Wednesday 9th November, Kardomah, Hull
On Wednesday 9th November, a newly-composed song-cycle, inspired by the works of none other than William Shakespeare will be performed. If that sounds like a daunting task, think again. I sat down with Dave Gawthorpe, Tom Stratton and Jay Moy, music, words and visuals, respectively, and put it to them that they must have huge cojones to even contemplate tackling such a weighty and sacred subject.
“Not so,” came their response.
I asked them first where the idea came from.
Dave: The idea came from a call to works from the Humber Mouth Festival. We’re always doing these sorts of collaborations, often with Jay, who’s doing the multimedia for the event. We saw the proposal and thought it’d work for something me and Tom have been half-working on for the last couple of years, which is a theatre play based on the Faust story; the music used would be ‘murder ballads.’ The Shakespearian angle came from that idea of the murder ballads really; the tradition of telling stories that way comes from Shakespearian times, so we put the two together and we came up with this idea. Originally, we intended to perform it in an abandoned shopping arcade in Bransholme, which would have been an interesting location, as the acoustics were interesting. Also, it’s a time capsule, built in the 60s…
Tom: Yeah, it was relative to the themes we’re exploring with this; it’s lost in time and of that moment. One of Shakespeare’s themes is how art outlives youth, that idea, and how beauty is only fleeting, and these things can be preserved in art.
The genesis of the whole project was an idea over a few pints, about writing a screenplay together, with music in between acts of the play. As is usually the case with these fragmented plans hatched in back-rooms of dusty inns, it didn’t get as far as the end product, but the concept was there, and Tom and Dave started working on possible music for the play. Then came the proposal, and this project seemed to be the perfect outlet for those ideas. In effect, what’s happened is that the Concrete Sonnet project is essentially a small section of a larger piece which they’ll most likely go on to develop after this performance.
As John Lennon famously sang, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” such is the eternal struggle musicians and artists face to bring ideas to fruition, due to external factors; life stops the culmination of work, and while this project is not the original concept, it’s definitely part of it. The fact that they’re getting out there and doing a show, instead of it being in their heads is something they felt they had to do, “otherwise it’s just pub talk,” smiles Dave, so, basically, it will also act as a test piece, to gauge how it would pan out in the future.
They also wanted to swerve the idea of updating Shakespeare in a theatre, which is also a little hackneyed these days. Tom says, “the idea of a teacher who brings a guitar into class and goes, “Shakespeare’s cool!” It doesn’t connect with anyone. That’s what we want to get away from.” He goes on to say the most difficult thing is taking Shakespeare in a direction where it doesn’t end up as a parody. So rather than do an out-and-out update, they’ve taken the themes explored in Shakespeare, where there are specific references, but it’s not overt in its overall approach.
Tom: Writing-wise, we’ve slipped a couple of lines in. For example, if you take the image of Ophelia drowning (from Hamlet); we’ve taken the direct reference, written a song about it including a line here and there from Shakespeare, without going, “here’s my interpretation of Shakespeare, man.” (laughs) An intimate knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t necessary: if you know the story, you know, and you’ll see stuff you like, but if you don’t, you’ll be open to it in other ways, you might even see something completely different, which is what it’s all about. It’s a gig with sonnets in between the songs. Knowing the complete works is not a prerequisite.
The music itself, composed by Dave, will be performed by a regular band: guitars, drums, bass, vocals. They plan to reimagine the Elizabethan troubadour vibe as a contemporary garage band. Elements have been taken from that time, and it’s all been brought forward into the 21st century; a loose reaction, wordy ballads with the attitude of modern punk music.
The language will also be modern, both in the songs, and in the spoken word sections, where Tom will recite the sonnets, backed by atmospheric, electronic soundscapes. It’ll be half a gig, half a spoken word performance.
I ask if they’re daunted by it in any way.
Dave: It’s been done in an honest and respectful way; no we’re not daunted by it, Tom’s drawn to that way of writing anyway, we’ve just taken elements that have formed the basis of Shakespeare’s work, and done our own thing with it.
Tom: It’s more of a nod to it, rather than “Let’s reimagine “Othello.” It’s the sonnets’ themes we’ve used as a launching pad for the project, basically, “you’re beautiful, so hang on to it, ‘cos it’ll go,” it’s about death, mortality, how art and beauty are hugely important and love is blind.
Jay: From a musical point of view, it’s just a great band, playing great songs with sonnets in between. The vibe is “indie,” the setting is like a theatre. The images that I’ll be using will be abstract and represent the transient nature of the themes explored.
Dave: Basically, I’ve written some music, Tom’s written some words and Jay’s got visuals together. We’ve worked separately, we trust each other, and we reconvene two or three times a week and we put it together. In simple terms that’s what’s happened.
They’re at pains to stress that people don’t get too bogged down thinking about the Shakespeare angle. Of course it’s central to the performance, but it’s definitely not exclusive, everyone can find something to love in Shakespeare, just as everyone will find something to love in A Concrete Sonnet. It’s potentially a one-off small piece of a larger whole, which is likely to be pursued afterwards. I love the idea that it’s a piece of a jigsaw, and something grander will be constructed around it. The pace I work at, that would suggest a lifetime’s work, but these lads are veritable Renaissance men, Da Vinci-esque in their different projects, and the ease at which they switch between artistic codes. Ideas are bouncing around as we chat, you can see it in their eyes. Restless, but totally committed to what they’re doing. One thing’s for sure, what you’re going to see will be nothing short of spectacular.
As we wrap up, I ask them if the deadline scares them, because it’s been such a quick turnaround from gig announcement to performance; still they remain unflappable.
Dave: “If you don’t have deadlines, you don’t get anything done. You don’t have time to worry, you just have to trust what you’ve got. I enjoy that risk. It’s gonna be right, ‘cos it’s gotta be right.”
A Concrete Sonnet is part of Humber Mouth Literature Festival
Words and music by Tom Stratton & David Gawthorpe.
Lighting and visuals by Jay Moy, Freemetre.
Additional music by Max Young, Sevenlocks Studio.
Musicians: Andy Swift, Lloyd Dobbs, Joe Brodie.