Clara Sanabras: A Hum about Mine Ears
Concert: Britten Sinfonia, Chorus of Dissent, Vox Holloway, Harvey Brough
The Barbican. 6 March 2016
CD: Britten Sinfonia, Chorus of Dissent, London Voices, Nigel Kennedy
Smudged Discs SMU607. 44’50
Singer Clara Sanabras arrived in London from her Barcelona home about 20 years ago to study music, despite not speaking a word of English. I first reviewed her shortly after her arrival in one of the many early music groups that she went on to perform with, noting that she has “an evocatively sensual and focussed voice, rich with harmonics . . . her voice is ideal for much of the early repertoire, particularly from the medieval and early renaissance”. She has since built an enviable reputation as an eclectic singer/songwriter with a wide variety of musical styles, notably in the broadly folk/blues tradition. I wrote in a later review that “I hope that Sanabras is not lost to the early music world”. She hasn’t been, and has certainly not lost the clarity, purity and superb intonation of her evocative and sensuous voice. But there aren’t many early music solo singers who could fill The Barbican hall for a concert of her own compositions, complete with over 200 supporting musicians.
That happened in the launch concert for the CD of her folk-opera, ‘A Hum about Mine Ears’, part of the Barbican’s Shakespeare400 Weekend. As the name suggests, the music is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s the Tempest, the idea inspired many years ago during Clara’s time playing in the band at Shakespeare Globe and listening to Vanessa Redgrave playing Prospero. In a series of eight songs and a central instrumental piece, Clara Sanabras delves under the surface of Shakespeare’s text to explore contemporary, sometimes feminist, themes, bringing in a wide variety of images and sub-texts in her own and Shakespeare’s words. In her programme notes, Sanabras explains that she uses Shakespeare’s themes of ‘loss and retrieval, exile and reunion’ as a ‘physiological journey of incredible relevance to modern times’. She weaves a magical thread in and around the original story, focussing on Caliban (as the ‘scapegoat’), Ariel (a ‘festival-crazed free spirit hippie’), Prospero (and his final cathartic rejection of his magic powers) and, notably, Miranda, who Sanabras reinvents as a powerful woman who, along with her own ‘Chorus of Dissent’, ‘Won’t give up the fight until I’ve won’.
The eight songs in the song-cycle are in a variety of musical styles, ranging from the simplest solo voice and guitar to the wildest of big-band extravaganzas. Each has a distinctive feature or chorus, and makes clever use of the build-up of musical tension. Caliban’s Cave has the gutsy refrain ‘Ban Ban C’Caliban’, Miranda’s Dissent has the refrain ‘I won’t give up the fight’, and Enter Ariel (with a text ranging from the fires of Beltane to the Lord’s Prayer, including ‘Bring us this day our Fairy Cakes’) opens with a percussion riff created from Clara’s own body. The orchestrations are by the similarly eclectic musician and composer, Harvey Brough (of earlier Harvey and the Wallbangers fame), who also conducted the live concert. And very clever the orchestrations are, making full use of the sizeable orchestra and the combined resources of two North London community choirs, Chorus of Descent (for whom the composition was commissioned in 2013) and Brough’s own Vox Holloway.
The Barbican evening opened with the Overture: Take this Slave of Music, written by Clara Sanabras and Harvey Brough, setting the words of Shelley’s ‘With a Guitar, to Jane’, also based on The Tempest. This is omitted from the CD, but that does include
Nigel Kennedy playing the central violin solo The Tempest: Himself alongside the Indian Harmonium accompaniment of Clare Sanabras. In the concert it was renamed The Tempest: Herself, and played by the leader of the Britten Sinfonia, Jacqueline Shave. There were also brief appearances by the twelve young girl dances of the Ceyda Tanc Youth Dancers and by Harvey and the Wallbangers. The lavishly illustrated concert programme and CD notes include an impress set of photos and stills from the various videos that accompany the work. I suggest that there is the potential for a fully staged and acted film to be made based on this piece. In the meantime, a video introduction to the Barbican event can be found here.