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Vocal Mobbing & Prelanguage


An interview with Damien Ricketson, composer of The Howling Girls
By Pierce Wilcox

The first thing Damien Ricketson does is shatter my notion of the composer as a driven scribbler cooped up in their ivory tower.  ‘It hasn’t been one of those situations where I sit in my bedroom, concoct a score, then it gets handed to a director,’ the composer of The Howling Girls tells me. He sees the entire project as a co-creation between him and director Adena Jacobs, where the typical division of labour is blurred; she was on board from the beginning, and he’s still in the room playing a creative role as the project moves into staging rehearsals.

They were in sync from the beginning, he explains, with a shared interest building a opera that took on the human voice itself. He tells me they were interested in ‘what it means to have a voice: both literally as in the singing voice, and politically as in agency.’ Their early ideas shared this common thread, covering everything from Ophelia’s moment of drowning in Hamlet being exploded out into an ‘aquatic howl against her situation’ to the Slavic myth of Rusalka, familiar in pop culture from The Little Mermaid, ‘again about a girl having to sacrifice her voice in order to fulfil her desires.’

The work crystallised when both Damien and Adena read Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, which includes the infamous story of five girls presenting at hospitals in post-9/11 New York City unable to speak for no medical reason. ‘We’d both been reading this book through the Trump election campaign,’ Damien tells me. ‘It seemed a very terrifying end point for this book.’

Written in 2007, Faludi’s book seems to foreshadow the direction an anxious America and the West would take through to the present. ‘She [Faludi] tracks how female commentary just… shrinks in the years in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and how the mythology of this John Wayne type, cowboy-cum-fireman, your Strong-Jawed Man, is put back to the fore as the protector and the saviour.’ For Adena and Damien, it gave shape to their ideas and yoked them to a feminist political undercurrent. ‘It’s associated with this whole notion of having a voice, losing your voice, and trying to regain your voice.’

Damien goes out of his way to assure me that they’re not telling the story of these girls, or any story as you’d conventionally define it. ‘There’s no narrative, there’s no libretto, there’s no orchestra! A lot of the foundations of what you might call opera are not there.’

It’s easy to imagine this as difficult, cerebral art – the terror of every marketing department – but Damien is going for the opposite. ‘It’s an attempt to create a music that almost bypasses the brain and acts directly on the body. In terms of an audience experience, it’s… direct, visceral, primal.’ Not everyone has the cultural references to process the depths of some avant-garde performance, but everyone knows what it’s like to scream.

‘There’s a choking cadenza!’ He almost laughs at this sentence, previously unuttered in human history. He wants the audience to feel like they’re part of Jane Sheldon, the brave soprano who has trained in specific breathing techniques to handle the demands of this piece. ‘I turned to many non verbal vocalisations that you typically associate with high emotional arousal: howling, but also sobbing, moaning, crying…. Laughter’s one as well. That doesn’t make much of an appearance,’ he admits.

None of these are language, but they all communicate in the most expressive manner, which is something humans might have done long before the invention of words. Damien tells me about ‘vocal mobbing’, a theorised mode of pre-language. ‘People used to sing in this great, throbbing, almost cicada-like chanting as a means of creating a sonic shell around themselves,’ which might have warded off potential threats.

Communication without language is a paradox he’s excited to live inside, in a work full of paradoxes. ‘I’ve been working in this contradictory space of using a lot of involuntary sounds, but in a highly controlled, composed kind of way…. On one hand it’s very abstract, without narrative, but there is also a very literal directness about it.’

I ask him about another paradox: a composer who leaves gaps in their work. He’s always been interested in creating incomplete or open works, on the principle that it’s provocative to the imagination, both of his collaborators and his audiences.

‘The ruins of the ancient city, or a secret code… it’s exactly the missing knowledge that excites the brain to try to fill it in, to imagine it or discover it or unlock it.’ It’s sometimes a literal theme in his work, which has in the past evoked ancient or forgotten musical conditions.

It’s also a theme he explores formally, creating scores that are open to fluidity in their interpretation. He’s excited by the way this ‘elicits a necessary creative engagement from a performer, not just a technical engagement. Trying to facilitate someone else’s imagination. I love this situation where you bounce off one another, and the composer is not the isolated lone genius in their bedroom.’

On set for The Howling Girls,Carriageworks.

‘There’s no narrative, there’s no libretto, there’s no orchestra! A lot of the foundations of what you might call opera are not there.’

The Howling Girls is the latest in a series of multi-modal pieces that emphasise the creativity of their performers and co-collaborators. Fractured Again featured a glass artist and a video artist, while The Secret Noise was a fully staged work with actors and dancers. Damien sees his first opera as an extension of these explorations, while his work as co-artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, the lauded new music ensemble, has encouraged him to treat every performer as a potential multi-instrumentalist. ‘That’s the [percussionist]’s realm… always looking at objects around them and innately curious to ask what sounds they can produce.’

