'The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.
As part of a double bill with Louise Ahl's YaYaYaAyAyAy, I also saw Recovery, which I loved.
Recovery's copy says it's 'a show about family and letting go, told through song'. The only thing I'd quibble is whether Recovery tells a story; even if it doesn't, that's not a criticism. Story feels like the wrong word. Rolling with the idea of musical meaning and building a show on it, I could quote that quote people love to quote about how it's hard to talk about music not because musical meaning is too vague for words but too definite. Recovery has an identity that defies itemisation. I wouldn't hesitate to say its elements – harmony, lyrics, movement, the odd bit of chat – cohere, even if I can't name the criteria I'm using to say so.
Something similar holds true for the performers, who're united in their distinctiveness. One of the lovely things about music is that it's cyclical- in interesting contrast to the probably-accidentally-super-linear YaYaYaAyAyAy - so you can refract the same material through different voices to see what colours you get each time. Peter Coonan growls and/or is twinkly-eyed. Aoife McAtamney belts the anthems. Stephen Quinn can be plaintive and wry all at once. Aoife Spratt is queen of the snarly bent note. It's less about a unitary style, more about sensitive contrast. (Get used to that phrase.)
I'm going to detour via nerdsville in order to arrive at the lyrics. A lot of the show's musical language has a natural minor feel, able to pivot smoothly into its relative major for colour but not governed by it. For me, that mode's epic melancholy is most effective when played against rather than leaned into; lean into it and everything starts to sound a bit like the music you hear when a film crew in a helicopter pans over the rolling plains of Rohan before fixing on a single rider bound for Edoras on that totes gorj New Zealand horizon. Recovery, thankfully, doesn't lean. It uses that musical heft to highlight banal speech, to force a reappraisal of its reduplication, its redundancy, its something else beginning with R. Music is used as a provocation to look again and deeper, and a further strength of music is that it affords emotion without realism, distance without insincerity, in what you could call a – here we go – sensitive contrast (2).
Looked at a certain way, the show's hardest-hitting, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raisingest, heart-string-pulling-est songs also emerge from that same logic of – yep – sensitive contrast (3!). Middle Watch, The Best of, and the song I know only as The One With The Music Box are all in unapologetic major keys. That sudden clarity only means in relation to its absence; you have to be coming from elsewhere in order to make an entrance. Middlewatch and The One About The Dress enact the same arc vertically as well as horizontally; they slowly establish a range so they can briefly soar past it.
The sweetest harmony of all closes the show, right as the text gets most concrete and painful. That's a rhetorical gesture that doesn't make sense as long as you're thinking of tonality as a set of fixed points like pegs that you hang songs on, rather than the vectors they are. Major and minor are less like high and low than they are like the irish aníos and anuas, both a location and an aspiration, not just a present but a past, present, and future. Major key music is not the denial of sadness so much as its acceptance, sadness as story rather than static essence. In case you're thinking that's a hopeless overreach, there's a happy echo of that idea in the copy's description of a family 'dealing with the past in the present tense'. So there.
Zoe – I'm going to call her Zoe because I know her – talks in mini-DRAFF [a one-off series of four tiny DRAFFs produced as part of Live Collision] about the piece having 'not flatness but steadiness in its rhythm'. The word that kept coming to my mind was patience, a sense that things would take as long as they took, that the moments of musical glory will arrive when they are earned and then go when they're over. There's a bravery in austerity. How lovely it is to watch something and trust absolutely that the maker trusts absolutely that what you're watching is enough.
The big fuck off video of Springsteen that opens the show is a great example; it's long, but there's lots to be got from it once you're not too worried about getting something specific from it. The fact that it ends up being part of a beautiful book-end structure-y ah-HA moment – like in an Ali Smith novel(*) – is a beautiful extra.
To close: I couldn't decide between two Ondaatje quotes, so I put one at the start and the other here. I could unpack why they cohere, or you can just trust me that they do.
I do not know what to say
about this kind of love
but I refuse to lose it
Dylan for DRAFF
* Not just any Ali Smith novel, specifically There But For The, it's great.
Recovery by Zoe Ní Riordáin was presented at Project Arts Centre as part of Live Collision. Image: Keith Dixon
Posted: 03 December 2016