Saturday 18 November 2023

Stano - In Between Silence

Stano - In Between Silence where we really exist

Stano, John Minihan, Aidan Gillen, Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan, Robert Ballagh, Mary Stokes, Melissa Nolan, Johnny Burke, Marie Howe, Ron Carter, Elizabeth Johnson, Wilson Moran, Brian Keenan

Stano is an avant-garde musician who has been working in the Dublin music scene since the 1980s, but he has never really been a part of any collective genre or scene. His work is not easy to categorise, seeming to incorporate post-punk, post-rock, alternative, indie, but - to generalise somewhat - in the main he works with electronic sonic textures and drones which permits great creative freedom to work across many contemporary music disciplines. Stano discovered a new form of musical expression by accident that has been his main project every since, setting music that had been recorded to a story that was being told by one of his fellow musicians and finding that the two elements supported and enhanced each other. This led to the recording of In Between Silence where we really exist, where he invited other artist and friends to describe "a moment in your life that is significant to you" with no other instructions on theme, subject or length of the story, subsequently adding music to the pieces. So far, that idea has led to a collection of almost 100 stories, 13 of which are presented on this CD.

Many artists have worked with setting poetry to musical backing and song. Philip Glass worked with Allen Ginsburg on making Hydrogen Jukebox into a chamber opera, Robert Ashley's hypnotic operas are almost entirely spoken word, Sinikka Langeland has recently set Jon Fosse's poetry to ambient folk-jazz for the ECM label on Wind and Sun and David Sylvian provided music for the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Franz Wright’s There's a Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight. It's Sylvian’s musical and collaborative improvisations with lyrics and poetry there and on his album Manafon that is perhaps the closest example of what Stano does, but Stano also applies the improvisational approach to the words, taking no control over what is spoken by his guests - with no editing and no second takes - and sets them to musical textures of piano, electric guitar and electronic patterns. It's not backing music or purely drone soundtrack, and in most cases it barely even seems to correlate with the speech patterns or context, but there is no reason why it should. The spoken texts don't need music to emphasise what is being recounted, but they can enhance it in non-specific ways, giving the work another dimension. It's this other dimension, the cross pollination of disciplines, that is the hallmark of opera.

Opera has always been one of the most progressive and experimental of art forms throughout its history. By definition it's a very broad and inclusive artform, taking in music, drama, singing, theatrical production and performance, all of which and none of which are essential. Some operas have no music, just voices singing (Ana Sokolović's Svadba), some have no traditional musical instruments (Ondřej Adámek's Seven Stonesand some people even listen to music on CD detached from its visual and dramatic presentation and still call it opera. If there is one element that can be thought the essence of opera, it's that it has something to communicate to an audience. If this page can bring together work as diverse, unconventional and rule breaking as Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Mahler's Second Symphony (Resurrection), Mozart's Requiem, Marina Abramović's 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, Jennifer Walshe's Ireland: A Dataset and Stockhausen’s Freitag aus Licht, it can cope with an artist working on a new contemporary form of working with words and music.

The most significant aspect of the approach Stano takes to this project that sets it apart from other music/spoken word or poetry artists Kae Tempest, something that gives it a degree of originality and expands the range of what is is capable of, it's the use of multiple voices. The stories and experiences are expressed from a wide range of contributors, some of them are famous writers, artists, musicians, poets probably used to holding forth monologues, others less so. Here however, they are called upon to express themselves in a way that is outside their comfort zone, and yet finds a way into a deeper personal space (where we really exist). The recordings they each make are the inspiration for an appropriate tone and personal response on the part of the composer and musicians. It's not a true collaboration as we know it, but something more experimental. There is an instinctive approach here involving improvisation on the part of the speaker and the musician, many of the talks clearly not scripted, but spoken freeform.

