March 2016

I was thrilled to be invited to join poets Chris Meade, Kirsten Irving and Sasha Dugdale to perform in an evening of music and poetry in translation, with the wonderful Academy Inegales, directed by Peter Wiegold (see, as part of the club’s ‘Found in Translation’ series.

In the first half, we performed ‘chains’: a translated poem, translated into a piano piece, translated into Korean flute, translated into a new poem, translated into electronic music; and so on. In the second half, the ‘band of translators’ sat onstage alongside the Academy band, and experimented with improvising, as if their voices and words were additional instruments in the band.

We all had a great time. And it got everyone thinking. What is the way forward for music and poetry in collaboration?

Spoken word is a strange instrument, and I’m not sure it can ever work the same way as a musical instrument (or a sung voice, which can). If you’re singing, any verbal sound has lift, that’s why scat works, and doesn’t need anything else. Four voices singing together make a quartet. Four voices speaking together make… what? Noise? What you start with is an interesting texture, but it can soon become tedious: how can you use it to move an audience to tears the way a piece of music, or a poem can? How can music and spoken words come together in a way that makes an audience listen to them both as equal partners?

I like the idea of finding bridging structures. Or somehow borrowing or maybe even inventing a tradition (such as Corsica’s chjam’è rispondi, a form of poetic jousting), where speakers/singers extemporize and improvise within a formal metrical and musical structure.

I wonder if spoken (as opposed to sung) words do need to communicate sense to be musical and whole, as otherwise they risk becoming an empty texture, something anti-musical, like interference (a different effect)? So strategies need to be developed that allow the words to be understood, to use sense as part of their box of acoustic tricks, as rap does.

I’m hoping further opportunities will arise to explore all of this, somewhere, somehow…

In the meantime, you can catch the Academy and Peter Wiegold, and others, performing Purcell’s King Arthur at Spitalfields Festival in June.