We have had a great week touring A Requiem. On Sunday 29th September we were at the Herts Jazz Festival, hosted by Clark Tracey. Lovely theatre gig with a very appreciative audience and great vibe. Because it was a festival set, the suite was truncated to fit the time slot but it worked well and felt good to be playing it again after a break. I am finding that the music is affecting me and my performance in subtly different ways each time we perform. I have always responded to Song Without Words and found it a deeply affecting piece but this week I have been listening intently to Dark at the Edges and Sacred Music both if which seem to haunt me.
These pictures were taken by Mike O’Brien at Herts and I share them here with Mike’s kind permission.
On Wednesday we set off on a long drive to Swansea to play the opening night of the Swansea Jazzland International Festival. The venue was a little pub tucked away on a high street and had a more traditional, earthy feel to it. We received a very warm welcome from the Swansea team and from the audience who were most attentive and generous in their response.
From Swansea we headed over to The Stables at Wavenden. This gig was a real treat. Beautiful theatre, comfortable and a good size yet still intimate. I was especially excited to be there as Cleo Laine was a performer who fascinated me as a child. I used to love seeing her on TV with her fabulous hair and dresses, singing in that unique style. I was a little more nervous than usual but I really enjoyed the event and had some warm and wonderful conversations with members of the audience after the show.
On Monday we head off to Southport for the last of our October dates. Between now and October 12th, I have a special offer regarding the sale of the book. You can purchase A Requiem for just £5. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org to order copies. The book features all the poems performed as part of the show plus extras. The artwork is by renowned North East Lincolnshire artist Dale Mackie. See Dale’s work here: https://www.dalemackie.com/
On Friday 15th February myself and the Alan Barnes Octet premiered our brand new collaboration, A Requiem,a brand new suite of music and poetry, commissioned by Grimsby Jazz Projects and supported with funding from Arts Council, England.
Having worked on the poems from the autumn of 2017 to a final tweak the day before the premiere, I was full of nervous excitement and anticipation – especially as I had not heard a note of the music and truly had no idea what to expect.
It was wonderful to be reunited with the full band again. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again and have so many happy memories of outstanding gigs on our previous Fish Tales tour. This is truly an all-star band and each musician brings his own particular signature, which becomes apparent during the solo sections.
As we got underway with the rehearsal it was soon clear to me that the music was extraordinary. Full of twists and turns with complex rhythms and nuances; the music felt like a journey through time and through the story of war across a century that I was also telling with the poems. The music was full of drama and intrigue and I found it incredibly moving and intense.
The rehearsal day was given an extra layer of excitement as Radio Humberside were broadcasting live from the Central Hall throughout the afternoon and several of us gave brief interviews in which we talked about the work and the project as a whole. Friends and colleagues also came in to give short interviews about the work they are doing in the cultural sector in the town and so the rehearsal had the feel of an event in its own right.
It was a long day and the work required considerable concentration from everyone. After only a short rest for tea, showtime approached and I really felt the nerves kick in. I now have a better understanding of my ‘gig-zone’ and my need to have some space to mentally and physically prepare for performance. It’s an odd place where in equal measure I do and do not want to perform, where nervous energy builds and I have to turn inwards in order to find the right mood for delivering outwards to an audience.
Before I started writing A Requiem I never thought that war would be a subject I would want to work with. I spent a great deal of my undergraduate degree studying the world wars and the literature of war of the twentieth century. But it was not an area I ever wrote about in my own creative writing so when this process began I was taken aback by how I was gripped by the subject and how urgent it felt for me to write and to read and to go back to some of the literature that had so absorbed me when I was younger.
And it was not just the literature of war and the nature of conflict and its impact that gripped me, it was also the processes and rituals of commemoration and the artistic expressions of remembrance that I wanted to explore. I heard in my head the words of the Libera Me of the Latin mass for the dead;
Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
I couldn’t quieten the words, words I had sung over years of on-off membership of various choirs. I had the sense that the words were telling me something and I had an obligation to listen.
Using the structure of the Requiem mass for the dead gave me a clear starting point and an over-arching theme to work with. Alan and Pat liked the concept and so we all worked towards the production of words and music that would culminate in a work to both honour the dead and call for peace. I didn’t want to write a religious piece and worked carefully to ensure that my words would acknowledge all the dead of the century past regardless of creed, colour, gender or nationality and see every victim of war as first and foremost, human.
The work proved challenging to perform on Friday night. It is emotionally charged, powerful and in places bleak and dark. The subject matter is solemn and serious and I felt that solemnity around me as I delivered my words amidst powerful, strong and stirring music. However, one of the central motifs of the work is light, lux aeterna. The light always returns, however dark it has been.
