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From the Archive: Curlew River with Netia Jones and Ian Bostridge

Nothing Concrete text
8 Jul 2020
23 min listen

Back to Britten's centenary year and November 2013 when director Netia Jones staged a unique, beautiful performance of Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate, with musical director William Lacey and singer, Ian Bostridge.

I’d really like to look straight in the face at that particular heart of this very, very moving story and I think that’s what really comes through this searingly beautiful music. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade.

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BE: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s podcast edition we travel back to 2013 and the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten. In November of that year director Netia Jones staged a unique, beautiful and sold out performance of Curlew River at St Giles’, Cripplegate.

NJ: When you’re wandering around the Fenland or through the marshes the birdlife is extremely active…and so it’s not for no reason that this is a central motif.

WL: That sense of experiment and freedom and randomness that you find in 60s rock music I think also subconsciously had found its way to Britten in this piece.
NJ: I can’t wait to hear them…I can’t wait to hear Ian singing this…I’m going to be in tears most of the time.  

BE: A meeting of cultures and music. East meets West as we explore on this podcast Benjamin Britten’s incredibly beautiful church parable, Curlew River. 

NJ: I’m Netia Jones, I’m the director of Curlew River.

BE: Can you explain where we are at the moment?

NJ: We’re in St Giles’ Cripplegate, an absolutely stunning church which somehow dates back almost 1000 years. Not this exact building but this location as a place of worship. It’s a completely unique church, surrounded as it is by the overarching modernity of the Barbican.

BE: We’re here for a reason though. You’re going to be directing a production of a very unusual piece of Benjamin Britten.

NJ: It’s a very special and unusual piece in that I can’t think of anything else quite like it. It’s a church parable – it’s one of Britten’s three church parables. It’s the one that seems to have the most universality – it seems to be the one that’s performed the most and somehow reach out in a broader way perhaps than the other two. It was written for church performance, so we are performing it in a church. Originally, I didn’t feel that we had to do that, I was interested in coming out of the opera house or theatre or concert space obviously, but when we came into St Giles’ it actually all just came together in my mind and I think this is a lovely place to be able to do the performance.

Voice: Curlew River by Benjamin Britten. I am he, who rows the boat across the Sumida, in the province of Musashi. 

NJ: Famously, it’s based on a piece of Noh theatre and that in itself demands a certain degree of study. I think it’d be foolish to come to the piece without acknowledging that somehow. And yet we’re not re-enacting Noh drama in this production at all. But I’m interested in why Britten was attracted to it so much. At the same time as the reason why he initially in his first encounter with Noh theatre found it impenetrable to the degree that he actually found it funny. I think that’s the reaction we quite often have when faced with something very alien, we kind of dissolve into laughter simply because we don’t quite know how to cope with it. But thereafter, I think after that initial response he became really, really fascinated with it, particularly these moments of clarity and sparsity and intensity. 

The idea is that what we’re installing should feel like the opposite of the church and what I’d like to install will be very, very clean and very minimal, and very much the Japanese aesthetic of high contrast, very, very simple and I hope, very beautiful. We’re putting an incredibly tall mast in the church. Oh my goodness me, it’s eight metres tall, it’s going to be really, really difficult. But this is the kind of thing you can really only do in a church, because you have this wonderful height. The sense of the vaulted quality reaching up heavenwards is something you can achieve while maintaining intimacy in this small, tiny space.

BE: Singer and performer, Ian Bostridge.

IB: Curlew River is something I’ve been planning to do since 1997, since I did Turn of the Screw. I’ve been in long discussions with all sorts of people about doing it. It seemed to be a sort of slightly jinxed idea, it’s great that it’s finally come together and it’s great that it’s finally come together with such a great creative team and with Netia as the director who has such an unusual and distinctive vision. To have somebody who does – I was told she was somebody who worked with video – but the fact that she’s really one of the core performers, she’s actually there running the video so that every performance is different is a fantastic gift I think.

BE: We spoke to Ian Bostridge and one of the things he mentioned he was looking forward to, referring working with you, was the fact that as a director you also are involved in the performance.

NJ: Yeah, it’s very important, it’s central in fact to the work that I do, that it’s very much embedded within the musical language so I can respond as fluidly as an instrumental performer might. I never like doing it, but it’s what I do, for some reason. It’s the only way, it’s absolutely the only way. I couldn’t do it if I were behind glass. There are quite often in concert halls or opera houses, there are control booths where normally these kind of things are controlled from. But it would be impossible to do what I do from there because you need to have that connection. So I do need to be physically quite close but I hope mentally I’m completely invisible – my ideal is to have a cloak of invisibility which has yet to be invented but as soon as it has I’ll be in that thing.

