise. “It’s like an electronic diary of me being here,” he muses. “Everything I’ve heard, I recorded.”

Such an approach is relatively new to Yakovenko, who’s more accustomed to composing at the piano. But he’s using his residency at Snape to try multiple things: “When I’m composing music for the piano, it’s more about the music coming outside from inside of me, but when I’m doing field recordings, it’s like outside music coming inside,” he suggests. “This period,” he continues, thinking about the residency, “was when I wanted to incorporate both: the nature here has made me think and extract myself from everything, and just concentrate on my own thoughts and to do things that I really wanted to do. When you are surrounded by other people, they want to consult you somehow about what you’re going to do, but in this situation it’s more pure: I didn’t consult anyone, and I just did what I wanted!”

That environment of positive self-indulgence has led him over the past month to create things as free-thinking as a satirical “fake” sonata, which caricatures the phoneyism of social media, and just today, on the second-last day of his stay, he’s had another idea: “I would like to come back here again,” he says, “because I have just had an idea about Britten, about the composer’s signature.” Part of Yakovenko’s time here has been spent at the Red House, the Aldeburgh home of Snape Maltings founder Benjamin Britten, and Yakovenko’s exploration of the composer’s archive there has sparked his inner detective: “There are certain things that reveal, in one second, a composer,” he continues. “For Wagner it’s the Tristan chord, for Scriabin it’s the Prometheus chord, and I’ve been trying to find that in Britten’s music — I’ve found several chords that move from one piece to another, and I’d like to find the definitive one.” He pauses to ponder the possibilities. “I could then make an installation that’s five or six minutes on one chord, exploring this chord, or a sound design piece where it will be explored in a different way.” In the 1960s, Britten began a famously fruitful relationship with one Russian, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; perhaps a second posthumous one is on the way.

A similar combination of historical research with modern interpolation imbues the work of Nwando Ebizie. For her week in residence, she’s putting on her composer and curator hat to continue a project that’s already four years old, called Hildegard: Visions. The title alludes to Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun who’s known not only for her extensive musical composition practice, but also for being a religious visionary, and it’s the latter characteristic that interests our resident. Ebizie has a neuro-perceptual condition called visual snow, in which sufferers report seeing something akin to analogue TV white noise overlaid on their field of vision, and wonders if Hildegard experienced something similar: “I’ve been thinking about Hildegard’s visions,” Ebizie begins. “The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written that he thought she had migraines, and points to certain writings that mention falling stars and things that could be visual snow. But while I think it’s too simple to posthumously diagnose somebody, I’m interested in the idea that if you have disabilities — if you are neurodivergent — it’s useful to look at others who are, and be inspired by that and use that creatively.”

“this kind of residency creates space to stop putting limitations on yourself”

Ebizie is also on the autism spectrum, and, accordingly, has been trying to understand Hildegard, whom she views as a kindred spirit, as a means to understand herself and her surroundings. In that process, however, Hildegard’s actual music takes a back seat to what Ebizie describes as the nun’s “ecstatic transformations” that she underwent when receiving her visions. “I’m generally interested in ecstatic experiences, and when I read what Hildegard wrote, her sensory transformations are what struck a chord”, she explains. “So the work is inspired by her. One of the points of the work is to create spaces where people can have those transcendent experiences. But we live in a society where we don’t have shared belief systems and are quite often coming from different subcultures, so the question is: how do you create that?”

Ebizie’s answer? Indirectly, the Snape residency. For one, the hammam ritual that she’s been performing with a parade of music and dance collaborators, which, she argues, encourages the kind of spiritual letting-go and visceral multisensory interaction that elicits a state of transcendence, is something she’d have only been able to do while here. “I think this kind of residency creates space to stop putting limitations on yourself,” she enthuses. “I wanted to record this hammam experience, and then realising that I could just ask for that and we could just do it — that was like ‘wow’. It was something that, had I not been here, I might’ve thought was just a pipedream.”

She talks glowingly about how the recordings have allowed her subsequently to write a piece for “hammam, voice, stone, skin, oil and water”, and if that sounds fairly mind-expanding, the following afternoon’s session in the Britten Studio — a triple-height, cavernous but acoustically perfect room in the heart of the Maltings complex — is positively interplanetary. Across a period of three or so hours, Ebizie encourages her dancers initially to explore every inch of the space in a pursuit of almost yogic mindfulness, as cosmic jazz Rhodes piano tinkles in the background. Then she leads her colleagues into a series of abstract balletic movements where she invites everyone to go on their own spiritual journey. “Take your time. This is fourth-dimension stuff,” she implores, as the shuffling of feet gives way to ecstatic laughing designed to free every last inhibition, every last trapped spirit of the soul.

