I begin at the end.
So much work went into this series of performances, from the acorn of the idea, to the standing ovation at The South Bank. Above, Adam and Caroline of Folk by the Oak, having a well earned hug.
The journey to Snape was long, made longer by high winds the night before that closed the road out of Pembrokeshire. We travelled the land, collecting musicians, Beth Porter and Kris Drever in Peterborough, Karine Polwart and Rachel Newton in Cambridge, along with guitars, harp, cello, and various other creatures. 12 hours from departure we arrived at Snape. Jim Molyneux and Julie Fowlis were already there, Seckou arrived at midnight, and the following day saw the band rehearsing, and me also as I tried to remember ow to paint, accompanied by fine river music.
This was the first time we had seen the banners, designed by Alison O’Toole from my images, huge, framing the screen where the painting would be projected, the first performance for the Spellsongs. And though it seemed that to put together such a piece in 4/5 days, followed by the same recording, was fast, the musicians have each a lifetime of learning that enables this, and the understanding of listening, co-operation, collaboration. And to gather the venues, that has taken time too, such a intricate feat by Neil Pearson of Sounds Just Fine.
There was an edge in the air that first day. The Maltings is the most beautiful venue. While the musicians went through rehearsals I spoke to a school, who by coincidence were visiting the venue. They had been studying the Seal Children for myth and magic and were moving on to nature and the natural world, via The Lost Words. Outside the wind made patterns dance in the reeds. Inside they were full of questions.
Later, with the hall full, the musicians filled the world with music, flashed kingfishers across the stage, wove a haunting ghost owl into being and more and more. I watched in the first half, all nerves swept away by the music, sitting next to James Mayhew and Antonio and Robin, then took the stage at the interval, ground and refreshed the ink and spelled a pair of otters onto paper.
The audience had come together in faith, not knowing what they would experience. All venues by this time were sold out, but not a note had found its way into the public domain. And how utterly moving to see them rise to their feet at the end of this, the first performance.
In Birmingham the view from the hotel was so urban. I almost didn’t make the performance, as just after the talk at the beginning my sight was stolen by migraine. So I spent the first half back stage in semi darkness, breathing deeply, listening to the music, trying to get a grip. I had family in the audience, didn’t want to let them down.
The thing about sitting on the stage during the interval is that you get some time to look back at the audience. Birmingham Town Hall is a beautiful building.
All of the staff at all of the venues looked after us mightily well.
Alison had made beautiful gold silhouettes of my work, very similar to the ‘gold soul’ remnants that are created when I am gilding. Andy Bell, the visionary mixer of sounds, owner of Hudson Records, where some of the finest music of our age can be found, had brought into the mix Ben Dave, ‘the man with two first names’, to handle the smooth running of the visuals. He did far more than that, carefully projecting images of the singers into the space allowed by Alison’s designs. Amazing, hypnotic. We have plans for something different in Hay, where the next performance will be.
In Manchester, at the Royal Northern College of Music we found again a warm welcome. The stage manager found me two wonderful jars of water for cleaning my brushes. Each day a few more things crept out of my bag, onto the table. A raven’s feather, acorn cups. In London, the bone of a grey seal.
There’s a moment in the show when there’s one more song left. It’s a blessing, following a wonderful musical tradition. It’s formed from Rob’s words, shaped with the music, carries a healing, threads deep into the soul. All of this music will stay with me my whole life. I can’t separate a bit out. I’ve never wanted a funeral before at the end of my life, and I guess I still don’t. But I want the whole show! Not just one song. Wouldn’t that be a thing! ( No plans on making this happen any time soon but you never know).
In Manchester I had the inevitable ink disaster. I was using sumi ink, which was designed centuries ago for scribes to travel with, and it can’t spill, as it’s a solid block. I’d gathered by painting tools in my beautiful leather bag, and when I lifted it there was a dark pool on the stage! (So glad beyond words this wasn’t Snape) I know now that I can make two otters dance with the ink I grind so don’t need the back up. But I think I will get a bigger stone, just in case. Robin put the ink from the leaking bottle into a water container……
And so to London, and The South Bank, where a busker played the Bach Variations as I walked across the bridge where the world was made pewter in the city light. Last day. I’d already cried 4 times.
I’m not sure now how I will paint without this band to draw the images from my brush. Luckily I have a rough copy of the music to sustain me, I have their other music to keep me sane. So much of the book was painted listening to them play, it was such a curious place to find myself, on stage, with them. Seems unreal now. For the last performance I stayed where I was, doodling while they played, marvelling at how different the sound was back here. I’d placed the otters on the ground and was trying to paint seven finches ( our eighth member of the band had been unable to accompany us, but we hope, oh we hope, yes, so much we hope that she will be well, and with us for Hay.
Seven finches flew. I sat back, listened to the Blessing.
The four inked otters are for sale. Manchester, Birmingham and Snape for £1000 each, and London £1500. The money will go towards working with music in schools. Each is 75 x 56cms on Two Rivers paper, which has a beautiful snag. Different versions of the paper, different colours.
Thank you to all who came. I know that many of you travelled far. A huge thank you to Caroline and Adam, and also to Simon Prosser, who welcomed our idea in 2015. It was a joy that you could be in the audience on Tuesday eve. And to the legend that is Robin Stenham, who looked after us all very well.
For more on the Spellsingers have a look at the Lost Words website. If you need a new soundtrack in your life these are your people, if you know them already, then you are wise.
In these dark times we are living through, the striving to make beauty, drawing towards the light, becomes an act of rebellion.
I’m told that the thing that made one member of the audience cry most was when I took off my glasses, put them down on the paper and Ben panned back the camera. ‘The frail human and the frail bird together’. No artifice, just an accidental act of placement. Sometimes that is where art lives.