Tag Archives: song

Performance magic

Sometimes, when you take a piece out and perform it, it does not go as planned. Sometimes, there is magic in the moment and the whole nature of the piece and your relationship with it can change. I’m not talking here about things that go wrong, or things that come up when you are under-prepared, but the way in which a space, an audience or an atmosphere can radically change a piece.

When you learn and practice a piece – be that a song, story, tune or poem – you’ll bring certain emotional tones to it. Much of what you bring will be about your feelings for the piece itself and what it evokes in you. Context can shift that – the mood of an audience, the impact of the performance space and so forth. I’ve done a little bit of singing in churches and those are massively unpredictable spaces for me, and I’m never sure how that kind of setting will shift how I perform.

The acoustics of a place can have considerable impact on performance. The differences between singing in a cave, and in a windy field are enormous. Some places invite you to slow down, to linger, while others encourage livelier performances. Some places you can use your voice quietly and still be heard. Some performance spaces can only be shouted into. This can mean you are working against the vibe of your piece, but sometimes it’s a magical shift that brings the material alive in new ways.

Sometimes it’s all about the audience. It’s effective to dig in with whatever suits the collective mood. Some audiences don’t respond well to certain tones and feelings. The feminist fury that gets you a ‘hell yes’ in one place may fall in awkward silence in another. Some audiences respond well to bawdy humour, others less so. The presence of a child in a room can encourage you to skip hastily over some kinds of detail.

One of my best audience moments was in a poem where I made a joke about bestiality, and the one dog in the room picked that moment to emit one loud bark!

I find it’s best not to fight these things. Going with what happens in a space, in a moment, with an audience gets powerful results, while fighting it seldom works.


All hands to the decks

This song is a collaboration with Penny Blake, who you can find on Patreon –  https://www.patreon.com/blakeandwight or over here – https://blakeandwight.com/ 

The song lyrics come from  Penny’s fabulous novel – The Curious Adventures of Smith and Skarry, Book 1, which you can find on Amazon.  I reviewed it here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/the-curious-adventures-of-smith-and-skarry-a-review/  

The whole thing is rather steampunk, with tea, pirates, and so forth so we decided to dress up for the occasion. Tom is frequently a tea pirate.

Tune by me, with singing in by Tom Brown and James Weaselgrease.

I don’t do much cosplay, but this is also me having a go at being Max – a gender complicated being from the same book. I need to buy a wig.


Green woodpeckers

This year, green woodpeckers have nested somewhere in the vicinity of my flat, and as a consequence, most days I hear their chuckling call many times over. When it first started, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing – although I had my suspicions! Being able to pair bird sightings with the specific call I can now recognise them with confidence, adding to the small selection of birds I know by sound.

Learning bird calls and songs is an interesting process, not least because most birds have a repertoire. They have territorial songs, and songs they use to check in with their mates or family members. They have alarm cries and some have specific noises they make when trying to drive off a perceived threat. Young birds have their own calls – especially ones who are out of the nest and not with their parents all the time. The song of ‘I’m over here and I’m hungry’ that isn’t so very different from what teenage humans do.

Getting to know a bird’s song and their various calls means that you can tell something of what’s going on with the feathery neighbours even when you can’t see them. When the leaves are on the trees, small birds are much harder to spot, so being able to tell who is around and doing what from sound alone can be a great help.

Bird song is so much more than charming background music. It is a constant stream of conversation and information, and being able to listen in to that to any degree, is magical indeed.


Inhabiting the song

If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.

Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.

I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.

Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.

For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.

 


A seasonal song from Hopeless Maine

As a young human I sang in the school choir, so Christmas Carols featured every year. Most of them I don’t much like but there are some with good tunes. I like seasonal material from the folk tradition, and I mostly don’t like putting Pagan words into Christian songs.

This is not a Christmas song. Hopeless Maine doesn’t really do Christmas – not least because there are some serious disputes on the island about what the date is, which calendar to use, and so forth.  They do celebrate not being dead.

 

The folk tradition taught me that when people migrate, they take their songs and stories with them, but those songs and stories change. So, this is what has happened to Christmas Carols when the people who know them are shipwrecked onto a weird and fairly inhospitable fictional island off the coast of Maine…

 


For the dead but not forgotten

Here’s a recent video of mine.

The words are part of a Samhain song I wrote years ago, which is mostly about a dumb supper. As I wanted to film in a graveyard, it made sense to me to just focus on this one bit of the song. To be a voice for the departed. The graveyard is in Woodchester, and the square area that has no graves is the site of the Woodchester mosaic – which spends most of its time covered up for its own protection. I’ve never seen it. I live in hope. I finished with a yew tree (on the offchance anyone is watching this who hasn’t seen one before).

I’m very new to working with a camera, but really interested in it. All I have is a tablet and none of the fancy kit that proper film makers use to get smooth shots. I am never going to get smooth shots, but that means my filming becomes about what happens with my body in a space, how I dance the space and dance with the camera. I’m going to dig into that as there’s no point trying to go the other way.

I sang all the lines in quick succession, separate to filming and mashed them together in garage band.

This is the sort of thing I’ve been able to do, and felt inspired to do because of my Patreon folk. So, a big thanks to everyone who has been supporting me. Obviously, if you’d like to pile in to that, I would appreciate it, but this blog is free, and I welcome anyone who wants to be here.

https://www.patreon.com/NimueB


Raised upon these hills

This is a song I wrote this year, very much inspired by the landscape I grew up in, and reflecting on my relationship with it. My Druidry is very much rooted in my land – the edge of the Cotswolds and the Severn vale, some of which you can see in this video.

The video itself was originally shot for a Pagan Disabilities festival.