That's the other beauty of In Between Silence; there appears to be no strict formula applied. The music could be written first and fitted to the spoken story, or it could be done the other way around. The story could be related over a recording of the music or it could be brought together in post-production. There are no rules here. Several of the storytellers stumble over words, momentarily can't remember a name, but then move on back to the story and correcting themselves along the way. Others are more comfortable with a prepared script, but even then you get the impression that there is no rehearsal, no second takes, the aim to get something fresh, something told as if almost reliving an experience. The stories are consequently of varied lengths, with no guideline or restrictions imposed. It's about whatever contributors feel like sharing, large or small. Together it adds up to a multiplicity of human experiences, and yet at the dame time a common human experience that we can all share.

It's this unselfconscious and openness that allows the listener to feel like the storyteller is speaking directly to them, and you suspect that it's also what provokes such a personal response on the part of Stano and his musicians. Improvisation is undoubtedly a part of the method of the speaker, and I suspect that there is no music score sitting in front of the musicians. It's the response of the musicians that is important as a contributing factor, but so too is the response of the listener. There is no right or wrong way to listen to this, no meaning you are meant to take away from it. The words are obviously the primary focus but the music behind it is not random and it invites the listener to consider what it is adding to the piece, why such an approach was chosen. It's experimental, which means it's trying out ideas, so the response to the musicians to each piece is entirely different, as it will be to the audience. Choices are important in any creative art form, but a work shouldn't be directing with emphasis to what it believes is important for you to think, and at different times different things will jump out at you.

The instruction to describe "a moment in your life that is significant to you” is all the direction that is given and the reflections are all personal to the storyteller, so it may or may not be surprising that some common themes arise out of them. There's the fact that many of the contributors are Irish-born - the photographer John Minivan, the actor Aidan Gillen, the poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan, the Belfast-born writer Brian Keenan - and it's possible to find their stories connected in one way or another to roots and Irishness. Each of them however seems to want to recognise those roots, but also express a desire to break away from those origins and find some deeper truth that lies inside and through that connect with other people and their experiences, whether though visiting other places, reading books or listening to music. It captures a developing concept of Irishness through the 20th century, breaking away from the past and embracing a newfound sense of freedom, kinship, companionship and liberation. Healing too is an important part of this. In that multiplicity of voices there is an echo of James Joyce's Dubliners, and In Between Silence could be a Dubliners for the 21st century, but the project seeks to find similar experiences in a wider context of time and place.

It is indeed a common subject of interest to explore one's roots and where they take you, so it's unsurprising that similar experiences are important also to Johnny Burke, an American with Irish family origins, to the legendary double-bass jazz musician Ron Carter and his 96-year old aunt Elizabeth Johnson, and Wilson Moran who describes his mother's reconnection with her family history in Sierra Leone, moving from slavery to the freedom to rediscover and reconnect with her roots. Music is a theme that arises in several stories, from Moran's mother's ancient burial song to Robert Ballagh's discovery of rock 'n' roll through Bill Hailey and the Comets, heralding musical and personal change and "revolution". Throughout all these Stano and his musicians provide an appropriate sense of setting, a flicker of Jimi Hendrix in Dorgan's story, a rising beat to the vital ambition of Ballagh's awareness of the expanding “new musical horizons”. Needless to say, some of those stories and the personal experiences related are deeply, deeply touching, filled with poetry and insight, heightened but not altered by the musical element.

As such, applying a label to In Between Silence would fail to do it justice. It's not opera, it's not poetry, it's not spoken word performance; it's all of these, but essentially it's Stano. By refusing to conform to the expectations that being placed within a label or genre would bring, Stano is able to allow explore the unlimited scope that the project offers. These pieces have indeed been presented in a cinema to a blank screen Derek Jarman Blue-like, so it could have a visual element that would invite a different response. Or choose your own colour and you can experience this CD with a visual stimulus of your own choosing. It could certainly be staged by a director, if someone chose to do so. It's with this outlook, and a trust in other people - maybe not just fellow artists, friends, writers and poets but other 'ordinary' people too - that contribute to the unlimited potential of how this remarkable work can be presented and how it can be absorbed by an audience. And when you hear it, you'll want to share it with everyone else you know.

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