I am now looking forward to recording the work and publishing the poems. I am also excited about touring A Requiem later this year and taking it to audiences across the country.
I am delighted to announce that A Requiem will premiere at Grimsby Central Hall on Friday 15th February at 7.30 pm. Tickets are now available from the box office, call 01472 355025 to reserve in advance at £13.
A Requiem is a collaboration between Alan Barnes, Pat McCarthy and myself and is work that examines the impact of a century of warfare across the world and which asks questions about the possibility of peace. The idea germinated on a dismal late autumn evening in 2017 when I was thinking about what remembrance means and what progress we have actually made across a century in terms of understanding and attempting to stop war.
With a great deal of hard work, commitment and energy, the indomitable Gill Wilde and I put together an Arts Council application to bring the work to life. Happily our bid was successful. Not only has this new work been commissioned, it will be recorded on CD and the poems will be published in a new collection. Venues across the UK have booked A Requiem and it will be seen by a national audience. Dale Mackie has produced the artwork for the project and internationally renowned artists will perform together to create a moving, memorable and ultimately uplifting tribute honouring all who have died in conflict.
The process of writing this collection began in the distant early spring of 2016 when Gill Wilde, promoter and director at Grimsby Jazz asked if I’d like to collaborate on a jazz and poetry project with Alan Barnes and Pat McCarthy in which we would use the heritage of fishing in Grimsby as inspiration. I was thrilled to be asked, not just because of my Grimsby origins and the fact that people here are 90% sea water and 10% east wind but because the story is a compelling and multi-faceted one. Furthermore, the opportunity to work with musicians of such outstanding calibre was not something I was going to miss.
Gill arranged a visit to the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre and a tour of The Ross Tiger, the trawler that stands in dock as a lasting testimonial to the astonishing fleet that made Grimsby one of the most significant fishing ports in the world at its heyday. It’s always made me sad how through my lifetime I have seen the docks decay and fall into disuse and disrepair. There is a wealth of history and heritage here that has been allowed to fall into nothing.
The tour of the centre and the trawler were impactful and I set about writing and produced the first draft of the poems very quickly. I like to write collections in this way as I can capture a mood and feeling and the work is always more cogent when it comes as a flurry. Refining, editing and revising is where the real work is done and that took longer and was exciting as the poems developed their form and shape.
The story of fishing in Grimsby is a bleak one. It was built on a corrupt system of apprenticing boys from orphanages and workhouses and exploiting their labour. It was dangerous and uncertain and loss of life was an occupational hazard. However, I didn’t want the poems to just be bleak and unrelenting – like the work itself. I sought ways of telling stories about fishing that had elements of awe, wonder and magic about them. This led me to explore superstition and myth and to some wonderful and mysterious findings. Two of the poems, Witches in Eggshells and The Fisherman and the Seal Woman are centred on myths and the influence it had on our seafaring community. I also looked to nature and the power of the elements. I was particularly unnerved by the power of the barfrost, the black frost that could sink ships rapidly. The poem Barfrost is an attempt at capturing the fear and danger it represented.
Once the poems were written I was able to wait, with considerable anticipation, to hear Pat and Alan’s music. I knew it would be brilliant and I knew the ensemble of musicians performing it would bring the whole work to life in a visceral way.
On May 18th, 2016, Gill and I were sitting in the Old Clee Club as the musicians warmed up and Alan gave his directions. I was trembling with excitement and when the first notes of the suite sounded, Gill and I yelped and leapt up. The air in the club danced and I was overwhelmed. What a sound. Alan’s arrangements were full of detail and movement. I could feel the sea as the music rose and swelled and then ebbed back.
During the premier performance that evening I was carried with the rhythms and tones of the octet and as I performed the poems I felt them fit the music, I felt my voice working to carry the mood and nuance of the suite. It was an astonishing experience and the rapturous response of the audience was as moving as it was surprising. As a poet I am used to reading to quiet and polite audiences, and I enjoy that, but this was something else entirely. It was the same at the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival and the euphoria I felt swept me away.
And so, what a thrill to be taking A Fish Tale on a national tour this year. We start in July in Hull and Grimsby and then take a leisurely national excursion with it until mid November. All dates plus information regarding tickets are here on the website with links to venues.
The book A Fish Tale is available to buy for £6.50 (including postage and packing) via the secure Paypal link (leave your address in the notes): paypal.me/msjosiemoon