A new way to tell an ancient story

A new way to tell an ancient story

‘Permanent Red’ weaves words and music together to create something new from Homer’s ‘Iliad’

PUTNEY — Violinist Brigid Coleridge and pianist Lee Dionne have conceived of a whole new way to present a classical music recital.

Yellow Barn in Putney is welcoming the two alumni for a week-long residency weaving free-verse poetry from British modernist poet Christopher Logue's War Music together with physical theater and music for violin and piano, and on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at 8 p.m. at Next Stage, their work will culminate with an evening performance, Permanent Red.

Juxtaposing scenes from a re-imagining of Homer's Iliad by Christopher Logue with the template of a conventional violin and piano recital program, Permanent Red explores ideas of the “classical,” weaving Logue's poetry together with music by Bach, Kurtág, Szymanowski, LutosÅ‚awski, Kreisler, Mozart, de Falla, Strauss, Smirnov, Cage, and Poulenc.

Alternating and overlapping music with text, the duo delivers lines, inhabits characters, and toggles between roles of speaker and player.

Lasting about 70 minutes, the innovative event at Next Stage concludes with an open discussion between musicians and audience members.

Personal connections

Coleridge is an Australian violinist currently based in New York. Her recital projects, informed by her interests in music, literature, and theater, offer a critical and multidisciplinary engagement with the works she presents.

Currently a doctoral candidate in music performance at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Coleridge graduated from the University of Melbourne with degrees not only in violin performance but also English literature and French language.

Similarly, Dionne cultivates a particular interest in creating performances that help audiences form personally relevant connections with music.

Currently a candidate for the Doctorate of Musical Arts in piano performance from Yale School of Music and the Soloist Diploma in piano performance from the Musikhochschule in Hannover, Germany, Dionne previously received a B.A. in literature from Yale College.

Dionne and Coleridge have known each other for many years.

“We play together in a trio, and both of us are passionate about multi-disciplinary work,” says Coleridge. “Lee and I also have performed as a duo in more conventional recitals. For a long time, both of us have been interested in developing a project like Permanent Red.

“Yet it has been difficult for us to find the time to sit down and work out the details. The fact of life is that so many opportunities and obligations get in the way of developing a recital like Permanent Red. That's why the residency at Yellow Barn is such a godsend. For a whole week, everything else can be suspended and Lee and I devote ourselves entirely to this project.”

Permanent Red is another of Yellow Barn's adventures,” Yellow Barn Executive Director Catherine Stephen says. “When the musicians applied to Seth Knopp for this residency, a lot of things appealed to us as to what we are all about here at Yellow Barn.

“First of all, Lee and Brigid are Yellow Barn alumni, so we know them well, and we know that they do exceptional work and are incredibly creative.

“Secondly, the thinking behind this recital allied with another goal of Yellow Barn: breaking down the concept that going to a classical concert is like going to a museum, an experience [of] familiar repertoire that we can only appreciate at arm's length.”

Merging disparate forms

Coleridge elaborates.

“Both Lee and I have long had an interest in combining the music we play with other art forms,” she says. “This is not to imply that I find anything lacking in classical music, or even traditional recitals. However, the merging of disparate art forms opens a new perspective on things. I want to consider the music I am playing from a new vantage, and as a result, people will hear the music differently.”

Like Stephen, Coleridge doesn't want classical music to consist of museum pieces.

“I want the music I play to be fluid and dynamic, and I try to realize as a performer all its potential,” she says. “I am not scoffing at the way traditional classical music is performed, but rather I want to add new ways to experience it. I am always questioning my relationship to the music I play and my audiences who come to hear it. Such continual concerns with me were the starting point for this project.”

Permanent Red, a project which Coleridge initiated, is a very personal one for her.

“I first read Christopher Logue's incredible adaptation of Homer's The Iliad years and years ago, but it has stayed with me,” she says. “His work has become the basis of this recital at Next Stage.”

In 1959, BBC Radio Producer and classicist Donald Carne-Ross asked Logue to translate a section of the Iliad for a radio segment.

