VaVaVoom and Bedroom Community turn dream larvae and insect pupae into winged songs
“I first came here to read at the International Nýhil Poetry Festival in 2007. Before I knew, I was on stage with [local rock group] Reykjavík!, chugging Southern Comfort at three o’clock in the morning. Soon enough, I found myself yearning for Iceland as if it were a lover.” After visiting frequently over the subsequent years, Angela has now settled here permanently and learned to swallow her syllables.
For the Reykjavík Arts Festival, she has teamed up with Icelandic experimental theatre group VaVaVoom and local-yet-global music label Bedroom Community for a music theatre piece entitled ‘Wide Slumber.’ The performance is based on Angela’s book from 2006.
“My friend, the visual artist Matt Ceolin, had been in the process of building 250 insects out of metal and acetate and I wanted an excuse to research sleep and dreams more. So I decided to see what would happen if I would breed these two subject matters—entomology and the science of sleep—together,” Angela explains. “What happens if we bring two seemingly unrelated things into the same territory? Do they share a lexicon at all? Are there structural components that relate to each other? I started to notice that both disciplines sometimes call on the same subjects. Like music, for example. Butterflies have scales on their wings and we have scales within the musical lexicon. And I liked how, in the word lepidoptera [the study of moths and butterflies], ‘opera’ is almost there. So I started to look at the words as materials.”
No Jazz Hands
During the 2009 edition of Iceland Airwaves, Angela visited Greenhouse Studios, the studio of composer/producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and the headquarters of Bedroom Community. Bedroom Community is somewhere between a record label and a collective; they release records by numerous artists but each and every album is at least partly recorded in said studio and/or created to a degree by the three founding fathers: Valgeir, Ben Frost and Nico Muhly. Having had “a hardcore fan-crush on all things Valgeir” for a while, she gave him a copy of her book.
Before long, he expressed the desire to write music to the words. “Angela is preoccupied with the actual sound of the words and when she reads them out loud, the poems become like music. Valgeir immediately caught on to the musical and auditory quality of the text,” explains Sigríður Sunna Reynisdóttir who performs the role of the Weaver in the piece but is also the co-creator and producer. “He left the book with me and I began to envision images and sets. It took us a while to make sense of what sort of beast we were breeding; was it opera? A concert with stage design? But we came to the conclusion that it was music theatre.” Angela clarifies: “Not musical theatre. There are no jazz hands. I think of it a bit like a music video coming to life.”
“The original poem doesn’t really contain characters,” Sigríður Sunna says. “It’s extremely polyphonic and doesn’t identify its speakers. When we adapted the text we needed to create characters to embody the words. We are working with an ensemble of very different voices and wanted to embrace that when coming up with the characters.”
Enter the cast: Ásgerður Júníusdóttir, a much-loved Icelandic mezzo-soprano, is The Lepidopterist, a scholar-scientist in the older romantic vein, slightly androgynous like Ásgerður’s voice. Sasha Siem is a British-Norwegian composer and singer who plays ‘The Somnopterist’ (Angela’s word for sleep scientist). “We envisioned a retro-futuristic character, almost like an android with her proper British enunciation or a software component of the actual sleep laboratory,” says Sigríður. These two extreme characters never meet but are bound by their relationship to the Insomniac, the ‘everyman’ or ‘dreamer’ of the piece sung by Alexi Murdoch, a Scottish singer-songwriter. Alexi and Sasha have both recorded with Valgeir in Greenhouse Studios and are thus part of the extended Bedroom Community family. Neither has performed before in Iceland.
Angela elaborates: “The Somnopterist governs the night time but also recuperation, rest, recovery and restoration. The Lepidopterist is almost perverse to my imagination. She is full of passion, discovery, curiosity. Words in her mouth are almost like sex. The Insomniac is in this interstitial zone where there is both anxiety and arousal. Then we have The Weaver. She’s almost like the author in a book. She pulls the strings and makes everything happen; she’s the puppeteer.”
Wide Slumber is structured to mirror the life cycle of a moth, going from egg to larva to pupa to imago, and pairs that process with the sleep cycle.
“Coming from a background in puppetry, the element of metamorphosis was a very juicy component for me,” Sigríður says. “It was interesting to envision props, for example, that could change shape. I’ve never been as interested in the natural sciences as I am after working on the piece. How crazy is the process of metamorphosis really, once you think about it? To many a religion, the very cycle seemed to prove the existence of God, because who else would come up with anything so insane!?”
“Of course, the story of the ugly larva becoming a butterfly is borderline cliché. But when you look at a butterfly up close it’s quite a nasty looking, hairy insect. It’s almost like a bat. We enjoyed this contrast. Our aim was never to just make a pretty butterfly show.”