Saturday 12 September 2020

The Telling's #HomeTour: soprano & playwright Clare Norburn on the challenges & rewards of creating on-line content & writing new plays

Clare Norburn: Vision - The Telling & the Celestial Sirens at BREMF (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Vision - The Telling & the Celestial Sirens at BREMF
(Photo Robert Piwko)

The early music group The Telling has always been interested in telling stories through their programmes. The group's director is Clare Norburn and her regular series of concert plays (narrative dramas on musical subjects which include a large live musical element) have often involved the group. With the advent of lockdown The Telling has been putting this experience to good use and created #HomeTour, a regular series of Wednesday evening broadcasts which includes a number of filmed performances of Clare Norburn's concert plays beginning with Vision: the imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen, and with another film coming up, Unsung heroine on the secret life and love of 12th century troubadour Countess Beatriz de Dia. I caught up with Clare by Zoom to find out more.

Clare is a familiar figure in many Early Music worlds, not only is she director The Telling (with whom she sings soprano), but she co-founded the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) and was co-artistic director (with Deborah Roberts) until last year. She is also artistic director of the Stroud Green Festival, and with The Telling created the Liverpool Early Music Festival. Add to this a career writing concert plays including Breaking the Rules, about the life of Gesualdo which premiered at BREMF in 2013 with Finbar Lynch and the Marian Consort [see my review], Vision: the imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen which we saw at BREMF in 2015 with Niamh Cusack and The Telling [see my review], Galileo at BREMF in 2016 [see my review], and Burying the Dead on the life of Henry Purcell with Ceruleo which we saw at Baroque at the Edge in 2019 [see my review].

But this year has turned out completely differently to how she expected, and though she is at the moment unbelievably busy as a result of The Telling's #HomeTour, at first the group found it hard to find a way to do what they do without live performance, and everything felt impossible. Even when they started making films for #HomeTour the complexity was far more than usual, with current regulations meaning that suddenly the group had to consider COVID19 planning and risk assessment, she was responsible for lots of things that you don't normally think about, such as how people get to places, where they might stay and of course their child care.

The Telling performing Clare Norburn's Unsung Heroine
The Telling performing Clare Norburn's Unsung Heroine

The other point is that Vision and Unsung Heroine both do something that people are not doing so much of at the moment. Much of the work available on-line is streaming from home or pre-recorded videos of existing concerts. But what The Telling wanted to do was to film the event to create a dramatic work that was not just a filmed concert. There were technical issues, how to get decent sound whilst recording a staged performance (the music in Clare's concert plays is an essential partner in the drama rather than being in the background). The solution was to come up with the right team, and also to be prepared to compromise. Their cameraman was the actor Gerard Kyd who has been performing the role of Gesualdo in the tour of Clare's Breaking the rules. Kyd happens to be a cameraman as well, and his experience in Breaking the rules gave him a clear understanding of what Clare's concert plays are trying to achieve. 

They wanted the result to feel like a performance, with an as-live element so that it was not perfect but it had to be good enough to bear repetition. So they often filmed in single long takes, and it helped that their sound engineers were also performers. Ultimately it was about finding a balance between a sense of live, and achieving a good quality. And they had a fantastic director in Nicholas Renton.

Everyone involved enjoyed the process of filming and for many it was the first time that they had done anything creative outside their home since the crisis began. It was nice to be doing something positive, exciting and different. And having solved the logistical issues, it was galvanising to be creative within all the restrictions.

The money came from Arts Council England, the Ambache Trust, The Sylvia Waddilove Foundation and the group's own fundraising. When they applied for Arts Council funding in April they did not really know what the project would be. Their first idea was to do the filming in people's homes, as many other groups have been doing. But when they decided to create a more high quality product, the costs significantly increased. But Clare thinks that it was well worth it, Vision has had a good response with a lovely review in The Guardian.

Whilst there is an element of filmed live performance about Vision and Unsung Heroine, other elements are more filmic. For instance in Vision, whilst there are panning shots of chant being performed in procession, a lot of Tessa Banham's performance as Hildegard is direct to camera which creates a confessional effect which Clare finds extraordinarily powerful. This created the sort of intensity you do not have with a live performance in a big space.

