Caro Meets Music Interview Theatre Interview

Helen Chadwick: War and Song

By | Published on Thursday 19 June 2014


Renowned composer and singer Helen Chadwick, possibly best known for her Royal Opera House commissions ‘Dalston Songs’ and ‘The Singing Circle’, has written more than 200 songs and made six solo albums.

This weekend at the Greenwich And Docklands Festival will see three performances of her currently touring show ‘War Correspondents’, a piece that’s been six years in the making and features choreography from Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett.

The performance combines song and sound, theatre and choreography to haunting effect, all while dealing with some very difficult themes. Intrigued, I decided to find out more about the content of the show, its inspiration, and about Helen herself.

CM: What motivated you to do a piece featuring the real life testimony of war correspondents?
HC: I was inspired by meeting a photographer who worked on the first Chechen war and who talked about how dangerous it was to try to get that story to the world. I am interested in voices that are not normally heard, and giving those voices air time, in my case through song.

CM: It’s described as an ‘interdisciplinary’ performance – can you explain the format, and how the different elements come together?
HC: The performance is a song cycle of 29 songs, some of which are choreographed and all of which are staged, by Steven Hoggett. The lighting is a very important part of the show too, as is the sound, which includes parts of the interviews. So we have song, sound, acting, choreography, theatre and light coming together all set in a staging to reflect the real world that these correspondents work in when in conflict zones. I need very skilled performers to be able to sing the material one voice to a part, stay in tune, blend, move, act, all at the same time, and who can work as a team.

CM: Where have the testimonies come from? Did you interview/commission the correspondents yourself or have you used pre-existing accounts?
HC: All the interviews were done by me and creative associate Miriam Nabarro, who also designed the show. She has worked as a humanitarian in several conflict zones and already knew some foreign correspondents, and we have researched and approached others. We interviewed thirty odd journalists including photographers, some working independently, and and several in Georgia, as well as Giuliana Sgrena from Italy, who was taken hostage in Iraq.

CM: Did you find the testimonies shocking or upsetting? Is this a difficult project to work on?
HC: The testimonies were powerful and sometimes connected to distressing news stories, such as a story about rape in DRC. Hearing the correspondents was inspiring, to understand something of their passion for what they do, and their commitment to telling the stories of those who suffer in war, often in an attempt to encourage governments to do something to change the situation. The subject matter is dark and so there is lightness needed in the piece, as encouraged by one of the journalists we interviewed who told us to include humour as war is often funny.

CM: Is the show focused on any particular war, or war in general?
HC: The show focuses on those who work in war rather than on war itself. The conflicts are the conflicts of the past 30 years and those of now which these people work or have worked on. For example, we have interviewed both people who worked on Bosnia and those working currently in Libya and Egypt.

CM: Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly has done the choreography for this show. How did you come to be collaborating with him?
HC: I met Steven some years ago when I was preparing the first mini version of ‘Dalston Songs’ for the Royal Opera House before they commissioned the full length version. I was at the time working with choreographer Liam Steel who was not free for this project and suggested Steven. Steven has a wonderful understanding of the ideas, lyrics, music, harmony, and complex rhythms I work with, and so it has been a great pleasure to work with him afresh.

CM: As a musician and composer, you’ve written myriad songs for unaccompanied voices. What is it about this style of performance that appeals to you?
HC: I enjoy that this form is lightweight, we just need a tuning fork or some way of getting a starting note. I love harmonies in vocal music as well as rhythm games. The human voice reveals vulnerability and yearning, joy and sorrow, so effortlessly. It simply is my medium and the more you sing in harmony without instruments the more there is to learn and the richer the experience is.

CM: Did you always want to be a musician? How and when did you decide to make it your career?
HC: I wanted to be a dancer initially, and then I worked as an actor creating theatre performances in a small group devising and touring our own shows. I sang in the shows and started to write music for theatre and by accident discovered a passion for setting words as songs. Sometimes I used words I wrote, but often poetry from far and wide, often in translation, often by unknown poets or unknown voices. I did not think of myself as a singer until my mid-twenties, nor as a composer until my mid-thirties. Sometimes I think it would have been great to focus on that earlier and have more skill, at the piano, for example, or arranging. But then, I remember that my theatre background leads me to create a different kind of performances to those I would create if I had focussed solely on music.

CM: What’s next for ‘War Correspondents’? Will it tour again? And do you have anything else in the pipeline?
HC: We tour ‘War Correspondents’ again in October around the UK for three weeks. In late August we are also performing our outdoor show ‘White Suit’ in Birmingham, and remounting the mini trio version we have created of ‘Dalston Songs’. Next year I hope we will tour all three shows again. I am also working on a new album (well two actually!) and am composing a short opera (5 to 8 minutes!) this summer for the Tete a Tete festival, and a love song for VOICE, a trio of female singers. Plenty to keep me busy!

‘War Correspondents’ is on as part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival from 20-22 Jun, and is free, though capacity is limited; see this page here for more info.

The show returns to London in the autumn ahead of further national tour dates, with two performances at Stratford Circus from 10-11 Oct. See the venue website for info.

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