The University of Chichester Conservatoire: composing “Her body” by Dr Susannah Self

On Mon 22 November 2021 the Orbita Chamber Orchestra from the University of Chichester Conservatoire features a new work, for strings and marimba, by Dr. Susannah Self.

Dr Self takes up the story.

HER BODY is an 8-minute piece for string orchestra and marimba forming part of my new physical opera, which premièred for Tête à Tête Festival at The Cockpit Theatre in London in July 2021. The work grew out of a new type of operatic composition which I developed as I was concluding my PhD in composition at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2020. My aim was to reveal authenticity through the process of auto-ethnography. Like many people I am affected by my perception of my body image and so I decided to access input for the work from my contacts on social media. The responses were varied, deep and insightful. Therefore, HER BODY provides an opportunity to literally embody our shared experiences so that HER BODY represents our shared experience of embodiment whatever our gender identification.

During lockdown I formulated the compositional and dramatic aspects of the opera independently so that HER BODY is a syncretic fusion of physical theatre, soundscapes, installation of film, set and performance. All of these aspects have become integral to my practice. The film installation was shot on the North Norfolk coast and the choreography takes its lead from Pina Bausch, Jonathan Burrows and DV8 company. The music for the opera consists of three styles:

  1. Notated punchy minimalist music for string orchestra and marimba.
  2. Abstract Soundscapes created with live sampled voice transformed through Logic Pro and improvised voice.
  3. Simple lyrical songs.

The instrumental piece HER BODY presents the first style of composition. Specifically, this section of the opera alludes to a woman’s body being fed by many tributaries that flow like a river secretly within her.  These fluids are hidden from the outside world, repressed and sent underground. This flow is contained within the coiled serpent at the base of her spine.  It is a concealed kundalini energy which reflects essence. The flow of the body’s internal river becomes intertwined with other bodies in a cosmic dance so that there is no longer a male or female body, but just a body contained within an inner and outer landscape. The third fast arpeggiated section further interweaves the first two elements, continuing to the final section in which all the river bodies of our lives reach a slow majestic stasis. Moments of gratitude and reflection for the universal body that we all emerge from and return to is overseen by the powerful and destructive goddess Kali.

The construction of HER BODY draws on my compositional process which is linked to observations on the complexities of quilt making. The formality of the template’s structure successfully holds together contrasting materials, colours and textures. From quilting flows many compositional possibilities such as the way in which materials can be organically developed, cross-related, juxtaposed and transformed. Resonances with this approach can be seen via the iconic artist Robert Rauschenberg’s imaginative practice in which he observes

“The objects not only suggest new possibilities, things I would have never thought of if I’d stayed in the studio – they also set up resistances that I find very useful.”

Rauschenberg, 2017: 235

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