How does a society survive, recover or even understand the impact of a World War?
The devastation, the overwhelming loss of life, human potential, lives unrealised, the ancestries and legacies discontinued. One hundred years on, the echoes of such an experience can still be felt in the telling of family histories and the mythologies of communities.
But when one starts to look closely it’s also felt in the gaping absences of certain cultural perseverances especially that of the folk traditions and songs dependent on that missing generation for its perpetuation.
First World War recruits outside Town Hall; a temporary recruitment station. Image: Library of Birmingham
This became a very pertinent subject for the group of us exploring the material and songs of that period searching out how folk song may have existed in the minds of young soldiers torn from their homeland. This project became a journey into the acoustic and emotional experiences that defined so many lives. Those of soldiers and of the families, friends and lovers left behind.
We searched for testimonials, poems, songs and folk material that had been affected by, written by or augmented in the period before, during and after the war. We devised material inspired by the idea of young men going to battle carrying the memories of their own community’s traditions and songs that had been in the family repertoire. Songs that may not have returned or been lost to the battle field never to be heard again. We drew from local melodies, tales, traditions and anecdotes, teasing the familiarity of the old world with a sense of this industrial social shift.
Acoustically the sounds we had to introduce were that of the old world meeting the new world; in all its vast sonic expansion. Strings and brass meeting concertinas and mandolins as young ploughmen would have met the machinery of war, the big and the small, the local and the global.
Within this confrontation of textures and soundscapes comes the heart of our work, a snapshot of the millions of lives each unique with a tragedy or a miracle or no memory willing to be shared at all. Such is the vastness and the emptiness of our task; and in some ways the results of our creation. We’ve explored the war as a sonorous leviathan resplendent with pomp and bravado and then honed in on the mouse like cries of vulnerability and desperation.
The process was hard but humbling, heart wrenching and at times desperate but always with a sense of privilege to be given the responsibility of depicting such a powerful experience. And a responsibility it was.
We are never ones to shy away from dark material, us Unthanks and Lees and the whole ensemble to that matter, but here was a well of emotion that fell so deep and wide as to sometimes feel like no bottom could ever be felt, no light enough could ever illuminate its sides and no water enough could fill it.
This concert is but a mere cupped handful of what we could fetch and is but a glass raised to those who shared their stories with us along the way and those whose lives are all but stories now and need remembering.
- Sam Lee
A Time and Place – Musical Meditations on the First World War(world premiere)
7.30pm Wednesday 17 September 2014
Town Hall Birmingham
Sam Lee, Rachel and Becky Unthank. Image: Sarah Mason
Co-produced by: sounduk, Barbican and Opera North..
In partnership with Town Hall Birmingham.
Funded by: Arts Council England and PRS For Music Foundation.
Part of: Imperial War Museums First World War Centenary