I can’t wait to hear them, I really cannot wait to hear them singing it. I cannot wait to hear Ian singing this, I’m going to be in tears most of the time. I’m in tears most of the time when Ian sings happy songs, this one’s going to have me beside myself.

Voice: ‘Although a mother’s voice may be unclouded, she may well lose her way through love of her child. Where does my darling stray, shall I ask these travellers? Does he know his mother’s grief?’

BE: I wanted to talk a little bit about influences.

NJ: Well I think of interest to me here is what Britten intended and then what we can extrapolate and develop from that. So we’re not a literal interpretation of this piece in so far as I’m not always obeying Benjamin Britten’s instructions but I hope that I hope that I’m not veering radically from them either. We’re not performing a piece as a piece of Noh theatre and that comes very deeply from my beliefs and commitment to this idea of authenticity because I find any kind of re-enactment or period costume, I find that somehow inauthentic. Again, that’s just a personal approach. I think this particular parable hones in on what is possibly the most painful and difficult experience, which is the mother’s loss of a child. So in a way, that in itself is a very pure expression, the most intense kind of grief. I don’t want to lose that in become side-tracked in the paraphernalia masks or Noh theatre or whatever that is. I’d really like to look straight in the face at that particular heart of this very, very moving story and I think that’s what really comes through this searingly beautiful music. 

Voice: Behind me, wrapped in clouds and mist, lie the mountains I have crossed. Many a barrier I have passed through, many a province have I traversed. Here lies the far-famed Sumida and now I have reached the ferry.

NJ: Many of my visual references are Japanese references, that’s inevitable. The visual world is heavily reliant on material that’s gleaned from Japanese sources. But I’ve also been lucky enough to have spent quite a lot of time in East Anglia in these last few years, and in fact all through my life and there is a particular atmosphere there too which is worth exploring and thinking about so I’ve done a lot of filming there. I’ve been wandering round the reed beds in East Suffolk as usual with a camera. So I’d like to bring that to the heart of London. I think this, as with most of his pieces if we’re honest, is so geographically centred, they really are and that’s a wonderful thing about them, and that’s very much a part of this performance.

BE: I’m presuming that you’ll be directly using the bird imagery, in some form within what you plan to project?

NJ: Yes, because the Curlew itself is really central to the piece and the theme of the Curlew comes with the Madwoman, she sees these birds – invisible or not – flying around her and that’s very deeply rooted in the musical language of the piece. I think you can’t help but do that when you’re wandering round the fenland or through the marshes, the bird life is extremely active and very, very evocative. And so, it’s not for no reason that this is a central motif.

MH: My name is Martin Holme and I am acting Visitor Services Manager for Rainham Marshes, a nature reserve out in Purfleet, east of London. The curlew is a wading bird, a fairly big one, once common now less so unfortunately. A wading bird means that it lives and feeds most of its life along shores and mudflats. If you look at a picture of a curlew you’ll see it has quite a long, curved beak. It uses that to source its food, so it will put that into the mud and find its food. They’re quite audible so they have to me one of the most beautiful, quiet, melancholic calls, which I wouldn’t be surprised inspired Benjamin Britten. Because when you hear the curlew it’s like a little pinch in the heart of sadness but also joy, I guess. It has that tone straight in between the two emotions, for me at least. Curlew:

BE: Beautiful, fantastic.

Voice: Who on earth could have dreamt of such a thing?

BE: Musical Director, William Lacey

WL: I think the key influence on the piece musically is the trip that Britten made to Japan in 1956, which had a very big impact on his thinking and his creativity. And it came at the right moment, you know, all great creators who are lucky enough to have a long career, they have to have phases where they renew themselves. They know that they’ve done enough and had enough success and acclaim in a certain sphere, and they need something to send them in another direction. Those are the ones – the Picassos of the world – who manage to find inspirations that give them new material. 

BE: Just to set it out from the beginning as something very different – it all starts in plainsong which just sounds incredible.

