Brighton Festival 2017Public booking opens: Fri 24 Feb, 9am

Festival Hot Seat...The Big Song

The Big Song is a celebration of singing and its central role in the universe and our own civilisation by poet, actor, political activist and dramatist Heathcote Williams, with arrangement and musical direction by Kirsty Martin and narration by Roy Hutchins, who tells us more about the piece.


Can you tell us what your show is about?

The show celebrates song. Why do we sing and how did singing begin? The show looks at how the universe sings – the comets, the planets, gravitational waves... We look at birdsong in depth and demonstrate why it has such a pull on our senses. Prehistoric and Neolithic song-lines are excavated – and a question is raised as to whether the origins of civilisation itself, Stonehenge and the Pyramids for example, were literally ‘sung’ into place. Singing as a tool for social justice is evoked through the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Finally, the piece looks at the physiological changes that occur within us when we listen to music or when we sing and how music acts as a catalyst for the generation of oxytocin, a kind of ‘700 million year old designer drug that makes people smile at each other’.

How and where will the work be staged?

At Brighton Dome. They’ll be a hundred-person choir comprised of the Hullabaloo Community Quire, Raise the Roof and RISE Up Singing. This choir will be conducted by Kirsty Martin with percussion from Rosie Bergonzi. I’ll be narrating the text alongside a BSL interpreter.

Why should someone come and see your show?

Song is central to our identity and our purpose and yet we rarely get an opportunity to reflect and celebrate its very existence… so here’s that chance. The evening will bring together collective voices to explore the evolution of song and as such, it’s an emotional experience, primal even. Songs act as vehicles for sadness and pain, anger and joy and it’s likely that you’ll experience all of these emotions throughout the show. At the same time, you’ll be navigated through the story of The Big Song, by a writer whose ability to celebrate natural history (this is, if you like, the natural history of song) is second to none. Heathcote Williams’ adeptness in crystalizing complexity with elegant prose and delightfully potent images, is wonderful to hear in itself; when underscored and brought to life by a hundred voices singing for the sheer joy of it, the experience becomes even more extraordinary and unique.

Where did the idea and inspiration come from?

During my last show, another collaboration with Heathcote Williams, I started working with choral activist, Kirsty Martin, who provided choirs to illustrate how poetry has been turned into song – songs that have been instrumental in bringing about change and social justice. Both Heathcote and I became fascinated with the power of song and why people sing together. I suggested to Heathcote that this might be the starting point for a new show; a show with which we could work closely with choirs to illustrate, this time, the powerful effect that singing has on us all. Heathcote immersed himself in the subject and a few months later sent me through his thoughts - a paean to song. Once I had completed the stage adaptation, Kirsty devised and scored the text by drawing on her extensive knowledge of both contemporary and traditional songs from all over the world. The result is a hybrid fusion: powerful lyricism, underscored with a wonderful song cycle and brought to life by a glorious choir.

Why do you think it’s an important story to tell?

Our lives are a song cycle… lullabies are sung to us when we’re born, nursery rhymes teach us to clap and sing, and songs become integral to us finding our identity as adolescents. As we grow older we compile our own ‘desert island discs’, played at key moments in our lives and then also perhaps, at the end of our lives. We pass these songs on… but what is less well known is that the universe itself is, in a way, continually singing and that the cosmos has a ‘voice’. It beats through us at 7.83 hz and is known as The Schumann Resonance. Not being exposed to the ‘Earth’s heartbeat’ can unsettle us - astronauts needed Schumann Resonance Generators to be placed aboard spacecraft in order to prevent space sickness. With this cosmic beat pulsing around us all the time, it’s no wonder that songs and music are central to our existence and purpose, and that songs can unify us in a way that little else can. As Williams says, ‘When the world itself is out of joint and has dementia – singing can restore harmony.’ Life without song is hard to imagine – and this show seeks to explain why.

What sort of person is going to love this show?

The sort of person who has eclectic musical tastes. The sort of person who believes that art is for everyone, not just the few. The sort of person that delights in the artistic fusion that occurs when artists and participants passionately engage on a creative journey together. A free thinker. The sort of person who likes radical discourse which is emotionally and intellectually upfront and wears its heart on its sleeve. Lovers of song and choirs of course, but also lovers of natural history and the sky at night. People who love pre-history, politics and protest. People who want to sit back and hear a great story told with great songs. People who love to be surprised by our extraordinary universe - and want leave with a song in their heart.

What’s going to surprise people about this show?

The behaviour of sand dunes. Why Gorillas hum. The songs of Mickey the Singing Mouse of Devonport. Male Mexican free tailed bats. Mercury’s chirping. What happens when two black holes collide. The origin of amen. The extraordinary marsh warbler. A bird’s syrinx. How singing began. What the Latin word ‘cantare’ originally meant. The effect of singing to babies. The story of ANC freedom fighter Viyusile Mini. How songs can be a stealth weapon. The speed with which sound comes out of our mouths when we sing, and finally, the Suya’s unusual creation myth for the advent of song.

What does Brighton Festival mean to you?

Firstly, I’ve lived in Brighton for most of my life – so it’s always an exciting yearly event. In 1980 I was runner up in the Festival’s Opportunities for Young Playwrights competition; so aged 20 I had my first play produced by Brighton Festival. It was a significant moment for me; a moment that made my aspiration to work in the arts real for the first time. Since then, I’ve had a number of productions premiered at the Festival – most of them collaborations with Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation and The Poetry Army for example). To still be working for Brighton Festival and premiering work after 37 years feels like an achievement (actually, one that I haven’t thought of before writing this). Time flies. I suppose what’s great now, is that I’m able to share my excitement about performing for Brighton Festival with with so many others – in this instance a one hundred person choir, who have been an absolute joy to work with.

Do you have a favourite Festival moment?

A short while ago I was giving a foyer performance at Brighton’s Jubilee Library. After the reading a woman came up to me, saying that she recognised my voice. She asked if I had given a performance at Brighton Festival around 25 years ago… a piece about swimming with a wild dolphin off the coast of Ireland (Falling for A Dolphin, written by Heathcote). I said that I had, whereupon she told me about the impact that the show had had on her and how her life had changed, for the better, as a result (Heathcote’s writing often has this effect). It is, if you like, a post-festival favourite moment but it’s important because I’d like the choir to know that the show we’ll be performing could well have a profound and lasting effect on some our audience. Brighton Festival is a special festival, one that can and does change lives.

What are you most looking forward to in this year’s Brighton Festival programme?

Depart looks great. The choral element is directed by Kirsty Martin who, if she brings half the dynamism and energy to their choir as she has done for The Big Song, will make it worth going for that alone. It looks wonderfully atmospheric. It is set at Woodvale Cemetery at night; with aerialists, acrobats and video. It seeks to look ‘at the space between life and death’ – and yet it uses few words. After spending months immersed in the elegant text of The Big Song… this will be just the show for me to see, a complementary show to our offering, and yet linked by the evocative and ethereal sounds of a choir in full voice.

The Big Song is at Brighton Dome on 22 May