Return to the Voice

Aug 11 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩  Another world

Summerhall @ St Giles (Venue 187) Thu 7 – Mon 25 Aug 2014

Tuneful, dramatic, and frankly baffling, Return To The Voice is a memorable musical experience.

Created by Polish-based company Song Of The Goat and produced by Summerhall, this is very much at home in the historic surroundings of St Giles.

Return to the Voice. Photo: Robbie Jack

Return to the Voice. Photo: Robbie Jack

The music is based on archive recordings from the School of Scottish Studies, but the company are at pains to stress that it these provide the inspiration rather than a template to be slavishly followed. They are also keen to stress that the multinational ensemble are by no means Gaelic speakers.

This is brought into sharp relief by the performance being opened with a short set by young, real-life Gaelic singers, who provide a stark contrast to the Polish-based company.

From the beginning, director Grzegorz Bral ensures that there is as much of a theatrical as musical element. The twelve-strong ensemble seem to be alternately encouraging and forbidding one another, with urgent hand-waving, forbidding glances and grouping and regrouping on stage. There appears to be some kind of narrative behind it but the meaning is entirely opaque – perhaps deliberately so, as the whole performance seems designed to be interpreted sensually rather than logically.

combines the mysterious and the visceral

There are six female singers in subtly different off-white dresses and impressive platform sandals. They and the six males, in long coats and cloaks, look partly as if they have escaped from some half-remembered, half-imagined past, and partly as if they have come from a sci-fi film. The singing is largely unaccompanied – aside from a touch of harmonium, bagpipes and what look like horns stolen from a kind of dinosaur – and, when the whole ensemble sing together, there is a power which combines the mysterious and the visceral.

Return to the Voice under St Giles East Window. Photo: Robbie Jack

Return to the Voice under St Giles East Window. Photo: Robbie Jack

The words of the songs offer few clues to understanding. Some of it is English, but consists of repeated phrases which give no elucidation. Some of it is obviously Gaelic, but much of it is transformed into something otherworldly and may as well be Martian.

Maciej Rychly and Jean Claude Acquaviva’s music draws inspiration from a wide variety of styles and areas. There is a duet which seems most recognisably Gaelic, evoking Western Isles psalm singing, but there is also a section which seems more like Portuguese fado.

These moments perhaps demonstrate what the evening, impressive and inscrutable as it may be, is lacking. The problem is not that the polyphonic singing of the ensemble is alien to the Gaelic tradition – it is well done, whether evoking Bach or Meredith Monk. The problem is that it is sometimes a little too smooth. It is impressive, but there is none of that emotional release in the listener, that hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling, like the saudade of fado or what the great singing family the Stewarts of Blair call the Conyach.

They come closest to this when the wild-haired musician weighs in with his  sierszenki or ‘hornet’, droneless, buzzing Polish bagpipes whose abandoned style contrasts with the ensemble and most effectively evokes the ghosts of long ago the music is honouring.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
Summerhall @ St Giles, St Giles, The Royal Mile, EH1 1RE (Venue 187)
7-9, 16, 18-19, 21, 25 August at 9.00 pm
13-15, 20 August at 10.30 pm
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