Hannah Ely on ‘A Short Walk’, a new multi-arts collaboration receiving its world-premiere performance this month

Hannah Ely
Monday, September 6, 2021

The founding member of award-winning vocal group Fieri Consort describes the process behind their exciting project combining music by Ben Rowarth and a silent film from Sophia Carr-Gomm

Seeking to belong: a still from the film component of Fieri's 'Short Walk' project
Seeking to belong: a still from the film component of Fieri's 'Short Walk' project

Being on set as Sophia Carr-Gomm brought her vision for A Short Walk to life was an unforgettable experience. Watching the opening scene being filmed from behind the camera, shivers ran down my spine as the sound of our voices filled the set. A particularly intense late-night scene brought tears to my eyes, while the sheer beauty of the locations we found ourselves in brought home to me the spirituality of what it is to belong.

With her background in music and dance, Sophia – an award-winning writer and director – didn’t need much persuading to take on the challenge of creating a ‘silent’ film to dovetail with Ben Rowarth’s new four-movement work. She worked with producer Victoria Fäh of Helvetica Films with complete creative freedom to develop a visual experience responding to the music we had recorded two years earlier.

Our music-film collaboration follows the journey of an individual (played by actor Peter Faulkner in the film) who is travelling in search of home, and as such it picks through the issues of isolation, mental breakdown and belonging – all themes which Ben’s music explores in what we see collectively as an artistic reflection of our time.

Ever since we commissioned this piece for our second album ‘The Unknown Traveller’ in 2018, we have wanted to combine it with a visual collaboration. Now, more than ever, seems to be the right time, with the pandemic having had a huge impact on the consumption of art. Digital experiences have become very easily accessible and far more popular than before. This project looks to a post-lockdown future as we once again embrace the magic of live performance, while also embracing the developments in the digital world.

Throughout the past 18 months of uncertainty for the classical music industry, we have all been driven to think outside the box to reach our audiences. The abrupt change has been a catalyst for new ideas and creative collaborations. This film is one of two visual projects Fieri have embarked upon, the second being the commissioning of illustrator Eleanor Meredith to produce an animation for our recording of Marenzio’s Il pastor fido madrigals, to be released in 2022. Both projects allow us to explore storytelling across language barriers. The music we love to perform is most often in Italian, though sometimes in French, German or Latin. Our aim is to convey to the audience the passion these composers had for the texts that inspired them.

The music written by Ben in A Short Walk is complex and abstract. He uses fragmented text and various languages as a basis for the piece, which chiefly uses harmonic structure and rhythmic patterns to evoke emotions. Ben didn’t have one particular narrative in mind as he began writing the piece, but instead wanted it to be applicable to multiple perspectives.

The music aims to stir in the listener an empathy for an individual who finds themselves away from home. This is an emotion we have all felt in one form or another and applies to countless scenarios, from students in 2020 beginning university over Zoom in the lonely cells of their rooms, to immigrants travelling thousands of miles in search of a new life. Having said this, Ben does describe several moments in the music as being connected to very specific and vivid imagery, ‘almost like a photo’. These visual connections encouraged him, and us, to look for a way to combine the music with a film that would reflect the narrative.

Sophia has recalled how she was drawn to the project because it was an extraordinary opportunity; it was a director’s dream, she said, to be given such haunting, evocative and cinematic music as a starting point. She has worked on music videos before but usually the lyrics would clearly define the storyline. For this project, however, she embraced the challenge of uncovering the narrative thread, of conveying it without the use of dialogue and of aligning it with Ben’s often subliminal ideas.

With so much room for interpretation, Sophia chose to distance herself from the texts by ee cummings and Dante that inspired Ben. For centuries, music as an art form has been envied by visual artists for its capacity to exist entirely detached from narrative or visual representation. Sophia therefore embraced music’s abstract nature and has offered one visual possibility, entirely driven by the nuances in Ben’s music. The result is a beautiful creation of visual art which is united with the music yet which still stands apart, much in the same way as the music does – each strand being part of something bigger while remaining central to itself.

The world-premiere of 'A Short Walk', with the film projected behind the eight singers, takes place at EartH Hackney on September 11; the film plus recorded music, to include a pre-concert interview and post-concert ​‘making of video’ with Sophia Carr-Gorman, will be streamed via Virtual Circle on September 16. For more information on the project, visit Fieri Consort’s website

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