Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager
Eye of the Story
February 3, 2016
Tondichtung (The Nine Muses)
I am in my mother’s room. Hushed whispers, quietly scuffling shoes on carpet, we settle into our seats. The orchestra has quietly run its scales to pitch perfection, and before it stands tonight’s composer and conductor, the esteemed John Akomfrah, dressed in his finest bright yellow coat. He taps the baton on the edge of the lectern, raises it, the recital hall holds its breath. A distant plucking of strings in a bewildering melody accompanies the first light dips of the conductor’s baton and, as an unseen woman joins with haunting vocals, we are poured from our seats into a still, quiet, cold landscape. As we try to get our bearings, the strings and vocals are joined (and promptly overpowered) by the lesser-known arm of the traditional orchestra: the heavy clanking machinery section, who are themselves slowly overtaken by a hollow, crystalline drone. Staring at the inhospitable landscape, we realize by the rushing whisper below us that we are moving across a body of water, and by the metal armature to our left that we are on the deck of a ship. The industrial din (it may well be the engine) reconvenes as the title of tonight’s concerto descends upon us in snow white letters adrift in a sea of blackness, and we know we are approaching a point from which we cannot return.
Our first encounter with the image of a human being is an intense meeting. A man of a dark complexion works the machinery of a factory and stares unblinking at something outside the scope of our vision. We see a memory, a recollection, belonging to this very man: he is on the ship with us, yet alone, clad in a black coat, staring across a field of water at a cold, unwelcoming, and predominantly white shore. Back in the present, in the factory, we are closer to him now, having seen his past, which still overflows and spills into today, tomorrow, the next day. He is on a journey. Without looking away from the object of his attention, without moving his mouth, he speaks to us:
Sometimes we think, ‘We shouldn’t blame the people,’ because it’s we that were come to your country. On the other hand we think, ‘If they, in the first place, had not come to our country and spread false propaganda, we would never have come to theirs. If we had not come, we would none be the wiser. We would still have the good image of England, thinking that they are what they are not, and the English would be ignorant of us. (The Nine Muses)
Again we look out across the landscape of England, as played by Alaska in a compelling, if a bit frigid, performance. The promise of opportunity brought us here, but this isn’t what we saw in the brochures.
This opening sequence, this prelude, this overture, makes a powerful first impression in establishing the principal cast of this programme; travelers in the mass migrations to England from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, as well as introducing the audience, via the construction of a restless soundscape, to the sobering sense of estrangement and turbulence that their first glimpses of Mother Britain without her makeup must have visited upon them. Colored coats; colored people, stranded in the land of the white; a blunt instrument as metaphors go, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness, which may in fact only be enhanced by its stark, straightforward imagery.
Subsequent chapters, of which there are nine, segment the story, and there is a story, albeit conveyed much more through the figurative than the literal. These weary travelers, drawn by the hearsay of paradise, disembark the boat in their finest suits to the handshakes and smiles of white policemen, but when the black curtain comes down, a sneering sting on the violins kindly informs us that we might have made a terrible mistake.
Realizing that he is now in a strange land with no ties to much of anything, the dreadlocked bespectacled man lingers in burnt-out Liverpool. We talk, “I am in my mother’s room,” says he, introducing his haunting refrain. Mother England? Certainly, says I. “I don’t know how I got there.” I know the feeling. “Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later?” You mean as she existed in your mind when you boarded the Ambulance-sorry, ship? Maybe she hasn’t been born. Then the travelers, in need of some income just to stay alive, find themselves in rooms full of machinery, molten metal, harsh noise. Our acquaintance in Liverpool speaks again, barely audible over the racket; “I am in my mother’s room. I don’t know how I got there. I was helped, I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money…” the rest of his sentence is scattered by a mandolin, but the situation is clear. The man who gives him money, in this factory, an employer, a plant owner. How convenient for him that he should receive boatfuls of cheap labor. Perhaps convenient enough for he or his superiors to have “suggested” this journey be taken in the first place; false propaganda.
The grinding, rattling, shrieking of metal continues in its discordant accompaniment of the mandolin. The travelers feel their identities slipping, slowly becoming strangers to themselves. The tension continues to build as the first generation of these travelers are born in England into the slum neighborhoods, the “black unfolding town, fast and slow.” Communities, in some form at least, begin to arise between these castaways. The children grow into a strange niche, not quite African, Caribbean, South Asian, and not quite English. Two black men turn a corner and are dejected to confront “Keep Britain White” scrawled on a wall. The sea is choppy, but the spirit of these voyagers has not been fully dampened by the foul weather. Traditions of dance and music bring some splashes of color, like coats in the snow, to the gloom of their new home, and slowly come to assimilate elements of western music. This fusion’s legitimacy in expressing the travelers’ ideas and identities is not diminished by the “borrowed” elements but may, in fact, be reinforced by them. How similar that situation is to that of John Akomfrah, in his re-purposing of disparate samples from the western literary canon to compose a song of a marginalized people; of his excerpts from the Odyssey, for example, were the selected narrations not largely centered around difficult journeys to an island kingdom? As such, the ostensibly western instruments in this ensemble subtly takes on the timbres of the mbira or the sitar.
It is by no means a literal timeline of the events of these mass immigrations to England, nor should it be assumed that it was intended to be, but stands instead as a diorama of the experiences of a hard-going journey to a place where one finds oneself unwelcome, unwanted, and tossed about on currents whose designs are unknowable. As such it becomes clear: the immigrants, the boats, England; they themselves are also actors cast in a play of allegory. For whom do they read their lines? Perhaps everyone, as their story, their struggle, their Odyssey resonates with an innate immigrant in us that, for whatever reason, has been othered and ostracized from whatever promised land in which it may have hoped to live and flourish. Though we may find ourselves at a standstill in the industrial ruin of Liverpool, the unforgiving white of Alaska, or before a brick wall bearing an unwelcoming message, and though we may feel we have nowhere to go, the journey is still so far from over.
The Nine Muses. Dir. John Akomfrah. Perf. Stuart Hall and Catherine Hall. Smoking Dogs Films, 2010. DVD.