Salt Song @ Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

Posted by vibrations on 18-09-13

Collaborative projects are commonplace in all artistic fields, but it tends to be a rule of thumb that the more people involved the more a project is likely to be either drained of all its blood through compromise, or ruined by the over-weaning ego of a dominant individual. What chance for Salt Song then, a project that takes in four different artistic disciplines (music, poetry, film and dance), has four separate creative individuals (Dave Kane, Rommi Smith, Andy Wood and Jason Hird respectively), and is delivered by around 20 performers? 

Well, there are always exceptions that prove the rule and in fact Salt Song is just that, a collaboration in which each of its participatory elements blend seamlessly, almost selflessly, together to produce a rich sensory experience that is much more than the sum of its parts. 

The Salt Song film is playing as we enter the theatre, a looped wide angle shot of gentle waves bubbling onto a beach as the sun shines. The lights dim and the Salt Song music begins with a trio of violin, cello and double bass bowing a gently swelling theme that matches the ebb and flow of the waves. The film, by Andy Wood (who also provides live soundscapes), features several sustained shots of the sea heaving up against rocks and shorelines that initially seem a bit repetitive but as the piece develops the idea of the cycles of life, living and death that suffuse the texts are reflected in, and amplified quite powerfully by, the images of the sea that are repeatedly returned to. It has to be said that the film takes a back seat to the music for the majority of the piece but there is no doubt that the film and dance elements combine to elevate the whole experience to a higher level.

Kane’s music is for the most part sparse and restrained, complementing the images, and although rooted in jazz the band have the feel of a chamber music ensemble. They all play superbly throughout, but the string trio (Tom Sidebottom, violin, Seth Bennett, double bass and Matthew Bourne, cello) are a wonder of variation and tone and provide the bedrock for the entire piece. But it’s not all woozy ambience – there’s a rollicking sea shanty bellowed by all the male musicians and some furious jazz and improvisation driven by powerhouse drummer Joost Hendrickx, Oli Dover on reeds and Simon Beddoe on trumpet. 

The words for Salt Song are provided by poet Rommi Smith, with the sung lyrics mainly performed by Royst, and the spoken word delivered by Smith herself in the role of narrator. Norwegian a cappella trio Royst (Kari Bleivik, Maria Jardardottir and Cecilie Giskemo) are simply spellbinding throughout, Bleivik’s clear and pure soprano in particular lending a melancholic weight to the line “Addio, amore” (“Goodbye, love”) which is reprised several times and indeed encapsulates the theme of the entire piece. Smith’s narration has a musicality all of its own, as she utilises rap and hip hop rhythms to give pulse and momentum to her words.

There are two moments where all the elements of Salt Song merge magically together: the first is when a piece being played by a brass quintet filmed on a beach is seamlessly picked up by the Salt Song Band live in the theatre; the second when the Band provide a ragged, raucous jazz accompaniment to ‘Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ also being sung by all the musicians, with the words on the screen. At a given point Kane stops the music and singing dead, turns to the audience and conducts an a cappella performance of the song to which most of the audience contribute lustily. A potentially prosaic and hokey moment instead sets up a palpable connection between audience, performers and the art in the piece as a whole, with feelings of nostalgia and community additionally stirred by the archive footage of summer holidays in Scarborough and Filey in the film.

In truth, I suspect that the combined music and speech of Salt Song would stand perfectly well on their own as quite brilliant piece of music, and fortunately it has been recorded. So, what are we to describe a performance of Salt Song as? Is it a piece of music with visual props? A film with music? A spoken word piece with music? Or a piece of theatre? As it turns out, it is all of them and none of them. It is Salt Song.

Steve Walsh

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