Words and Music

Belfast City Choir put poetry to song with an inventive Literary Lunchtime show at the Ulster Hall

The Ulster Hall Literary Lunchtimes series has a small but dedicated following of people who are clearly interested in words. Usually, a writer or poet reads from their work, and the audience listens. So far, so passive. Words and Music Literary Lunchtime with Belfast City Choir, however, is a little different.

Perhaps not the best-known choir in the city, BCC promise a 'musical journey through local literature'. It's an enticing prospect from 'experimental choir' who formed in 2013. When I arrive, I'm handed a copy of the Belfast City Choir Literary Lunchtime Songbook, and instructed to 'sing whatever tune or notes I want'. I am also permitted to stand or sit anywhere as I join the 30 or so other audience members. I'm sure the choir will join us some time soon...

In fact, for one day only, we are the choir and choir is us. The instructions on the first page are clear enough: those in possession of the songbook will perform as members of BCC for the afternoon. Holding our songbooks, we embark on a ‘performance’ of ten ‘songs’.

Each song Is presented with instructions on one side of the page and text on the other. A screen at one end of the room shows the number of the song to be performed, and a bell rings when we move to the next piece. There is a recorded soundtrack of relevant noises; a clever device that covers some of the potentially uncomfortable silences at the onset of each tune.

As it happens, most of us are up for the experience. My reviewer’s notebook sits unused on the floor as I join in (rather gamely, I feel – credit where credit is due).

We begin by breathing slowly. The instructions tell us to continue breathing slowly, adding a 'shhh' sound on the exhale. Then we should hum each time we breath out. It starts quietly, and gains a little volume and harmony as participants hum different, dissonant notes, stopping and starting at different times.

It reminds one of the avant-garde musical experiments of the 1970s; choral works where singers were asked to choose their pitches independently for segments of text in a new work. The sound was actually beautiful.

In the second ‘song’, words became important. Fragments of text are printed opposite instructions on how to deliver it. Sometimes we are asked to recite lines in order, sometimes in random sequence. Sometimes consonants can be repeated in rhythms, vowels elongated, phrases repeated.

'Song IV' lifts its lyrics from The Blackbird of Belfast Lough, an anthology of translations from the Irish by a variety of Northern Irish writers. A soundtrack of birdsong accompanies the choir, who now ‘chirp words across the hall in call and response'. By this point, the choir is divided between those of us committed to participating wholeheartedly, and those of us still a little shy and off-put.

'Song V' includes the instruction to ‘slowly shape your civic sound’, and, if it hadn’t already, our purpose becomes clear: the words and music are generated from texts aimed at illuminating the city of Belfast.

Portions of work by Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Louis MacNiece, Sinéad Morrisey and John Hewitt, among others, mention the city, the dockyards, the Troubles, the surrounding landscape or various states of mind connected with place. The speaking (and singing) voices of the choir re-create the kind of gentle urban cacophony that inspired at least some of these poems and prose pieces.

Does it work? Well, it gets us thinking, at least. It may be that the fragments of text we read (sing or warble, as the case may be) will inspire us to go back to the original poetry. It certainly pushes us out of our comfort zones for a while. And, in the end, that’s part of what poetry does or should do. Or am I preachin’ to the choir?

Literary Lunchtimes continues in the Ulster Hall, Belfast on April 16, featuring novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell.