From office blocks to woodlands, to festivals and galleries, Jennifer Bell’s choirs have performed in a plethora of different places. Now we welcome her ensemble The Beautiful Machine into our Theatre to perform In a Town as part of Bristol Proms, a song cycle of urban life dedicated to unsung everyday heroes. We caught up with Jennifer to talk about the piece…
Who are The Beautiful Machine?
The Beautiful Machine is a contemporary a-cappella ensemble directed by me. We are singers from all sorts of backgrounds, who have come together because we are friends, and we love singing.
Tell us about In A Town.
In a Town is an original song cycle, sung a-cappella by 11 singers. It is a collection of story songs from the streets and houses of any town. It looks through windows on to moments that we don’t often get to share with one another. The titular pun is intended – this is a town form the inside out. The music is intricate, and the singers create soundscapes that can leap across the space, or that can whisper in your ear. It is intimate. The stories pack a punch.
Where did the concept for the show come from? Where do the stories come from?
I wanted to create a beautiful, choreographed a-cappella concert. I also wanted to explore a type of musical storytelling that didn’t involve acting. I based many of the stories on observation or experience. Some are true. Some have their roots in the truth. They all have an element of universality. You will be able to recognise these stories; these feelings; these relationships. I wanted to create something people would GET.
It’s not musical theatre and the performers aren’t ‘playing characters’, but it’s much more than a musical concert. Where does the piece fit between music and theatre?
I wanted to see what would happen if you took a Chorus (in the traditional sense), and made it real. And then I wanted to make it the protagonist of a show. I constantly tread the line between fiction and reality in In a Town. We are telling individual stories of everyman, and we do it through introducing the audience to the singers themselves, rather than to characters. You meet real people in this show, and they take you on a real adventure.
I wanted to encapsulate the experience of living in a town. We are all very different; and yet we are all in exactly the same place, together, alone, engaging in LIFE and all its wonder and bullshit and terror and tragedy and ridiculousness and celebration.
What is a song cycle?
A song cycle is a collection of songs on a theme.
We’ve heard you describe the songs as moments of vulnerability or confession, could you tell us a little more?
I wanted to dignify our most lonesome experiences. I wanted to dignify those times in life we feel we can’t share with anyone. I want to make heroes out of food service professionals and of sex workers and of mothers and people who fall asleep in front of the TV because they don’t want to listen to their own memories. I also want to take a person or a story that you might not think you have anything in common with and sing it so that by the end you might see your life in theirs.
Is this your usual style of venue and how are you looking forward to using the space?
Our usual type of venue is pretty much always unusual. My choirs perform in offices, on buses, in gymnasiums, in the woods, in bars, at festivals, on roofs and in galleries – all over the place.
I think this is quite possibly the best venue we could hope for, because we are going to sing a concert, without amplification, and be heard by 520 people. The acoustic and sight lines of Bristol Old Vic Theatre are second to none. It’s like it’s made for our show. I’m sure everyone thinks that. I’m sure they do. I’ve played around in there with some singers, and from right at the back of the auditorium you can hear a lullaby sung from the furthest depth of the stage. The binaural sound effects we create will sound utterly brilliant, because they will be so clear. It’s a shell in there, an auricle. Everywhere you sit the sound is at your head.
What’s else are you and The Beautiful Machine up to?
We are just making the film of exciting project called Temple Songs, a flash song cycle I wrote for us to sing in offices. I am touring a Bodies in Flight show called GYMNAST, which is another song cycle I wrote, performed by one of my choirs called The Night Bus Choir Project. I’ve got 5 choirs in all. I am also currently composing for Carrie Rhys-Davies’ There May Be Explosions.
The Beautiful Machine will perform In a Town on Fri 2 Aug as part of Bristol Proms. You can find out more here.
Bristol Proms have been created in collaboration with Universal Music Arts and Entertainment, Classic FM and Watershed.