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The past made present

Stephen Armstrong

Aelfguyv Aelfguyv
Genevieve Lacey’s ambitious and seductive Melbourne Autumn Music Festival offers genuine surprises while retaining its familiar focus on early music. The event’s original incarnation, the International Festival of Organ and Harpsichord, was established in 1970 and celebrated the deep repertoire and often outstanding virtuosity of early music performance in the familiar context of the concert series. Lacey’s festival builds on this tradition of repertoire and technical excellence while revealing her concern for exposing, questioning and proposing how we listen (and perform) in the moment.

Lacey’s early music program, which is occasionally presented through radical interpretation, is loaded with works from the 15th to 19th centuries, but, experienced alongside recent and contemporary works, has the effect of collapsing time. Or, perhaps more accurately, of creating time by connecting us to the heart of the matter: the experience of creation and the creation of experience, whether inhaled by our ears or exhaled through our playing bodies and instruments.

Two central events in this festival were Astra Choir and Aelfguyv, a new performance work by Jane Woollard and Stevie Wishart. The Astra Choir (directed by John McCaughey), presented a generous, complex and immediately penetrating concert, Scenes and Epigrams, based around Carl Loewe’s intimate Passion Oratorio (1847) and intercut with recent and contemporary works by Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler, Helen Gifford, Martin Friedel and Elliot Carter. As a form, the Passion traditionally collides musical styles from previous periods in a self-conscious reflection on time and experience. McCaughey’s extension of this idea and the themes of personal suffering and revelation through further collisions of text, sound and performance was extremely effective and profiled the substantial talents of the choir, its performers and instrumentalists.

Most memorably, Dessau’s richly eclectic settings of Brecht’s War Prime (a poem cycle in response to wartime photographs) brilliantly shadowed Loewe’s concern with the malleability of humanity and the individual stories that are central to any epic, as well as Brecht’s great dramaturgical contribution-”each scene for itself”-played out in McCaughey’s program. Arnold Schonberg’s stunningly conceived and beautifully performed Peace on Earth, tolling for peace, was a highlight, as were Gifford’s dramatic Catharsis and Carter’s March for Four Timpani.

Like all commissioned military histories-before and since 1066 AD-the Bayeaux Tapestry is a remarkable propagandist artefact. It is also intensely and immediately beautiful, and the inspiration for Woollard and Wishart’s Aelfguyva. Embroidered onto easily rolled and transported cloth 20 inches high and unfurling to well over 200 feet, the tapestry’s colourful, cartoon-like scenes with occasional Latin text depict William of Normandy’s conquest of Harold, the Anglo Saxon claimant to the English throne following the death of King Edward.

Writer and director, Woollard, in collaboration with Wishart, take as their muse the mysterious figure of Aelfgyva (performed by Margaret Mills), one of only 4 women who appear in the tapestry-and the only one named. She appears hovering above the ground between 2 ornate columns and is being struck, or admonished, or entreated, by “a certain Cleric”, given the name Aelfwine by Woollard (performed by Colin James). Aelfgyva’s actual existence can only be speculated but she is charged by many scholars as having whored the succession in a previous generation and her story is certainly notorious enough to require no explanation for the creators of tapestry. Woollard’s Aelfguyv is not an attempt to argue a biography, rather Aelfgyva is a haunted meditation, a purgatorial figure coursing through Wishart’s time-collapsing soundscape, forever freeing and weaving herself into Amanda Johnson’s imaginative tableaux set.

Woollard’s not always clear narrative surrounds Aelfgyva’s passionate seduction of Aelfwine who first succumbs and then abandons her and the material world for God. At the sound of the foreign hooves Aelfwine enlists in the war and is quickly killed on the battlefield. Aelfgyva’s land and culture are violated and in the face of vanishing certainties she descends into the earth to retrieve Aelfwine’s body. Time and culture collapse and ultimately the only thing we know in spite of the tricks of time and culture is that we know nothing.

Woollard’s strangely neutral idiom of flattened period English often thuds with cliché, as though Aelfguyva and Aelfwine are stock characters in a medieval melodrama and the effect is distinctly distancing. Aelfguyv is not in the mould of a mystery play but nor does it seem to explore a language dynamic enough for a dream in which the seams of history might be joined. Notwithstanding the undoubted strength of the music in finding these seams, in a work where action and intent substantially depend on the spoken word, a more anachronistic (or genuinely archaic) approach might have been more effective.

The constant references to embroidery and use of a physical performance language based on the gestures, attitudes and stance of figures in the Bayeaux Tapestry also tended to dull rather than energise Aelfguyv’s mysteries. The extreme style of the embroidered figures creates a dramatic, image-based tableau in the tapestry, but it is untranslatable in performance-the decision to effect a series of poses in quick succession (several times) almost risked comedy as the performers’ bodies jerked themselves from one pose to the next like a stop-start martial arts lesson. Incorporating this gestural language was possibly an inspired idea but demands extended physical rehearsal to finesse into something performative and effective. Notwithstanding these production mannerisms, Margaret Mills is a dexterous performer who gave much to the role of Aelfgyva.

The Narrator, a neatly conceived role sung by the charismatic Carolyn Connors with accompaniment by harpist Natalia Mann (also an occasional and effective chorus), is cleverly neither in the story nor apart from it but provided energy and connection between the themes and action. Connors addresses, comments and contextualises as though permanently revisiting a disaster scene with all the prescience and exasperation of a Cassandra-a role strongly supported by Wishart’s vocal score which seemed to resonate and test our familiarity with medieval sound drawing us into another, more eternal and sensual memory place.

Throughout the work, Wishart literally layers her live and pre-recorded sound in a sustained meeting of flesh and mechanics deftly engineered by Michael Hewes. Wishart’s collaborative achievement is to create an aural dimension which, like the “hairy star” (Halley’s Comet) dominating Johnson’s backdrop, strikingly reminds us of our bodily and mythical connection to the communities of 1066 AD; the experienced and the remembered; the mortal and the immortalised; the living and the dead.

Five hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, Mary, the imprisoned Queen of Scotts, worked her needlepoint in an interminable present of loneliness recounting her own history to herself and making gifts for friends she was forbidden to see. Over time, she evolved subtle variations in motif and technique and used these coded messages to secretly communicate, fatally as it happened, with her Catholic defenders. It is argued that while the Bayeaux Tapestry was probably designed by just one male Norman, it took the hands of many Anglo Saxon women to execute it. Subtle variations in needlepoint technique, figurative representation and scenic composition suggest that the embroiderers practised their art knowing that their scenes might be discernible within a censored collaboration. It is also possible that these idiosyncrasies are communicating private messages hidden from our understanding but nonetheless present. While perhaps still a work-in-progress, Jane Woollard and Stevie Wishart’s Aelfguyva is an imaginative affirmation that what is hidden from us is usually right before our eyes and already resonating somewhere in our ears.

Melbourne Autumn Music Festival.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. web

© Stephen Armstrong; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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