BLOG Katya Johnson

NWR Issue 110

Songs for the Way Home at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Songs for the Way Home was created and composed by Helen Chadwick. It was developed at BAC before being commissioned by the Royal Opera House in 2008. It was performed at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre by the company of Helen Chadwick Song Theatre on 24 February 2016.

Brought to the performance studio by Helen Chadwick’s ensemble of a cappella vocalists, Songs for the Way Home celebrates stories and interpretations of home based on interviews with local residents from Dalston, London. Originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House, this pared-down version, featuring vocalists Sianed Jones and Sophie Streckx, explores how our understanding of ‘home’ is being shifted and redefined in a multicultural, modern, urban context.

“What does home mean to you?” Helen Chadwick asked the audience as the trio of singers stood on stage, bathed in an aqueous blue light. There were some predictable responses: “family”, references to particular geographies and localities, and then one audience member replied, “objects that remind me of my past life.” When she had asked Dalston residents in the London borough of Hackney the same question, responses had been somewhat more existential, even melancholy. A ‘Russian neighbour’ replied: “home is bread and a table.” ‘Lala from next door’ said, “home is a feeling, not a place, for me.” It was these twin ideas of home as both a lived-in experience of a particular topography and as a more abstract point of origin which formed the backbone of this project.

The lyrics to the songs were audio collages drawn from the lifeblood of East London: snatches of conversation overheard on the London Overground and in local greasy spoons. These words were set to a musical arrangement of close vocal harmonies in three parts, which Chadwick explained were inspired by the close polyphonic harmonies of Georgian folk music. In some ways this set the tone for everything that followed. ‘Songs for the Way Home’ was ostensibly a piece about a locality of East London, but in reality its reach was far more international than this, as can perhaps be expected from a city as diverse and cosmopolitan as London. Home to large communities of Turkish, Iraqi and Bangladeshi first and second-generation immigrations, it is not surprising many of the residents of Dalston that Helen interviewed had a complex relationship with the idea of home. “What language do I Sing?” was one refrain, and Chadwick quoted a Turkish poet when she said, “In life we open doors, close doors and pass through doors.” As the title ‘Songs for the Way Home’ suggests, the production was not simply about being cosily enhomed but about the abstract journey towards home, the yearning for home or the sense of being homeless and displaced.

Though the performance had a serious dimension, it was also lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek with jokes about tuning forks falling out of cleavages and the informal atmosphere of a workshop. In one piece the singers asked, “black coffee, cappuccino, mocha, decaf?”, which evoked another familiar stereotype of the East End; not is multicultural melting pot but also a hub of hipsters and young professionals. As a resident in East London for two years myself, both on my narrowboat and in Bethnal Green, I experienced both sides of Dalton: flat whites in Broadway Market, boys on racing bikes, Turkish lahmacun, streams of freelancers and artists on laptops in cafes. ‘Songs for the Way Home’ did not neglect this side of the story, conjuring up a picture of the East End that touched upon the reality of a modern city: as pacey, dynamic and a place of contrasts and multiple perspectives.

Katya Johnson is a PhD candidate in Creative & Critical Writing at the University of Aberystwyth.


previous blog: Scratch Night at Aberystwyth Arts Centre
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