My Inspiration: Anna & Isobel Hughes – A Place To Fall To Pieces | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Musician Anna Hughes (from folk quartet Balter and pianist/composer in Benjamin Fitzgerald’s ensemble) alongside her sister and trained actor, Isobel Hughes have created a unique production entitled, A Place to Fall to Pieces. The show is a new form of musical storytelling, merging folk music and tales, spoken word, original composition and text. It’s a story (and song) about magic, memory and earth, as well as being a musical quest for the meaning of home.

A livestream performance of it takes place from The Space Theatre in London on Feb 10th and 12th (tickets available here) and so, ahead of this online event, we asked the duo to tell us what inspired the show…

A Place To Fall To Pieces probably had its beginnings, unknown to us then, in one of the many conversations we’d have about Home. About how weird it was, having moved around a lot, that we just didn’t feel like we could lay claim to anywhere. About how we found it hard to tell people where we were from. Did a lack of defining place-to-be-from mean a lack of definition in ourselves, were we missing something, and if we were – what was it? 

Especially for Anna as a folk musician, where musical and physical identities are often linked, that question had got under our skin. And so, somewhere, a show was born. 

We had no idea as we began what form or shape it would take. But we had a quest, a good one, we were going to find our Home.  

After having written an assortment of stories and songs from across the country, we found that we couldn’t escape the shaping of sounds by the idiosyncratic landscapes of our past. Memories of grey skies and concrete from an industrial Northern town, a childhood of climbing trees and long summers in a quiet Suffolk village and the wildness of the North Atlantic coast can all be heard in the music. We even returned to specific locations to collect field recordings. The exact walk up to a headland where one of the stories is set can be heard amongst a fiddle song of the sea. 

Not to give it away – but in a search for Home, land – as the one constant in a moving life – is always a good place to start. 

As a traditional musician, I (Anna) have always been drawn to folk song and old ballads. The idea that these communal stories exist, that may vary regionally or internationally but have the same heart, is a wonderful thing if you’re ever feeling like you don’t belong. It has been a huge influence on the way we have approached songwriting, with cautionary tales, songs of love, loss and nature all featuring in the show.

Living in Finland for a year, I was exposed to their folk music, and one of the things that I was so taken by was their traditional singing style. The sheer power behind their chorus, their ability to improvise vocalisations, harness different tones, and be playful with it at the same time was beautiful. We had a day’s workshop with local singers Janice Burns, Maisie May, Jayne Dent, Amy Leach and vocal students from Durham University, Alice Latham and Natalie Houlston, and spent time making vocalisations that play with tone, natural harmonics and creating a chorus of witches for one of the stories, Winter Hill. 

The oldest layer of traditional Finnish instrumental music has also, perhaps in a less obvious way, influenced the music. Their melodies were short and cyclical, with only a small amount of notes used, and historically, some were played for hours, creating this droney, hypnotic music that stays in the same place for a really long time, and takes you into another world. There is a lot of repetition, drone, simple loops and slow development in the pieces. Hopefully with the intention that it can be transportative in some way. 

One of the pieces, Swifts, tells the story of a God-fearing town, where paradise is a ship in the sky. There is influence from psalm singing, choral harmonies with passages from biblical text, again, recorded with local singers all studying on the Folk and Traditional Music degree at Newcastle University. 

We both grew up playing classical music, which has crept into the show, almost by accident – it even features some oboe! I love writing string arrangements, inspired by arrangers and composers working across genres, such as Gavin Bryars, Rob Moose and Andrew Norman. Most of the sound design is centred around fiddle and voice – more of a comfort zone when composing, but there is something really exciting about becoming inspired by limitations, too. These limitations were created by working with instruments I know less well – concertina, harmonium, and even working with a DAW, to an extent has opened up new ways of writing, and more interesting musical possibilities, through the unfamiliarity of it. 

It’s a strange thing to make a piece with your sister, but the gifts are huge. There have definitely been moments along the way where we’ve stopped each other and had to recognise that all we’re really doing is playing in another medium. Like the games we invented as children, this show is inspired by the longing for and memory of worlds that are just a bit beyond this one.

Perhaps we’ve come full circle. Perhaps we’ve regressed. But it’s unsurprising that in a piece that is all about Home, our inspiration comes from each other and our memories of a childhood that was wild and brave. 

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