After the last cackle dies away, the hush in the hall is quite transfixing, and Ebizie leans into it, seeming to strain her ears to gather up all the quiet she can. There then follows a group discussion about vowel sounds and vocal technique, touching on everything from castrato singers to Lizzo; throughout, the sense that Ebizie is revelling in all this creative space and freedom is palpable. “This week has been a really good reminder to not let the little voice in my head go ‘no you should be doing this and hitting this target and writing this amount’,” she says, afterwards. “No! I should be entertaining ideas that are a bit weird, because that’s my process, and those are the ideas that I have.”

“That’s the thing that residencies give you,” agrees Rosa van Hensbergen, taking a break from practice sessions on a Thursday morning to discuss the week with her colleague Kate Huggett. “It’s a combination of space and time, which are productive, because you can spend a long time just hanging out in your rooms, playing with ideas and chatting, so there’s that very practical dimension to it.” The pair are spending the week initiating a project whose working title is The Pickers, telling the tale of Suffolk women through the ages who have picked up and taken something from the area, be it herring-picker women arriving from Scotland, migrant farm workers or, more recently, singers such as Anne Briggs picking up and carrying folk songs through the county. Their aim, alongside this theme, is to create songs that feel like more than just sung words: “If I’m singing a line,” asks Huggett, “how do I move honestly from something that would normally be spoken, or something that you’d read in your head? How do you translate that feeling into something where music and song and melody can play? It’s that relationship we’re trying to bridge.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a geographically specific project, then, its Snape and the surrounding countryside that is most informing their work at this embryonic stage: they talk enthusiastically about the local folk tradition, and the ability to visit specific places of interest, as well as the liminal nature of the East Anglian coastline and its correspondences with that of the low countries of northern Europe. Thus, their days have been spent off site, exploring the area, from 15th-century churches such as Holy Trinity to decommissioned industrial buildings along the coast, with Sizewell power station their holy grail — not least because of the nuclear plant’s useful ability to arrest any slip into over-sentimentality: “One of the things about coastlines in folk music is that that it’s a very tired subject, and you can risk becoming twee,” admits van Hensbergen. “Here, though, one of the interruptions, visual and sonic, is Sizewell — a different kind of environment that eliminates the possibility of it just being this romantic vista.

“There’s zero twee about a nuclear reactor,” adds Huggett with a laugh, “so also there’s room for us to maybe try to think about how things aren’t too neat emotionally, or how things don’t fit into a nice happy place.”

Ultimately, though, for the pair, this part of the country has one unique characteristic that makes it so creatively attractive: it’s a geographic dead end, with no passing trade. “There’s a sense of this part of England being somewhere that you don’t go through to get anywhere else,” explains Huggett, “so there’s an element that still feels like it’s a bit from a lost time, great and independent, which I love. For me, that feels like the strongest pull.”

“Having to go to a place — that’s a big element”, agrees van Hensbergen, expanding on why that cul-de-sac feeling makes coming to Snape for a week so appealing. “Making an effort to go somewhere makes it a special place, because you don’t just stumble across it. And when people have invested time and effort to get somewhere, they want to make things special.

Indeed, approaching Snape Maltings from inland, on that metaphorical road to nowhere, with the landscape growing ever emptier, there’s a sense of the place as a sort of cultural oasis where the imagination-sapping drudgery of real life just doesn’t exist, a hothouse for exotic musical plants that radiates into the surrounding area such that the local population seems as engaged in the artistic creativity happening here as its temporary residents. As visitors and performers, technicians and programmers come and go from the site over the week, the sense of artistic cross-pollination and interaction is as heart-warming as it is undeniable. On Thursday 19th March, along with scores of other arts centres up and down the UK, Snape closed its doors to the public for the foreseeable future in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Before then, on humdrum February Fridays, back when the world still felt relatively normal, the residency programme here was an entirely uplifting and inspiring initiative. Now, in our unexpected moment of government-imposed, police-patrolled self-isolation, with the medium for creative conversation restricted to the screen you’re currently looking at, such a programme feels more needed than ever.

“it’s Snape and the surrounding countryside that is most informing their work at this embryonic stage”