Tag Archive: WW1

World Premiere: A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War @ The Town Hall, Birmingham, 17 September 2014

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First Word War. 100 years ago in a totally different world, that it so many ways we can’t relate to.  The first mass produced cars (by Ford) only started in 1914, the telephone (as in landline) was still new technology, radio even newer and the first national broadcasting service – the BBC was 8 years away from formation. News was through newspapers or cinema screenings. But the very real human stories of the time still resonate today and tonight are shown through a powerful musical project: – A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War.

British folk singer Sam Lee (whose 2012 album Ground Of Its Own garnered a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Album Of The Year) undertook extensive research for A Time And Place earlier this year by discovering wartime songs and stories from rural communities in the south-west of England. Sam’s joined on stage at by north-eastern singer-storytellers Rachel and Becky Unthank – who have set new music to First World War poetry and more – along with band-mate Adrian McNally who has arranged all of the above for an 11-piece ensemble including string quartet and brass.  And all this takes place in Birmingham’s 180-year old Grade I listed Town Hall. And if this wasn’t enough – this performance will take place against the striking visuals from Birmingham video designer Matthew J Watkins (Gorillaz, Beat13, Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked).

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As we take to our seats birdsong and country sounds play out over the speakers, dry ice wafting gently over a backdrop of three tombstone shapes, on which there is projected a beautiful sunset sky. You can even hear bees buzzing around. It eludes peace in the beautiful setting of the Town Hall. And as the lights go down, the ‘camera’ drops from the sky to the ground and a cave, and the musical cast take to the stage. Tonight’s music is traditional folk inspired, and as the trio of singers chant cathedral windows rise across the screens. “We’re here because we’re here…” goes the chorus. And then a voice, an old woman relates the how boys from her town were taken to war. She asked one boy after the war which village he came from. He didn’t like to say. He was the only one who returned. He couldn’t face the others’ mothers. A staunch and poignant thought – how could we relate today if only one of the men from our village returned from such a war?

The performance is already beautiful, perfect balance of imagery, vocals, musicians and the poetry and words from that moment in time. This song’s theme is about enlisting, the naivety of what young men and boys were walking into – today – social media and 24/7 news would give us a damn good idea. But then? They really didn’t have a clue of the horrors that would unfold. ‘Bideford Bridge’ relates the stale of enlisting and the journey to the trenches – with the chilling end of chorus line “but all of them died in the May.” And then a song with an occasional drumbeat as the men are sucked into the trenches.

And a mention of Empire. In 1914 the  British Empire covered 1/5th of the World population at the time – over 450 million people. And those people too were sucked into the War – not only across Europe but across the World as the British and German Empires fought over territories. Another song – a mother’s epilogue to a fallen son “rotting in No Man’s Land…” as she remembers bathing him as a young child.
‘Bold Privateer’, a Devonian song, is sung beautifully. ‘Wargirls’, quite upbeat, about the women taking on the responsibility of tackling jobs once done by the men – a moment in time as the world began to change for women as a whole. And then a haunting song, as The Unthanks are joined by another woman from the ensemble to give us ‘Socks’ – a song of hope –  as they pray that the men will survive.
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The we have a two parter if you like. A soldier, Roland, writes to his sweetheart whilst in the trenches. He seems to know his fate and encourages a brighter future for her and that she should move on. And then his sweetheart, Vera, writes back, a poignant response for this brighter future. Within a month of writing his letter, Roland was dead. He died in 1915. And their words are projected onto the screens behind as this emotional song is recounted.

And a quick breather and a break as we take in the stories we have heard.

As we take our seats for the second part, the birdsong is ringing out once more. And then as the ensemble take to the sage Lee conducts the strings in a musical disarray of the meltdown of war. Another song: comments from a “simple soldier boy” on his experience in the trenches.”Breakfast whilst shells scream overhead….” and then the bugle sounds. A call to go ‘over the top’.

‘Everyone Song’ is about the Christmas Day cease fire…. the briefest of reliefs from the distraction of the trenches; birds are flying, the song is soaring, the hope, the escapism, before it all melts away…. ‘They’ll Never Come Back’,  a modern day song by Tim Darling (New Rope String Band) , is as dark as it is serious.

Lee tell’s us when the time comes join in. We recognise the tune, sung beautifully, but in German. And now in English. And then we sing…”Keep the Home Fires Burning, While your hearts are yearning. Though your lads are far away, They dream of home….”

And then to the final song of the night. It’s Spring 1919. The war is over. The heroes return. They have memories to smother as they transfer from war to peace. And poppies appear on the screen. The flowers that remembers the generation of men and boys who died in the blood-soaked fields of the First World War.

The performance ends as we hear the old woman over the speakers once more.
“I hate war.
“I hate war.
“But I admire the soldiers.”

And we leave the screens are covered by little white crosses. In memorial to the millions who died needlessly in a terrible war.

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A Time and Place presents new material inspired by personal stories and arrangements to First World War poetry alongside original repertoire from the time against striking This event is funded by Arts Council England and PRS For Music Foundation and is part of the Imperial War Museums First World War Centenary. It’s  co-produced by sounduk, Barbican and Opera North in partnership with Town Hall & Symphony Hall.

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Pictures courtesy of Ken Harrison. Review for Gig Junkies and 102.5 The Bridge.