Verity Standen: “Symphony is about combining two ideas: the human, fragile quality of live voice and the unusual sonorous sound of tuning forks.”

Posted on March 14, 2016

Bristol-based composer Verity Standen talks to us about composing, tuning forks and bringing her show, Symphony, to Mayfest.

Tell us about Symphony. Where did the idea come from?

I’m interested in finding ways to make live music feel intimate and personal – the feeling that the performance is just for you. One person at a time gets a totally unique experience – they will hear two singers harmonising, but they’ll also hear the tiny details of breath, the squeaking of the floor, the air in the room… no one show will ever turn out quite the same.

I’ve always been fascinated by tuning forks. Over the years as a singer I have used them to check my pitch at the start of a piece. The metallic tone of a fork is surprisingly beautiful and can create lots of different textures and qualities of sound. But nobody apart from the singer normally gets to hear it because it’s right up against their ear – so I started to experiment with some willing friends’ ears to see whether the forks could make for an interesting sound experience…

I suppose Symphony is about combining two ideas: the human, fragile quality of live voice and the unusual sonorous sound of tuning forks.

Watch footage of Verity’s performance at Sanctum here:

Has anything surprised you during your work developing and performing Symphony?

I originally wrote the piece to be performed under a bridge, overlooking a river, in Olympic Park in London as part of a festival that The Yard Theatre produced. We left a book for people to leave notes on their experience, and while some people said they shut their eyes and enjoyed a totally musical experience, many others wrote about the site – the music became a live soundtrack to watching swans swim past, or runners on the towpath, or the totally bemused boat-load of tourists who sailed by during one performance.

And then we popped up at Sanctum here in Bristol, where nobody knew what they were coming to see. In that space the piece felt more contemplative, perhaps because the view we set up looked into the still remains of Temple Church.

Mayfest audiences are going to have a totally different experience again, with the one chair positioned in quite a striking place. I think that will lead to some surprising reactions.

Who or what was influencing you whilst you were creating Symphony?

I’m not very traditionally trained in music which means I don’t think I compose in a very conventional way. I rarely write anything down, and initiate a lot of composition from improvisation. I enjoyed listening to symphonies – that hugeness of sound when listening to an orchestra and what that does to your body. The sounds really filling up your whole mind – it becoming a physical experience, I’m a big fan of that.

I’m always inspired musically by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt – the balance they find between simplicity, space, complexity and repetition. But also I love the ebbs and flows of messy sound in a city, like the sudden silence of a gap in traffic on a busy road.

In the past year you’ve been touring Mmm Hmmm and HUG, how has taking your work across the UK and beyond affected your work or the way you look at your work?

Touring HUG has involved meeting singers across the country and forming new choirs everywhere we go. I love hearing how the music totally changes in the voices of a new group of people. It surprises me every time.

Mmm Hmmm has had some really exciting dates at festivals and major venues. But I think my favourite shows were up in the Outer Hebrides, where we performed the piece in a series of village halls. Partly because it was a beautiful trip (stags wandering around everywhere and sea eagles circling overhead) but mainly because the reactions we had to the show felt so honest. On our final night a bus-load of fiddle players turned up to play after our performance, and as we danced a ceilidh, most of the audience chatted to us about the show – they spoke about how it made them laugh or sit up or think about someone they knew.

Photo by Paul Blakemore

(Photo by Paul Blakemore)

What’s next for you?

Mmm Hmmm has a few more dates this season.

I’m just about to start researching what I’m hoping will be a big new piece in collaboration with the wonderful Dan Canham. We’re calling it a dance opera at the moment, but I’m sure that will change over the coming months.

I’ve been invited to do a residency in a London hospital, working with patients and staff to create a new sound piece that could be used in recovery rooms.

HUG will be back in Bristol in July, before heading out to do some really exciting international dates – working with singers in Poland and China, amongst other places.

And then this week I’m arranging a song for a wedding and singing over the closing credits of an independent documentary.

Trailer for Mmm Hmmm:

What are you looking forward to seeing at this year’s Mayfest and why?

There are some real gems to look forward to in the festival: To choose but a few i’m excited about:

Can I start again please by Sue MacLaine
The Complete Deaths by Spymonkey
It Folds by Brokentalker and Junk Ensemble
The Castle Builder by Kid Carpet and Vic Llewellyn
O No! by Jamie Wood

…I’ll stop there but I could easily go on…

Symphony is on 18, 20-22 May. Audience members meet an usher at Bristol Old Vic Box Office. Book here.