WL: Yeah, it’s a new world isn’t it? It’s so very surprising, it’s such an old sound, plainsong, it’s immediately recognisable as something from hundreds of years ago. So he tells us immediately that this is not going to be a normal musical experience. And a wonderful aspect of the piece, which again is influenced by Noh theatre – I believe it’s also influenced by the fact that it was the 1960s when he wrote it – is that there’s a random element in it, which is tremendously important. What I mean by that is all of his other operas until then were written for an orchestra and a conductor, who were sitting in a pit, and they played the notes in front of them and the conductor laid down the tempo in the normal way. In Curlew River there is no conductor – there must be no conductor – this is very important. 
Sometimes it is done with a conductor and to do it with a conductor is to completely misunderstand the piece I have to say. There can be a Musical Director who’s sitting at the chamber organ, that’s how we’re doing it – that’s me – but the idea of seven instruments and every instrumentalist is an equal partner in the event, so you don’t have the hierarchy of the symphony orchestra. No, it’s not that at all, it’s seven equal players and each of them leads at different times. And there are periods where there’s no set tempo, so one of the seven people plays the main voice very freely, as they feel it in the moment, and the others have to organise themselves around that one person. So the random element means that every performance is going to be rather different. I think that’s a ‘60s thing, because even though Britten was the least kind of groovy person who ever lived probably, and obviously we’re not talking about the same 1960s as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were experiencing, but that sense of experiment and freedom and randomness that you find in ‘60s rock music I think also subconsciously had found its way to Britten in this piece. I think it’s one of the great, great things about Britten. Of course, this year, in his 100th year there’s a great deal of Britten going on, I’ve been listening to a lot of performances of Britten and indeed conducting them myself and I’ve been doing Midsummer Nights Dream recently, my wife is about to do Lucretia for the first time, I’m preparing Curlew River, I’m going to hear Death in Venice this evening. One of the things that strikes me hearing all this Britten is that actually every piece has its own sound world, and that is a phenomenal achievement. I mean how many composers have done that, to write that many operas and yet to have every one sound different. 
And Curlew River in some ways is the most haunting of all, because it has this sparseness, which is so effecting, tragic somehow but in such an understated way. It’s a piece that’s very hard to get out of your head when you go to a good performance, it stays in your head for quite a few days afterwards.

BE: I suppose that leads on to the question of does it have a happy ending? I think it finishes with an ‘Amen’ but it’s quite a tragic story.

WL: I mean, yes and no. OK, it’s ‘Amen’, but Britten’s relationship with religion was ambiguous, like so many people in the 20th century, so one’s not quite sure what an ‘Amen’ means in this context. I find it to be a tragic work personally, but that’s the way I respond to it – Netia may have other ideas for that.

BE: I was speaking to William Lacey, and one thing he mentioned when we were talking about the story and the production was the ending, whether it was a tragic ending or whether there’s hope at the end.

NJ: There’s much written about this and there’s much complaint actually, because for some people I think Britten’s interpretation of this, of Sumidagawa, which is the Noh play, into the context of a medieval mystery, they feel that it works unnaturally. And for me, my approach here is possibly less literal. I think there is a moment of clarity which I find so moving, comes with uncertainty. And therefore, when we arrive at the end and we have certainty, we also have a sense of completion or if you like, redemption. My interpretation perhaps isn’t so ecclesiastical. I mean if you look at this story nothing happens at all – a woman has lost her child at the beginning and she’s still lost her child at the end, yet there is a journey, whether this be emotional or spiritual. I think it can be one of those transcendental moments of listening to an incredibly beautiful and beautifully made piece of artwork. This year, because of this incredible centenary, it’s an absolute joy and pleasure to work on this particular piece. I think it’s a piece that’s really open to many, many ways of presentation. So I think that’s exactly what should be – there should be lots of different versions, lots of styles and approaches, I think it should be performed as much as possible. It’s a very difficult piece, but it really is rewarding and a pleasure to work on.

Voice: ‘What seemed her boy is but a grassy mound. Lost on the wide, desolate moor. Sadness and tender pity fill all hearts. Sadness and tender pity fill all hearts.’

BE: You’ve just heard director Netia Jones and musical director William Lacey and a brief cameo from singer Ian Bostridge talking about Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River. This sold-out production ran at St Giles, Cripplegate (the church opposite the Barbican main complex) on 14–16 November 2013 with Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices. 

You also heard on this podcast the voice Tomoko Komura reading the narration from the Noh play Sumida River and expert Curlew spotting and advice from Martin Holm at RSPB Rainham Marshes.
I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.

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