This is the second in a seven-part sequence of essays going into the work on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things done during my Creative Retreat at Aldeburgh (supported by the Britten Pears Foundation). You can read the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh parts at the appropriate links.
To start with the title: during my time at Guildhall, and in the year or so after, I doodled ideas for and eventually wrote an essay of aesthetic philosophy. Its title essentially summarised my core question to much of the arts scene, especially new opera: what is the [bad language incoming; skip to the next paragraph if that’s a problem for you; going, going, gone!] fucking point?
More particularly, that essay was concerned with the idea that, in a lot of contemporary opera, it’s very difficult to see any root justification for its existence, or even for the question “why are they singing?”.
That essay ended up being 58 pages long, so if there is demand to publish it, I will.
It ended with a set of questions, which I answered for myself as follows: “I want to make audience-focused work, communicating mythic subjects with populist means informed by experiment and propaganda, entertaining while providing higher benefits, serving the audience by serving their society and world, creating the art of poverty. I want to be judged well by my mass audience.”
Which I think, more or less, still holds up.
However, the question still is one that I apply to all of my writing. With Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, the trap looming before me was that I really like interactive theatre, and could have very happily just made a pastiche of the shows I like most which happened to involve singing.
But that wouldn’t have a… blinking point. Singing makes things much more expensive, and other people could do that sort of show much better.
My first few days at Aldeburgh were spent recuperating and reflecting on a range of questions. Some of the answers are sort-of spoilers for Come Bargain With Uncanny Things (by the token that, to my mind, “The Mahabharata is an epic about trying to find the right way to exist in the world (i.e. the nature of dharma)” is as much a spoiler as “Yudhishthira and his brothers win the battle at Kurukshetra.”). Some questions already had answers, of course, starting with:
Why are they singing?
Singing allows us to represent the un-normal; in particular, it can allow us to bring the supernatural to life, whether in ritualistic contexts or otherwise.
By having characters and creatures who sing, we can have characters and creatures who do or are magic.
What is the mood of the piece?
Relating to the above answer, the piece is a ritual. It should feel like you’re doing magic.
Also, I personally really like stories about things that are wyrd and uncanny and dangerous and costly, and I wanted to capture that tone.
My favourite feedback from the Work In Progress was “It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, and it made sense; of course it came out of Leo’s brain.” I wanted to keep that combination of strange but comprehensible.
At this point, we reach questions where my answers were less certain on arrival. These are the questions that those first few days finally allowed me to take the time to reflect on and answer.
What is Come Bargain With Uncanny Things about?
Poetically, this quote does a lot of work:
“The opera is not real, Thus it deals with unreal things, Thus the ritual it is controlled by Is a ritual to shape those unreal things.”
The piece is about how we relate to other things, especially how we do so when they are other to us, but still have power.
That’s not to say that The Uncanny Things Are An Allegory For Nature. Insofar as they represent anything, they represent something more abstract than that. They could represent any system with which we as humans must interact with but never truly control, from capitalism to our life cycles. But that is a vague answer, which led onto the next question.
Why is ‘relating’ interesting?
The answer sits in the relationship between two answers.
1. What are you negotiating with?
You are negotiating with something far more powerful than you - it’s about being vulnerable. Enough to need and be desperate for help.
But it is more powerful, and yet must obey. It is an essence given form, with bigger needs than society or individuals - but it is paying attention.
2. Who is doing the negotiating?
You are only human. How do we deal with that? How do we relate to things, when we are only human? How do we relate to things, when we are so used to assuming we are the greater power?
Being human means paying the price - nothing is easy, nothing is free. There is always a price; a complex moral question - a community or individual cost?
Essentially, it is a piece about relating while being mortal, weak, and non-comprehending.
I often make notes about what someone in a world I’m constructing might say. Here, there’s a note saying “I am just a mortal, and you are beyond me, and I want you to love me. And if you don’t, I want you to be destroyed.”
A certain amount of John Donne was in my head at that point.
From this point, other questions started to tumble forwards - the nature of bargains, the nature of the narrative’s world, the nature of the bargainers, and the nature of the erratically-capitalised Uncanny Things themselves. Since it was about relating, certain strands of the ritual (such as working as a community, not individuals) started to become clarified. Since it was about being mortal, new topics people might bargain for (such as being remembered) emerged. Since it was about weakness, the scale of the ritual (such as whether it was for a small community or a country) emerged.
In short, the ‘point’ is that it is a ritual space for adults who want to be in a fantastical world - not one of easy spells and sparkles, but one where we can be human together.
Which, to me, feels pretty much like what I wanted to do.
This is part of a series reflecting on my time at Aldeburgh on a Creative Retreat. There will be seven parts in total.