It’s a curiosity he shares, and he’s written far outside the norm, creating scores for arcane, old or exotic instruments, and even experimented with building his own. The score for The Howling Girls features a set of instruments that do more than produce sound. In a playful way, they respond to the themes of the work, and offer new opportunities to stage its ideas.

There’s a theremin, played by Jack Symonds, who also serves as musical director. ‘It’s a wonderful contradiction of being a gestural, physical instrument, without ever being touched. There are associations, with [Jack] being a conductor, with the notion of sign language and attempts to communicate. The piece ends with – rather than him controlling a specific melody – an attempt at sign language.

It features an instrument with the sound of raw fear: the Aztec death whistle. Damien’s journey towards this horror started with an article about psychological responses to sound. ‘People have used sound as a tool to create fear in others. You know the German dive bombers in the Second World War? That siren-like sound when they come at you-’ he makes the neeeewwww sound familiar from old war movies- ‘it’s not natural. They put baffles on the end of their wings that, as they accelerate, catch the wind and make this terrifying sound. It was… psychological warfare. I never knew.’

In the same article was a tantalising reference to an Aztec death whistle that took him down a Google rabbit hole. ‘Thank you, Internet! A few clicks later there’s a video, and it sounds like a B-grade splatter film scream. That’s great. I’ll get a few of those.’

Even a bass drum, which to the uninitiated has one function, takes on playful new roles in this score. ‘On one level it’s an amplified surface on which things can happen, whether they be scrapes or rice dropping… to more literal kinds of things, it gets whacked when Jane has her choking cadenza. You can literally view it as someone whacking you on the back, trying to dislodge what’s in your throat. The image I had was a defibrillator – the violence that comes with resuscitation.’

These seem like surprising innovations, but for Damien the real departure was going electronic. ‘It’s not my main shtick as a composer… but it was a conscious and logical response to these themes. If it’s about being inside Jane’s body, that immediately suggests a heavily amplified aesthetic, really feeling like we’re in her throat. I want a music that works directly on the body, and one of the most obvious examples of that are those sub-frequencies where you feel it, rather than hear it.’

He’s been assisted in this electronic direction by sound designer Bob Scott. ‘I give him sounds, mock-ups, and he’s been lifting it to another level. He’s almost like an orchestrator.’

It’s a fitting closing moment of modesty and generosity for a composer who places so much emphasis on the creativity of others.

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Blog Posts

Bypassing the Rational


An interview with Adena Jacobs, director of The Howling Girls
By Pierce Wilcox

When I speak to Adena Jacobs it’s almost the end of the first week of rehearsal for The Howling Girls, and while other directors might be intimidated by the challenging first days of staging a new opera, for her it comes as a relief. The lead artists have spent so long with this project existing only in their minds. Adena and composer Damien Ricketson have worked conceptually on the project for around three years, and soprano Jane Sheldon has spent months hard at work mastering the incredible technical challenges of the score. Now, Adena says, it’s about experiencing the work in person, in their bodies, and finally ‘getting out of our heads’.

This moment has been a long time coming. SCO’s Artistic Director, Jack Symonds, played creative Cupid back in the summer of 2015 and paired Adena with Damien Ricketson with the faith that together they’d make something strange and brilliant. ‘Our initial meetings were like dating. Artistic dating!’ Adena laughs. They’d never seen each other’s work, and decided to meet up every day for a week, going to concerts, art galleries, and theatre performances, getting to know each other’s processes and what excited them as artists.

The arranged marriage stuck, and Adena speaks with enthusiasm about Damien’s approach. ‘He was from the very beginning excited to have a creative collaborator, a director, as part of the conception of the piece. I think that’s quite rare.’ They developed a collaborative style that encouraged improvisation, testing and experiment, or in one case, ‘making a bizarre instrument in your living room and showing it on Skype!’.

She didn’t know Damien’s music before starting the project, but rapidly gained an appreciation for his style. ‘His music is very open, and gives you space as the listener and as the observer in the end to experience… a series of states. It puts you through something, through an experience- and I think that’s really beautiful. It puts me in a different mode. The process of working with him is interpretive as well as generative, and he’s still willing to shift and respond and change.’ Damien has been in the room for this week of rehearsals, testimony to their ongoing creative partnership. ‘He’s in the mess of it, all the time, which is cool!’

Wizard of Oz, performed at Belvoir 2015

Like all great partnerships, they wanted the same things. ‘We wanted to do something distilled and singular, a ritual experience,’ Adena explains, in which a soprano either sang themselves hoarse or staged some kind of a ritual – of death or ecstasy.

Having a third partner in the marriage helped: they knew they were making a work for the virtuosic Jane Sheldon. Knowing that Jane was doing the piece, they came together through an idea Adena describes as ‘an extreme durational event, as performed by an extraordinary soprano.’

