Guest blog: The Reckoning’s Fiona Williams on The Art of Change

We have two Workin Process concerts coming up in May at St Paul’s, with the first coming up on Friday: The Reckoning. The show’s director from The Art of Change fills us in on what’s going on as they prepare for the showcase…

The Art of Change is a collective of director, musicians and performers. Together we want to explore the little loved genre of art song through the prism of cultural, societal and political change, demonstrating how art song reflects and challenges our view of the world. The Reckoning is the start of this ambitious – possibly audacious – plan to change the world. Or at least change our perception of it.

But what even is “art song”?! Well, it’s a song, with classical music, usually performed by one singer with piano accompaniment. Almost every classical composer wrote them but some – the likes of Schumann or Schubert or Faure – absolutely specialised in the form. Some broke the rules and composed for more than one singer and added instruments such as violin or clarinet. Often they are based on poems and some composers took folk songs re-imagining them in this form – Britten and Copland being well-known proponents. Many composers grouped their songs into larger works known as song cycles. They come in all languages: German lieder, French mélodie, Spanish canción, Italian canzone and so on. And they are still being written and performed today.

The thing that makes them so special is their intimacy and immediacy. There is magic in the musical and emotional connection between pianist and singer – a unity between the instrument and the voice.

But it is this intimacy which makes art song so difficult. It was traditionally the preserve of salons and drawing rooms of middle and upper class homes and today is rarely heard beyond intimate concert halls, specialist festivals and BBC Radio 3. 

The Art of Change is setting out to re-imagine art song, presenting songs in new contexts which illuminate their view of the world as well as removing the barriers between performers and audience through cross-medium art forms.  For The Reckoning, our starting point was very much about demonstrating the contemporary life of art song, so we have commissioned two composers to create new pieces for the production alongside existing material composed between 1798 (Beethoven’s Der Kuss) and 2006 (Rick Birley’s Counting The Mad). Obviously suffragette and composer Ethyl Smyth’s March for Women makes an appearance too!

So what came first? The script or the songs? Having settled on ‘suffrage’ as our first theme, we spent a lot of time reading, researching, singing and exploring songs, testing out their complexity and germinating story ideas before approaching a writer to help craft the narrative of the piece. For th

e team, this was an entirely new way of working, combining music that we love with text of a playwright alongside the commission for two composers to create new songs for the piece which explore the historic and contemporary aspects of the drama.

Emily Wilding Davison, one of the campaigners for change celebrated in The Reckoning

Eve Harrison’s Twitter Song charts the abuse used against women from the time of the Levellers to the Suffragettes to the very visceral, grotesque abuse directed at women in digital spaces today. 

Ella Jarman-Pinto’s A Cause Worth Fighting For reminds us of exactly why women keep fighting for the equality that would bring benefits to everyone.

Lila Palmer’s script ingeniously weaves the stories of four women from across the generations – Leveller Elizabeth Lilburne, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and two fictional female MPs. 

Together we have created a romp through 400 years of song, feminist activism and current political debate. No mean feat in a 90 minute show!

And all in celebration to mark 100 years of the vote – for an additional 5.6m men and 8.4m women for the first time.

You can catch The Art of Change: The Reckoning on 4th May at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. More information and tickets here!