I put the two together about a month ago as an offering to my Patreon folk. There’s a lot to learn about making videos, and its something I want to invest more time in, putting words, spoken or sung, music, images, films together in effective ways. My next Patreon goal is to get to the point where I can make at least a video per month, my theory being that if I do enough of it, I’ll be able to do a better job of it! I’m www.patreon.com/NimueB


Bardic Magic – collaboration

There are a number of aspects to bardic magic, but I think inspiration and the flow of it in a creative context lies at the heart of the experience. If you’ve set out to walk the bard path, creativity obviously speaks to you already, but how does a person take that up a level?

Working with other people offers some options. For me, just being around people whose work I find exciting and inspiring can have a huge effect. Being in a space where other people are being creative – be that a workshop or something less formal – can be an encouragement to create. Having people to share your own creativity with can be an incentive to get busy.

Doing creative things with people is really interesting stuff. I’m going to write about singing just to give it a focus, but from experience anything you can do collectively will create similar possibilities, although I think collective singing has a particular magic of its own.

There’s an intimacy, and a sense of involvement when you put voices together – as true for chanting protest slogans as it is for songs. There’s a real sense of being together. Any participation will give you that if you are open to it.

When people are skilled and experienced, they can fall into singing together really easily – improvising together, playing with the playing. This can be possible just from a depth of musical experience. It can be a powerful and moving experience to share with people in this way.

However, sometimes, for reasons that defy explanations, something amazing happens. It’s not always about the quality of music produced – although often the results are beyond what could have been expected. People sing together, and something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts. For me, it’s a sense that the music is coming from somewhere else, as though between them, the people involved have opened a doorway into magic. A sense of enchantment enters the song. It’s hard to put into words what is, for me, a deeply numinous experience.

When music becomes magic, it’s a soul nourishing, heart lifting sort of thing. I’ve been blessed, in my past, with two long term musical collaborations that reliably had this effect, and I’ve sung and played with a few other people where magic showed up.

So, how to do it? It’s not the sort of thing that can be reached by any kind of mechanical process, but it is about having your heart open, and being willing to be open to the people or person you are singing with. Willing to bare your soul, and give everything of yourself, and open to their baring of soul, their complete giving.


The Burning Times

The first time I heard the song The Burning Times, I was a teenager at Bromyard Folk Festival. By the end of the second verse, I was in tears. It’s a powerful song. Especially that second verse, about how the Pope declared the Inquisition, and 9 million European women died as a consequence, mostly burned to death, apart from those in the last lines of verse 2 ‘and the tale is told of those who, by the hundreds, holding hands together sought their deaths in the sea, singing in the praises of the mother goddess, a refusal of betrayal, women were dying to be free.’ It took me a long time to learn it, because singing it reduced me to tears.

In my twenties, I started reading more seriously about Paganism, and it didn’t take me long to start finding a lot of reasons to question the Burning Times myth. In the UK, we tended to hang witches, not burn them. The Inquisition was mostly about Christian heretics. There weren’t enough people in mediaeval Europe for a death toll of 9 million to make sense. The whole argument for smooth continuation of witchcraft practice coupled with witch burning doesn’t stack up properly. Whatever happened, verse 2 of the Burning Times isn’t it.

I took to doing a short history note before singing the song. But it bothered me, because this is a myth that isn’t, I think doing us any favours.

This autumn, out of the blue, a thought came to me. The Burning Times is now. And so I re-wrote the second verse.

 

If you aren’t familiar with the original, you can hear it here – https://youtu.be/RsNmJ7GKOUQ


How voices change stories

All stories, be they written, spoken or sung, imply a voice. When a story is spoken, read or sung, there is of course an actual voice airing the implied one. I’m fascinated by how this changes the story itself.

Many folk songs imply the narrator of a story – all too often they start something like ‘as I roved out one morning, all in the early spring, I overheard…’ separating the singer from the story to be told so that gender and age don’t impact on the telling. Not all folk songs are about voyeurism, many are told in the first person, and the actions of that person imply gender. Pregnant and abandoned lamenting women aside, gender in folk songs isn’t always straightforward. If a lass sings a song about how her lad went off and got killed in a war, the song sounds very straight. If a chap sings it, we might not be clear if he’s singing on behalf of the female narrator in the song, or if he’s singing it as a gay lover mourning for the lost soldier boy.

There are a lot of folk songs about girls who ‘dress in man’s apparel’ and run off to join the army, follow lovers across oceans, or who are just there for the sheer hell of it. The songs themselves make it clear that the surface appearance of the character is not always the whole story.

In this last week, John Holland and I have been picking stories for Stroud Short story competition, at the end of which we found out who had written what. I noted that my perception of the narrator was not always correct – there were two occasions where I’d inferred a male voice, but the writer was female, and several where I hadn’t know either way. Some of those stories will be different stories to the ones I first read, because of the gender shift. It will alter where the sympathies seem to lie, and that will be decidedly interesting to hear.

Gender plays a big role in how we perceive each other, and it features heavily in the stories we tell. It’s the most obvious way in which a voice can change a story. Accents can also have an impact, especially if there’s a class or racial aspect to a story. Something profoundly working class voiced in an upper class voice might easily sound condescending. Voicing someone of a different ethnicity can easily turn into a racist caricature. Putting a voice to a story when the voice does not seem to match the story at all, can create new possibilities, opening the way to different takes on what the story means and changing what it can reflect. I think this is one of the reasons people keep putting Shakespeare plays into different cultures, times and places – the stories can be caused to say something different if you change the voices expressing them.

Do we put on voices to create an effect when voicing a story, or do we use our own voices, and let the impact of that voice  – whatever it is, and however it fits or clashes with the material, do what it does in a more naturalistic way? And of course even if you use your own voice in all things, the choice of material you make will decide whether you’re playing to type, or pushing at the edges in some way in order to let a whole new story in.