Adena has spent most of her career in devised theatre, creating abstract and strongly visual responses to canonical texts, everything from the Bacchae of Euripides to The Wizard of Oz. Her normal process, she tells me, starts with being attracted to a particular image inside a myth or a story, but this time was different.

Like all great partnerships, they wanted the same things. ‘We wanted to do something distilled and singular, a ritual experience,’ Adena explains, in which a soprano either sang themselves hoarse or staged some kind of a ritual – of death or ecstasy.

The Bacchae. Photo by Pia Johnson

‘I had done a series of works like that back to back, and felt a bit exhausted, and wanted to do something from a new place.’ Instead, she began with the formal principles that united her and Damien. ‘We didn’t want the work to be narrative driven… we wanted it to be pure, and distilled, and experiential.’

Knowing that, they pulled apart the ideas they’d had for Jane, and realised it all came back to the voice. The concept of de-voicing brought them to the story of the Rusalka, the Slavic water sprite who must lose her voice to become mortal and find love. You might know this as Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Adena then remembered a story she’d read about five girls who found themselves unable to speak following the 9/11 attacks, and fed that into the work. What transpired is in no way a literal telling of their story, but might echo their experience of horror, psychic anxiety, and a possible grasp for release.

It’s an idea common to much of Adena’s work, which has been preoccupied with the place of the voice and the difficulty of language. ‘Why somebody would be silent in the face of something is a mystery,’ she says, asking the question of these girls and their fellow silent witnesses through history. ‘It could be borne from a refusal or a choice, as much as a retreat, or an escape, or a sense of paralysis. Or a symptom of something that can’t be named.’

When I complain that, as a librettist, Adena’s textless opera has put me out of a job, she assures me that it’s not out of disdain for language. ‘I enjoy literature more than theatre,’ she confides. The problem, for her, is that ‘in traditional theatre our brain goes into a particular place when we hear words being spoken,’ while she wants to ‘communicate in forms that bypass the rational.’

Skipping the brain to hit you straight in the body, her work operates much like these girls and women, who are so often rendered voiceless, or when they do speak, are not listened to or believed. ‘Because the verbal becomes difficult, politically or psychologically, it’s like their body is communicating in some other way.’

Those bodies speak in ways that can’t always be controlled, which Adena knows well, having worked with young female performers multiple times. Her collaboration with teenage girls in The Bacchae was polarising and telling, with some audience members and critics focusing on the reality of these bodies far more than the ideas they were communicating. It’s an experience Adena has considered with rigorous clarity. ‘The politics of performance immediately sets up a dynamic where there’s a paying audience and figures on stage who are both the subjects and the objects. While they control many elements of the performance, they can’t control what the audience is seeing or thinking in their minds. That dynamic is inbuilt into many young women’s experiences of walking down the street, where you can perform a certain identity but you can’t control the gaze of others.’

Book of Exodus, Photo by Pia Johnson

Even the title plays into that political question, and she assures me it won’t be what people expect. ‘It enters into the iconography of young girls and horror, but also subverts it in quite fundamental ways… It’s not a punk band, it’s not a riot, it’s not pussy riot, it’s not cheerleaders.’

What it is remains a secret, but her design team guarantees it will be stunning and surprising. She has nothing but praise for Eugyeene Teh on set & costume design, and Jenny Hector on lighting, with whom she recently collaborated on The Book of Exodus Part II. ‘What’s good about both of them is that they think in terms of form, and they’re both very intuitive. They’ve felt like a natural extension of the team. I feel like the design is using Carriageworks Bay 20 to its maximum capacity, which is exciting for a piece that ranges between the very intimate and the cosmic.’

Those shifts in scale are essential for a work that moves between the specific and the general. The performers are all women, but Adena and Damien didn’t set out to make an explicitly feminist opera, unlike many of Adena’s other works. ‘It feels like these female performers are channeling a more universal kind of energy. We’re coming together to channel a particular kind of anxiety, or terror, that feels most interesting through the bodies and voices of women.’

She returns to the 9/11 girls, who ‘absorbed everybody’s psychic horror of the event.’ If we imagine the girls in a doctor’s surgery, we encounter a specific, female experience of ‘not being believed or listened to in an institutional context.’ But what they are unable to express is something larger and shared by everyone.

‘It’s not about the experience of being howling girls, or being a woman,’ Adena insists. Rather than an opera about hysteria, she’s interested in our representations of hysteria, and the way we project it onto women and young women above all else. ‘It’s trying to understand why we need female vocalists to express this range of emotions and ideas.’

I end by asking her if she wants her audiences to leave terrified. ‘The work has to be dark to warrant its release at the end. I wouldn’t say there’s catharsis, but it does feel like there’s a sense of potential, or future-looking, which is quite beautiful. There’s an odd sense of salvation.’

You heard it here first: if you want to be saved, come to The Howling Girls.

Image: Polly Borland, MOUTH 2017, Archival pigment print, edition of 6, image courtesy Murray White Room, Melbourne

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang