Twenty-four hours after Aaron Cassidy’s attempt at recreating the Battle of Jericho, St Paul’s Hall was today filled with its polar opposite: Marianne Schuppe performing her 40-minute cycle slow songs. Her approach in each of the eleven songs is to focus almost entirely on a simple, idiosyncratic melodic line, the vehicle for Schuppe’s equally quirky texts, usually in conjunction with one or more pure, floating pitches that permeate and punctuate the melodies. If one didn’t know better, these pitches would appear to be coming from a sine tone generator but are in fact created using a lute and two of what Schuppe calls ‘uber-bows’, large sturdy makeshift versions of ebows positioned over the lute’s strings and controlled with voltmeters. To look at, it’s all very crude (Schuppe told me that it’s a ‘prototype’) but what it produces is clear and pristine, the perfect complement to her unwavering voice. It’s not insignificant that she has chosen to produce these pitches via a lute, as slow songs essentially has its roots in folk music; one could think of it as an austere, stripped down version of the rich folk luxury of Fovea Hex (and, as i mentioned when reviewing the CD of this piece, Schuppe’s voice bears a striking resemblance to Clodagh Simonds‘).
The uber-bowed pitches established drones that made each song feel fundamentally rooted, enabling its melody to meander within a modest range of freedom, in a similar way to that of liturgical chant. The solemnity this engendered, coupled with the quietness of Schuppe’s voice, led to a distinctly heightened atmosphere within St Paul’s Hall, as though the air were electrically charged and the daylight slightly darkened. In some of the songs, particularly in ‘Needles’ and ‘Keys I’, Schuppe’s stylised vocal delivery filled the song with more than mere words: by turns halting and lingering over vowels and consonants, emphasising and carefully placing sibilants and fricatives, the English text (now bringing to mind Swedish singer Jonna Lee) was turned into a collections of sounds that retained a connection to their literal meaning while also becoming a strange semi-percussive collection of vocal tics. i said that the lute drones root each song, but not always as a simple ‘tonic’ or place of harmonic ‘rest’, but akin to a soft laser beam, its power providing the music’s impetus. The flipside of this was that, when Schuppe sang unaccompanied, as in sixth song ‘Pretty ride I’, one’s ear started grappling around for sustained pitches it thought ought to be present; the sudden melodic freedom brought about by silencing the lute was startling and, for a time, disorienting. ‘Keys II’ raised the lute’s pitches above Schuppe’s voice, which was very soft and low in this song, creating a nice shift in the interaction between the two elements, and in ‘Pipes’ Schuppe went so far as to explore triadic effects, again startling in this context, sounding remarkably rich. Marianne Schuppe’s recital was all about simplicity, subtlety, artistry and authenticity, captured in eleven songs that manage to grip one’s attention while never obviously seeking to, and which commune something important yet keep their meaning diffuse and at something a distance. It was all captivating.