Clare Norburn: Breaking the Rules - Gerald Kyd and The Marian Consort (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Breaking the Rules - Gerald Kyd and The Marian Consort (Photo Robert Piwko)

#HomeTour is also going to include two new concert plays from Clare. The first, Love in Lockdown is currently in draft and has been written in response to the current situation. It takes as its subject plagues through the ages, particularly the 1348 Black Death in Florence which was written about by Boccaccio in the Decamaron. Clare finds the parallels between 1348 Florence and today quite extraordinary, as Boccaccio talks about the human reaction to the plague, the people who deny it, the people who party and the people who withdraw. Other parallels include the disparity between the rich and the poor. So, as can be imagined, Clare says that the work is quite political.

Clare's play involves a modern-day couple in a new relationship separated by lockdown, one a musician the other a playwright and both fascinated by Decamaron; he is going to write a play on the subject whilst she would provide suitable 14th century music. So Clare's play explores how the two put together a show, but also looks at the tensions in their relationship. The result will be filmed using Zoom and video phone, and the films of the musicians in the play will be of members of The Telling. 

Her other piece, I Spie is not yet in draft form, and she admits that she is very much like Charles Dickens in that she always works close to deadlines. I Spie arises out of Clare's fascinating with the idea of musicians who were also spies. All through history, musicians were used as spies after all they could travel and could be at court without impunity. There is a suggestion that John Dowland might have been a spy, so I Spie will weave Dowland's story with music of the period and a narrative about Sir Francis Walsingham's Elizabethan spy network.

Whereas Love in Lockdown responds to the current crisis, I Spie is in fact a piece which she had planned to do this year; the original plan for 2020 was to apply to the Arts Council to enable the work to be tried out in 2020 with full performances in 2021. Similarly, The Telling was going to be performing Unsung Heroine at their festival in Liverpool this year, but the films of Vision and Unsung Heroine are definitely a result of lockdown.

Clare Norburn at the Stroud Green Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn at the Stroud Green Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)

The group has developed a loyal following for its regular Friday morning singing workshops on-line, and these have proved poplar. Clare comments that ordinarily they tour programmes rather than developing a regular relationship with a particular audience, but that as a result of lockdown performances they have a sense of regular engagement with their online audience, and they have found it a good way to keep in touch. #HomeTour lasts until the end of October, but they are hoping to do a similar Christmas #HomeTour based around carols. Their first CD of carols, The secret life of carols, was very successful, but the second has had to be put on hold so this is a way of exploring the repertoire.


The Telling's #HomeTour continues on Wednesday 16 September with Meet the Instruments with Giles Lewin. The new film of Clare Norburn's Unsung Heroine premieres on 7 October, and Love in the Lockdown on 21 October. I Spie will be premiered at the end of the year. Full details from The Telling's website.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Late Haydn and Brahms on an Autumn evening in the park: Anthony Friend and the Solem Quartet at Battersea Park bandstand - concert review
  • Less is more: Andrew Hamilton's Joy  - CD review
  • Fizzing with energy: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony performed from memory outside at Kings Cross by Aurora Orchestra  - CD review
  • Through late 18th-century ears: Lully's Armide in a radical adaptation from 1778 - cd review
  • The sheer joy of music making: the Maggini Quartet emerges from hibernation to celebrate the delight of playing together  - concert review
  • Children can do so much more than you think: Susan Moore, artistic director of W11 Opera on challenging young performers to produce an opera under lockdown  - interview
  • An eight-hour solo piano masterpiece: Sorabji's Sequentia cyclica receives its premiere performance from Jonathan Powell - CD review
  • A distinct voice: a new disc from Resonus explores Florent Schmitt's Mélodies, a wide-ranging survey of song by an under-rated composer - CD review
  • Beethoven refracted and contemplated: Peeter Vähi's Hommage à Brillance de Lune - CD review
  • Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu live from Oscarshall Palace in Oslo  - concert review
  • At the Gates of the Twighlight Zone: 19'40" explores Bernard Herrmann as part of its eclectic recording series - interview
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