Composer and writer Martin Heslop and poet Helen Tookey collaborated to produce highly effective sound pieces, where sound and word were constantly re-translated across media.
They presented ‘Jitties’ at the event on the 20th July.
WATCH a film of Martin and Helen’s presentation
Listen to the collaborative piece “Jitties” here:
aren’t on the map but you’ve always known them the dogleg through to the playschool the library the cuts through estates the tunnels that bring you out differently you have always wanted this to move unseen to cut passages able to slip through the cracks like the streams along the field edge the housebacks the narrowways the creosote fences overhangs of trees the gardens’ wild endings not overlooked not comprehended another life under this one humming with motorway a kind of code you slip away you’ve always known it danger under culverts circling spikes to stop you crossing by the pipeline watercourses older ways the body can read can know their presence motorway humming with escapes not speaking turning inwards creosote wood hot slabs tiny observation posts world expands to fill the space allowable constraint produces meaning under pressure it codes heightens you are aware the wires the tracks humming for miles concentrated here where you must be not speaking but knowing everything is there in the spaces between
Read their account of the collaborative translation process they forged:
The process began with conversations between Martin and me about what I had wanted the poems to convey or how I had wanted them to work as poems, and what he envisaged being able to do with them as sound pieces. Martin recorded me reading the poems, then he took the sound files away to work with and I waited to see what he would come up with. It was exciting for me precisely because he was creating new objects from the poems in a way that I couldn’t do myself. Many of the poems use fragmentation to try to convey a particular experience; in ‘Jitties’ I wanted to convey a sense of the language sliding, piling up, and in ‘Beautiful Error’ a sense of a mind going over and over a question, trying it out in lots of different ways. But I could only do that to some extent, because the text (printed or read) is fixed in one layout, one order. What I really love about the collaboration with Martin is that he’s been able to bring what I imagined into being through recorded sound far more than I could do it on the printed page – cutting up the vocal track, layering it over itself, so that you really get the sense I wanted of a kind of urgency and slipperiness. And the sound also enables the build-up of a mood, a texture – of eeriness, say, in ‘Beautiful Error’ – far more effectively than just the printed words could. So what I have found really exciting about this process is that on the one hand I’m giving the text, the poem, to Martin with a completely free hand – I want it to be entirely up to him what he makes from it, so that it comes back to me, as it were, as a new object; but on the other hand, with these poems that has actually resulted in a more complete realisation of what I wanted the poems to be able to do, because sound recording adds so many possibilities, particularly that of being able to make the language move and track over itself in ways that a fixed text can’t.
These particular poems of Helen’s, as opposed to some of our other work, were presented to me as finished pieces, and so in order to make something new I immediately decided that I was going to cut and splice the words, to repeat them, layer them, reverse them. Helen very kindly gave me free rein in this. The recordings of the text already had an immediacy and pace to them and I wanted to encourage that. I began by noting down sounds from the real everyday world that the poems reminded me of, then started exaggerating them or bastardising them until they sounded like something completely different. Sometimes these sounds that I’m looking for are in an instrument or a synthesiser, but equally can be found in the noises of a building site or in a long breath or in the clatter of metal. I go around hitting things, pressing buttons, listening until I find the right sound or mood.
It’s always a strange process, translating poetry which is able to describe all the senses, into a recording that is only experienced by the ears, and the challenge, as always, was to find the right tone; to work with the words but not be prescriptive or predictable; to find the right pacing and in some cases rhythm, and particularly in this case as these are short pieces, to set the mood quickly. There are also the odd times when I feel the need to disrupt the words, to impose on them, and the key is to know when to do this, and with Helen’s delicate yet precise writing I have to be careful. A lot of my music is written in collaboration with poets, playwrights and visual artists, and the style and tone of each project is different, but the joy of working with Helen is the care in which each word is placed on the page, their flow, but also how often the poems end up in unexpected places, and consequently this gives me plenty of room to experiment with sounds.
I recently read a book called Animalinside by the wonderful Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai with drawings by Max Neumann, and reading about their process afterwards was particularly interesting. The writer first responded to one of Neumann’s images and then Neumann, inspired by the words, made a further set of images, to which Krasznahorkai then responded by writing more texts. This back and forth, this cross-pollination of ideas and art-forms is exciting, and the projects myself and Helen are planning and developing are moving towards this way of working.
Helen Tookey is a poet based in Liverpool, where she teaches creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Her debut collection Missel-Child (Carcanet, 2014) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney first collection prize. Her pamphlet In the Glasshouse was published by HappenStance Press in 2016, and the CD/booklet If You Put Out Your Hand, a collaboration with musician Sharron Kraus, came out from Wounded Wolf Press also in 2016.
Martin Heslop is a composer, writer and sound artist based in Newcastle. He has written musical scores and lyrics for short and full-length theatre shows and film, and has worked on many collaborations with poets, playwrights and visual artists for live performances, recordings and installations. He is currently studying for an MA in creative writing at Newcastle University.