Four hundred voices. A non-traditional performance site in, or around, Salisbury. Six rehearsals. Sixty-minute performance. Go!
Ok, so I am being rather unfair to simplify Market Songs, my site specific a capella vocal installation, which opened this year’s Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival, in such a way, but when faced with creating such a colossal and complicated work the most practical thing to do was to simplify exactly what the work had to be, before getting into the artistic nitty gritty.
The starting point (and finishing point!) was the city’s market square. Infamous throughout history – including recent history – it seemed a location rich in potential. I delved into the history books locating rules, regulations, orders and bye-laws, which, alongside the poetry of Wiltshire poet Edward Slow and Thomas Hardy, provided enough material for four different choirs to sing at different locations around the square. These four choirs represented, loosely, four trades, which too related to four monuments, of which only one, Poultry Cross, remains standing.
Yet I did not want to just capture bygone history; I wanted to capture recent history too – fresh and still, for some, quite raw. The recent remodeling of the market square was evidently a divisive issue in the city, something I was made aware of very quickly during my visits. I managed to interview many of the city’s market traders; they too were deeply divided and there were a plethora of different opinions, not just about the remodeling, but market trading in general. I was keen to make their voices heard, so with the excellent work of writer David Haworth, we took these interviews and fashioned them into texts representing four distinct ‘voices’. This provided material for the finale in which, after forty minutes of separated performance, the four choirs hawked their way into the centre of the square articulating the thoughts of these traders and the future of the market.
The chorus of this finale started with the words, “gather round, let me tell you a story”, which, on reflection summed up the whole of the project simply and succinctly. The last words heard by the audience, “breathe in that market air” – slowly disappearing as the choir meandered out of the square singing to themselves – was a sort of plea instructing the people of Salisbury to not forget about the city’s illustrious and beautiful history and continue to engage with the markets.
Market Songs was my biggest, and most ambitious work, to date and it is a work I will reflect on for years to come; a turning point in my career as an artist. In anxious moments in rehearsals some of the texts, to me anyway, came across as banal, even cheesy, for example: “the best white cloths are made in Salisbury”, but in performance these words came to life in an unexpected and empowering way. These words, which had been consigned to the history books, were created because of this great city and the people of the city were now bringing them back to life again. It came to me that this wasn’t about history, politics and conflicting opinions, but community and coming together to celebrate a history together.
Overall Market Songs worked because of a passionate and dedicated creative team, in addition to a very passionate group of singers, over three hundred of them by the performance. Without their commitment and enthusiasm this project would have fallen very flat. In my opinion, and experience, the best work is created through collaboration, discussion and experimentation at all levels. Market Songs was a fantastic and perfect example of that and I feel proud of shaping a work that engaged a community and its history in a novel and exciting way.
Michael Betteridge, composer