Generating a new genre

For years Jessica Duchen struggled to gain acceptance for her cross-genre ‘words-and-music- works. But now, with the success of her new show Ghost Variations, it seems the world is finally ready for them.

We’re touring Ghost Variations this autumn – a ‘words-and-music’ performance based on my fact-based novel about how the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi discovered the existence of the suppressed violin concerto by Robert Schumann, with the inadvertent help of a ouija board.

In the concert, we alternate my narration with music associated with d’Arányi, played by the wonderful violin and piano duo of David Le Page and Viv McLean, building the story together. We’ve been thrilled by the responses we’ve had so far. Yet just 10-15 years ago we might never have got a show like this off the ground.

When I first tried writing a words-and-music ‘show’ for a musician friend back in 2002, the public response seemed – frustratingly – a wee bit bemused. Everyone would ask, “But is it words or is it music?” The obvious answer – “Both” – didn’t always go over well. People liked the old pigeon-holes. Nice, neat little boxes without nasty, confusing mixing of genres.

My colleagues and I scratched our heads over this. It seemed clear to us that this was the perfect way to reach a new audience, one of people who were afraid they ‘didn’t know much about music” but who could be entertained and informed and, hopefully, moved by the combination of live music and the evocation of the stories and characters behind it. But it wasn’t always so obvious to the promoters.

GHOST VARIATIONS COVER JPGFifteen years on, there’s been a sea-change: now they get it. Performing Ghost Variations I’m often amazed by the enthusiasm for a show that traces the conscription of great art by fascism and ends in sombre, meditative mode. Of course, much of that is for the fabulous performances by Dave and Viv! But the fact remains that we’re also offering a bizarre true story – full of spirit messages, Nazis, legendary musicians (Yehudi Menuhin, Myra Hess and Donald Francis Tovey are all in it) and some alarming parallels with today’s world – and the music is part and parcel of that story.

We’ve integrated the nature, atmosphere and relevance of the pieces among the readings – each has an association with our true-life heroine, Jelly d’Arányi, dedicatee of Ravel’s Tzigane, and each fits the context in which we perform it. Therefore, the entire performance creates an unbroken narrative span, and it seems to pull people in, no matter whether or not they’ve heard a note of the music before.

These performances work in all manner of settings. We’ve performed Ghost Variations for music societies, private salons, churches, concert halls and even a golf club. This season we’re taking it to venues including the state-of-the-art Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove (3 November), the intimate, historic surroundings of Burgh House, Hampstead (19 November), a splendid local salon series in Pembrokeshire (Lampeter House, 2 January) and the Leicester Lunchtime Classical Concerts in a beautiful Victorian art gallery (22 February). Last week we even found ourselves in the fairytale Art Deco surroundings of Brasserie Zédel in central London, whose in-house venue The Crazy Coqs hosts daily performances – usually cabaret, jazz or folk music. They, too, are increasingly picking up on the burgeoning potential of words-and-music shows.

The appetite is definitely growing. Hershey Felder, the Canadian powerhouse writer-pianist-actor, won splendid audiences for his one-man biographical evocation of Tchaikovsky at The Other Palace for three weeks this autumn – a high-tech, fully-staged production. He also helped into life Mona Golabek’s The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which is now on its way to becoming a film. Meanwhile, Iain Burnside’s musical plays attract rave reviews, the regular words and music series at Kings Place is going from strength to strength and Wilton’s Music Hall attracts frequent new, experimental productions.

The funny thing is that I never planned to turn my musical novels into concerts with narration. They were asked for. About eight years ago the first, Hungarian Dances, was the brainchild of The Sage, Gateshead, for its Fiddles on Fire Festival. Alicia’s Gift, based on my second novel, about a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up, was Viv McLean’s idea; last year we took it to the Wigmore Hall, where our afternoon audience was aged from three to 93. (Its next performance is at the Barnes Music Society at the OSO, Station Road, London SW13, on 20 November).

For Ghost Variations, the concert was an obvious development – to the point that now this flexibility of genre is part of my development process for many different writing projects. Music is drama, after all. Music is storytelling, whether abstract or otherwise.

Now, perhaps all we need is a catchier name for this cross-genre genre. If a new pigeon-hole is what’s needed to get rid of the old ones and send ‘words-and-music’ mainstream, then let’s create one. Do send over your suggestions!

Jessica Duchen is a freelance music journalist and novelist. To find out more about her work, as well as more information on upcoming performances, head over to her website.