From Score to Screen: introducing the “Hermit Songs Project”
by Gregory Peter Fewster
TORONTO – In 1953, American composer Samuel Barber (1910–81) wrote and premiered the Hermit Songs, a captivating adaption for piano and voice of anonymous medieval Irish verse. As a collection, this cycle of ten songs together explored the challenging and promising realities of solitude, paired with deeply religious meditations on mortality.
Over the past sixty years, the Hermit Songs have been appropriately performed by pianists and sopranos for live audiences or recorded for home listening. But late 2017 welcomed the release of a new adaptation to a music film by three young artists from southern Ontario, Canada.
Their collaboration has a curious genealogy. Soprano Natasha Campbell and pianist Heidi Wall, both living in Kitchener, Ontario, are established in the local music scene. Wall is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Music at Western University and a regular performer at such venues as the celebrated Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. The promise of revisiting the Hermit Songs brought Campbell out of a hiatus in her own performance career, but both musicians wanted to seek out a mode of performance that would produce a multi-sensorial experience. And this desire was the impetus for the music film genre, well-practiced in the world of pop music but unheard of with more classical styles. A creative videographer was needed to see this vision through. Wall had recently collaborated with Shayne Gray, a photographer based in Toronto who is known for taking on visually-challenging projects, producing vibrant and jarring prints. And his friendship with Campbell, on hold since high school, cemented this emerging trio.
Years of rehearsal, sound-recording, filming, editing, and folding paper cranes bore its first fruit at Toronto’s Propeller Cafe in early October 2017. Guests at the première of the Hermit Songs Project were greeted by a beautiful film of about 20 minutes, a film that sensually married the translated Irish verse, with Barber’s score, and colourful visuals. Each song has its own personality, and the film captured their distinctive contours by following a person or a pair through a brief activity. The variation is striking. Light and staccatoed, “Heavenly Banquet” features a single woman running through a bright and green vineyard before falling to the ground with intoxicated anticipation. From this woman’s desire to drink at the heavenly banquet “through all eternity” we transition to the haunting tones of “The Crucifixion,” which claims “never shall lament cease because of that.” Tempo, colour, and setting encapsulate the tension between the desire for eternal celebration that comes at the cost of a mother’s ceaseless mourning over the death of her son. Such visceral meditations come to a climax in “Sea-Snatch,” where a woman envisions her fate as she stares into the sea at the edge of a windy pier. Here, pounding tones match the relentless crush of waves that threaten to drown the body.
Three songs also play on pairs, which gesture to the limits of solitude to be explored in the final song. In “The Monk and His Cat,” perhaps the most joyful and lighthearted of the songs, a young man tries to study in the forest, while his cat, played by a young girl, tempts distraction. Her victory is signalled by a pair of paper cranes floating down a swift stream. The intimacy and devotion of motherhood features in “St Ita’s Vision,” as it combines soaring melodies and a fascination with mother’s and child’s hands that together fold two cranes to be hung above the child’s bed. And a companion liberates her staid partner to dance in the street in “The Praises of God,” where chilling rain is overcome by bright melody.
However, the overarching themes of human solitude and contemplation – the domain of the hermit – seem to intentionally linger from one song to the next. Whereas each song follows distinct characters and their personal meditations, the film never captures a face in detail, preferring oblique angles, blurred lines, and flashes of light and colour. It is this visual strategy that allows the audience to maintain attention to the music itself and the contours and content of each song. Continuity is shared also by paper cranes, held loosely in the hand of each character, which challenge reflection on the nature of solitude itself. In the final song “The Desire for Hermitage” many characters, familiar only by their gait or their dress, converge on a single tree. Paper cranes hang and sway from the branches as each character adds their own to the crop. But whatever is shared through this eerie communion slowly fades. A single woman stands at the tree to the concluding words “Alone I came into the world / alone I shall go from it.”
Although music, text, and images have inhabited modern audiences’ imagination since the birth of the tenth muse – Cinema –, the Hermit Songs Project is capable of delivering refreshing artistic novelty for the Barber initiate and novice alike. It is a film that surpasses ordinary approaches to music-videos, joining Samuel Barber as he takes the listener (and now viewer) through the inevitability of the solitary life, giving shape and colour to emotions, and refusing hopelessness in the eternal pilgrimage of humankind.
Interested parties can look for the Hermit Songs Project at music and film festivals in the coming year, as well as future collaborations and solo projects of the three Canadian artists.
Heidi Wall: https://www.heidiwallpiano.com/
Natasha Campbell: https://www.natashacampbell.ca/
Shayne Gray: https://www.shaynegray.com/