Permission to Speak aims to explore parent-child relationships through sound, action and percussive cutlery.

How did the idea for Permission to Speak evolve?

The idea for this project came from theatre maker Tamara Saulwick. She approached me with the idea of making a theatre/music work based on interviews with a diverse range of people, with the premise being that we don’t always have ‘permission’ or freedom to say what we want or need to, especially in our most intimate of relationships.

Permission to Speak fuses pre-recorded documentary fragments, speech, song, intricate choral counterpoint, gesture and devised movement under a powerful central theme of voicing the unvoiced. Built from multiple interviews with participants from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages, Permission to Speak embroiders an intimate portrait of the interior voices of those around us. What do we want say to those who are important to us? Thoughts, diatribes, longings, regrets, desires, advice, frustrations, and wishes find voice in Permission To Speak.

Composer Kate Neal

What have you learnt from working with Tamara Saulwick?

Tamara is a thoughtful and rigorous art-maker, and I would say one thing I’ve learnt or needed to employ is flexibility and fluidity in changing material. Throughout the process – right up until the last days really – material was shifting. This was also challenging for the performers, who are required to memorise all the music in the show. I threw out more music in the project then any other to date! This was confronting, but ultimately a great process in refining musical materials to suit the content of the show.

How has the collaboration worked?

Tamara conducted the interviews and did a rough edit. I would then take these rough edits and further break them up into small cells, or compose to longer form stories, or cut music to the text or cut text to the music. I spent a lot of time editing interview material and grew to love the voices as a result. This then had a huge impact on how the music formed around these voices. Tamara and I would then go back and forth with material as it developed.

Director Tamara Saulwick

How did you incorporate material from the interviews?

Sometimes I used the voices as I would an instrument, editing them into small cells, and fusing them into the fabric of the music. Other times I composed to stories and anecdotes, editing music to the natural inflections and articulations of an individuals’ voice. In one piece, Tam had collected a series of “um”s and “ah”s, which I then further edited and used to compose patterns and music. I became interested in the things in between what people said and how for so many this subject was intense and difficult to give voice to.

You’re using goblets and cutlery as instruments – what attracted you to them as sound generators?

I’ve been working with glass, goblets and general found percussion for a while (over 10 years), but over the last eight months or so, I have been working on a commission for the Sound Collectors called The History of Cutlery, in which I am researching table etiquette and cutlery. As I’ve been building this in my studio, Tamara became interested in the sounds and so I designed an object for this show. The object speaks to the content of family dining, domesticity and tension around a table. 

What will the audience see on stage?

The piece is in the round, so at all times the performers are visible. They will see singing and movement and hear many voices from all ages and walks of life. There are lights and hanging cutlery. The set is simple, we are foregrounding the stories and voices of the interviewees and singers.

How is it different working with theatre makers compared to more ‘conventional’ composition projects?

Well, for one, the singers need to learn everything from memory, so that raises the bar, and also changes the way material is designed. Also, this work is a collision of several art-forms –music/theatre/text/movement ­– and as such, music is not always the primary focus. This changes the nature of the way the material is composed and executed.

What have been the biggest challenges in putting this project together?

Creating interesting changing music, which still allows the ear to focus on narrative and interview text. Getting performers to act and move whilst singing. Creating a form with intense emotional content yet not becoming sentimental in the presentation.

Chamber Made Opera’s production of Permission to Speak will be at Arts House, Melbourne, November 23-27