Building 'Slow Recognition'

Opera doesn’t always have to be about huge voices or strange stories (not that we’re against either). While performing institutions have largely contained it as a museum genre over the last century, like much else opera keeps branching out in different directions. Some new work tries to compete with the old but, at the smaller end of the scale, experimental operas explore other possibilities. At the 2012 Dublin Fringe, Tom Lane’s ‘FLÅTPÄCK’ took everyone by surprise, evoking the subtle negotiations of homelife through site-specific mini-stories at the CHQ, as performers sang texts limited to IKEA product names. More recently, Irish National Opera created a series of media experiments of its own during lockdown, including the online ‘20 Shots of Opera’.

Meanwhile, the experimental music/text company Béal has spent the last decade or so exploring the strange things that can happen when words and music meet—as experienced in works by Robert Ashley, Jennifer Walshe, Tom Johnson, Gráinne Mulvey, and others. Its newest project, perhaps inevitably, is a standalone chamber opera.

David Bremner (© Mihai Cucu)

‘Slow Recognition’ is an immersive music-theatre work devised by composer David Bremner, in close collaboration with director/dramaturg Hélène Montague and designer John Comiskey. Featuring singers Elizabeth Hilliard, Naomi Louisa O’Connell and Rory Musgrave, along with Andreea Banciu (viola) and David Bremner (live electronics), ‘Slow Recognition’ opens in the Kirkos Space, Unit 44, on 13 July.

We caught up with Béal founders (Bremner and Hilliard) to find out what this new work will involve.

GP: What can you tell us about the space you’ll be performing in?

DB: I’ve performed there a couple of times, it’s a lovely space to perform in, very atmospheric. It’s a converted hairdressers’, with this chequerboard floor—like a David Lynch film—so it has that kind of functional character. It’s becoming a real hub for experimental music in Dublin, they’re doing tons of stuff there, it’s really good.  The piece is going to be performed in the round, with the audience seated on one or two rows of seats all around the edge. It’s going to be a really interesting experience, probably quite intense for the audience.

GP: So it adds its own dynamic?

DB: It’s a small space. A lot of the themes that Hélène Montague and John Comiskey are doing with us are to do with enclosure, in both positive and negative aspects, and it’s going to be both immersive and almost sort of womb-like, maybe, but also in a sense of entrapment as well.

Rory Musgrave

GP: Will there be other physical elements?

EH: We’re having a set built out of steel pipes, so it can be transported in a golf bag. It’s dealing with perspectives, and by the singers activating it in different ways it can feel indoors or outdoors.

DB: Yeah, it’ll feel like an enclosure, but it’ll be an enclosure that can be permeated, and singers will be able to climb into it, and they’ll be taller than it in some areas. It fits very well into the music, which is geometric and mathematical in terms of how—both music and text—is about different combinations of a small number of elements. The warped geometry of what John has designed is really good, better than I could have imagined, and I can’t wait to see it.

GP: The instrumentation will be your electronic realisation, with Andreea Banciu playing viola, so she’s surely taking part as much as the singers – how do you see that working?

DB: She’s a very theatrical performer, and her music will stand apart. There’s a relationship there in terms of musical content: sometimes what the singers are doing is orbiting around Andreea’s material and sometimes it’s the other way around, the singers have the same pitch material and that casts different lights upon it—she’ll certainly come across as being part of the action.

EH: She’s a real champion of the instrument, it was a no-brainer for her, she was like “there’s an opera featuring the viola? This is brilliant!”

GP: Thinking about the content, what words will be sung? Is there a fixed text?

DB: Yes, Hélène and I have co-written it. We thought about this: it’s basically using a small pool of text, so it’s about combinations, of exploring the words and their potential in terms of recombinance. Each word for each singer is set with the same music, so essentially when you are choosing a word you are also choosing the notes. A single word can be very evocative, it can conjure up a whole world—that’s really what we’re doing, and we’re always thinking of an energy-flow from one word to another, and it’s really interesting in terms of how it comes across as a text.

There’s forty or so words, which we’re using in a lattice, and the areas of the lattice correspond to different emotions or atmospheres, also different harmonic areas, so you can move between them. You can walk around the lattice, as I was when I was composing it, and create juxtapositions. I was aiming for different registers, so there are some words that are quite evocative—like the word “outdoors”—but there are also some that feel a bit poetic, or perhaps a bit professional, which is a different register and doesn’t really fit. I was purposely choosing words that would clash in terms of their register and how they come across.

GP: Are there any influences that you could name?

DB: It’s hard to say where anything comes from, but John Ashbery would be a big influence, aesthetically, in terms of the relationship between the potential and the actual—what actually happens—there’s always a sense the text can move in lots of directions at once.

GP: How would you characterise your music in this piece?

DB: The material is static, but it can be warped into a dialogue shape, or a solo shape, or an ensemble shape. So there’s these kinds of forms that occur: there’s a fugue, there’s a trio, there’s a sarabande; they play in various forms in the piece. They’re like templates or quadrants that are applied to the same material—all built from monody, there’s always a through-line. It’s quite improvised, in what the singers will be doing, just reciting around a drone pitch, very like early recitative, so there’s a harmonic structure and you’re kind of speaking or quasi-singing within a harmonic structure.

Naomi Louisa O'Connell

It’s about creating a kind of fabric, I guess, quite minimal in style, but where a minute change can kind of shift the music in another direction. We workshopped about a quarter of an hour of material, and now we have a 50-minute opera.

GP: Tell us more about the workshop process—how did you find it?

DB: We did it in July last year. As much workshopping as you can build into a process like this the better, it’s a collaborative art-form.

EH: We were building different relationships between the three singers so, at times, I could be by myself, and Rory and Naomi would have their own conversation, or they might be talking to me, and through the opera you’d be picking different sides, so sometimes I’d be quite friendly with Naomi, and at another point I was quite suspicious of her, so you’re building up these kinds of stories. Now we have this memory of building the characters and, even if those characters don’t go to the same place, you have a back-story, because we were working together on this before.

Elizabeth Hilliard

GP: As well as being organic and new, there seem to be some quite old elements at work here as well…

DB: The idea for this work came to me when I saw Hélène’s work, first of all, in the Peacock Theatre, her direction of Francesca Caccini’s ‘Liberazione di Ruggiero’ [for RIAM in 2019].  Our piece has loads of these little baroque-like fragments, and the texture’s very minimalist, it’s kind of built with these atoms, like Aristotle’s idea that the same atoms are used to create tragedy and comedy… A lot of my work as a composer is dealing with material that has a particular potential, so you have the same starting point, and it plays out in different ways.

‘Slow Recognition’ will be performed at Kirkos Space, Unit 44, Prussia Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7 on 13-16 July at 8pm; entry is free, but space is limited so pre-booking is advised. For more details, and booking links, see:

Rehearsal images by Néstor Romero Clemente