There was one problem - Logue didn't speak Greek.

Carne-Ross, having known this all along, was hoping for much more than a literal translation. Logue went on to make the story of the Iliad his own.

“What [Logue] did was cut to the work's essence, using free-verse poetry to describe the events,” Stephen said. “For a lot of people who were forced to read The Iliad as a 'classic,' this version came as a surprise, as its visceral response to Homer gets your adrenaline going.”

'Utterly free'

At Yellow Barn's website, Dionne writes of War Music, “What Logue does so brilliantly in this work is to take a story with which so many of us are familiar and to retell it with an utterly free and contemporary use of language and verse. Using Homer as his model, he transforms the poem into singing modern speech, knowing that we will still recognize within its underlying structures.

“Logue relies both on our familiarity with the events of the Trojan War, as well as our knowledge of certain tropes that Homer returns to again and again in his verse in order to transform the original Greek into singing modern speech, knowing that we will still recognize within it both the form and content of Homer's masterpiece. Neoclassicism at its best.”

Just as Logue cut, expanded, and modernized the ancient tale into his own poetic language, so now do Coleridge and Dionne, exploring ideas of the “classical” in music performance.

“Logue has taken an ancient story and reimagined it for our modern day,” Coleridge says. “I was struck in War Music how he finds such a stark and fresh way of doing that. I like artists who work without coming to a subject with a prescribed agenda, but rather explore its possibilities because it moved you or just because it spoke to you.

“Logue's work was a natural fit for us to consider the possibilities of a classical music recital. Just as he reworked classical archetypes, so often do composers when creating their music.”

Dionne continues, “Logue is our inspiration both for our relationship with the recital format, and for our choice of repertoire within it. The musical works that we've chosen share a similarly playful relationship to their predecessors.”

Permanent Red is equal parts music and a theatrical reading of the Logue's text.

“However, it would be a mistake to think we are presenting the music as if it were representational, like [the] background score of a Hollywood film,” Coleridge explains.

Rather, Coleridge and Dionne juxtapose music and text in unusual ways that work “to counterpoint, interrupt, and interweave” both in surprising ways.

“Sometimes the relationship between the two will be more obvious,” adds Coleridge. “Other times it will be more jarring. This should open a space for the audience to develop responses of its own.

“The audience's contribution is a vital part of the experience. We do not plan to foreground any response. Nothing is prescribed. Nor is anything right or wrong. You bring what you bring.”

Centuries of music

In Permanent Red, Logue's text will be accompanied by music from many periods, from Bach through high Romantic music to works from the 20th century. Only one piece will be performed whole; with others, movements or a part of each are highlighted.

“You could say we are getting our hands dirty with the music,” admits Coleridge. “Sometimes we will erratically stop a piece of music with text, other times the transitions will be more graceful. What we are doing through music is responding to the narration of the text. Our interruptions are no gimmicks, but rather it is the music saying something in response to the words.”

Coleridge and Dionne spent a long time working out which parts of Logue's War Music they would use in Permanent Red.

“Ultimately, we agreed on the scenes we wanted to focus and then edited down the words of the lengthy text,” Coleridge says. “The main narrative of Permanent Red deals with the death of Patroclus in the Iliad, an event that is presented by Logue dramatically and tragically. The music we have chosen to perform highlights this point of view. In both Homer and Logue, this is a moment rife with great violence.

“In Logue's reinterpretation of these events, he employs powerful juxtapositions. Great violence is set next to very normal and everyday moments of life, like cleaning tools or fetching water. It is a constant reminder that while there is great violence in this world, ordinary life continues. The effect is beautiful but horrific.”

Coleridge admits that Permanent Red at Next Stage remains for now an experiment.

“This will be our first performance,” she says. “We're very excited and curious to see what happens. Our residency at Yellow Barn is a gift where we can work on the final steps of a project we have been developing for years. Even if all the elements that come together in these works were tried out separately on different occasions, here will be the first time we have brought them all together in one work.”

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