shetland odyssey

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giant knitting in Yell (the fastest we ever did it!)

Fair Isle's newest pupil - Henry (previously of New York State!). This was his second day at Fair Isle school.

Emma helps with percussion in Burravoe

Fair Isle: Amy plays Odysseus, being attacked by the giants



Team: Stuart King (leader/clarinet), Bill Bankes-Jones (opera director), Emma Feilding (oboe), Marcus Barcham-Stevens (violin), Margaret Peterson (knitter), Claire Shovelton (manager/chronicler).

please click here for Photo Gallery


The overriding aim of our Shetland education workshops was to stimulate and develop, in both a musical and dramatic sense, the imagination, understanding and creativity of the pupils.

We took stories from the Odyssey (Cyclops, Circe, Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, Penelope and the Suitors), from other Greek mythology (Hecuba's curse) and Nordic mythology (the fire-God Surtr, who ignites Ragnarök, the end of the world), and re-enacted them as music theatre scenes, each one strikingly individual and different, involving the pupils as actors or musicians, or both.

The cameo scene would often evolve in a collaborative process, through ideas and suggestions from the pupils as to how the music-drama and the corresponding music should be executed and how it shoud unfold. The challenges that face any operatic or theatrical composer applied here : the role of music in a drama-piece, how much music should there be? What is its dramatic purpose? How can it enhance (and not detract from) a dramatic narrative? When should it start and end? How can the individual personae in the drama be characterised musically? How can emotions, moods, atmosphere, states of tension or states of mind be expressed musically?

For the musicians, the initial challenge was of creating musical ideas or sonorities to fit the drama. The next skill was to play or execute these ideas in the shared process of music-making, demanding the physical coordination of playing an instrument, the corresponding mental concentration to do so, the memory skills of what music to play and when to play it as the drama proceeded, and the musical awareness of each other, especially in a rhythmic sense, that is essential to communal music-making.

For the actors, the challenge was to act out the narrative convincingly, sometimes as mime, sometimes with dialogue, the necessity of vocal projection, the importance of vivid characterisation, the need to work together in different roles (to initiate, to react, to support, to comment) and above all to reinvent each story in a fresh and exciting way, either through dramatic tension and suspense, or humour and light relief, or a thoroughly contemporary reworking in which the essential core of the myth is retold in a 21st century and more culturally familiar idiom.

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Mid-Yell Juniors, 28 November (am)
(x40 juniors)

Odyssey stories : Cyclops, Circe.

Giant-knitting with Shetland knitter, Margaret Peterson and Bill Bankes-Jones as the bobbin. The weaving and interlocking process of kitting was executed on a large scale by two opposing rows of pupils, one holding , one weaving (sometimes as fast as possible) culminating in a tutti stetching of the pattern to form the Shetland "neestering" sound like the creaking of Odysseus' ship.

Cyclops (led by Bill Bankes-Jones and Marcus Barcham-Stevens)
Original ideas for the acting of this drama seemed to pour from the pupils - for instance, the suggestion that somebody should represent the cheese to be eaten, or the stake of wood which blinds the Cyclops, rather than they be imaginary objects of mime. Other ideas were acted out with vigour and enthusiasm: the Cyclops consisted of 2 people, one sitting on the other's shoulders, as was also the case with the neighbour Cyclops who came in from the back-room as a 2-person hulk, to enquire as to the cause of his friend's suffering.

A charging gym trolley with mattresses was used to portray the travelling of Odysseus' boat and its crashing onto the island (portrayed musically by a shattering crescendo of shaking and trembling to a sforzando crash), as well as its departure from the island at the end of the story, when the hubristic Odysseus taunts the Cyclops by revealing his true identity.

Musically, in rehearsal we explored the process of creating the suspense of the approaching giant, whilst the Greeks ate his cheese and milk, through a rhythmic groove which was built up one by one, initially by a quasi heart-beat pulse to form an intensifying chain of sound. This involved the children really listening to each other and fitting their individual rhythm into the overall communal pulse. Suspense music was also explored as the stake was hardened in the crackling fire, through waves of sound:crescendo, diminuendo, slower waves, faster more sudden waves, culminating in the explosive blinding of the Cyclops, and equivalent musical crash.

For the final denouement of Odysseus' men escaping under the sheep, a pattern of rhythms within a 2/4 metre was built up in a quasi minimalist riff, and then, after the dramatic announcement of Odysseus'real name, a Shetland jig tune in G major was played by Lara, the accordionist, and myself, to fit over this same rhythmic backdrop, expressing the joy and relief of Odysseus' men at their escape.

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Mid-Yell Primary. 28 November (pm)
(x50 children)

Odyssey/Norway stories : Cyclops (leader - Marcus Barcham-Stevens); Sirens & Circe (leader - Emma Feilding); Scylla and Charybdis (leader - Bill Bankes-Jones); Surtr the Fire Giant (leader - Stuart King).

This session involved splitting up the children into 4 separate groups and teaching them the clapping rhythm and then the chanting refrain for "Hear us, fear us..." followed by an invented group name for each, eg, the "Sandwick Savages" or the "Burravoe Bandits", based on the "Cast off" chorus from the opera. The musical skills this imparted to them were of memorising rhythm, executing it rhythmically (ie together with others in an ensemble, involving the essential skill of listening and group awareness), and of the musical possibilities of contrast, dialogue and shape/texture (which can be built up or changed) created by the four groups, sometimes competing and vying with each other, and sometimes unified as a whole.

Cyclops (led by Marcus Barcham-Stevens)
The Cyclops story was acted without music : the arrival of Odysseus and his men, the discovery of the cave, the eating of cheese and milk, the arrival of the Cyclops, the ensuing confrontation, the Cyclops eating Odysseus' men (which the children greatly enjoyed!), the Cyclops asking of Odysseus' name, to which he replies "Nobody", the Cyclops getting drunk and falling asleep, the blinding, the visitation by the neighbour giant (who decided to come in from behind the gym curtains) and the escape of the men as sheep, with the corresponding sound effects!

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Mid-Yell Juniors. 29 November (am)
(x20 juniors)

Odysseus Unwound scenes: Penelope and the Suitors; Hecuba.

Penelope and the Suitors
(led by Bill Bankes-Jones and Marcus Barcham-Stevens)
We read through the text of this scene together and formed our own point-by-point description of events, reworking it, partly in a contemporary fashion and partly exploring the emotions and behaviour of Odysseus through an adolescent's view of human relationships.

The entrance of Penelope into her bedroom, and then that of each suitor, with the seductive offering of gifts was acted out in an atmosphere of decadence and conniving. Musically, a wistful and sensual version of the passage from the suitors' scene in the opera was played by Lara the accordionist and myself on violin, though simplified into a 3/4 metre and harmonically changed through alternating chords of G and C minor.

After Odysseus' arrival home and the dialogue of mutual confrontation, a flash-back scene was inserted, in which Odysseus' soldiers died fighting in the Trojan war. Musically, this was accompanied by a groove in 8/8 metre(3+3+2), which I took from the fantastically inventive material, which Carl, the guitarist, created for this scene. His melodic and rhythmic groove fitted perfectly with the 332 pattern of continuous eighth-note drumming which two other boys played.

The madness and confusion of Odysseus as he battled with the conflicting emotions of returning home, finding his wife in bed with his former friends, and the trauma of coping with the violence of his past was expressed by manic guitar glissandi, again played by Carl. A moving and original device of "undoing all the past wrongs" involved Odysseus touching all his dead comrades and returning them to life, a reversal of the previous flashback scene, accompanied again by the earlier 332 rhythmic pattern.

The final ending and the future of Odysseus and Penelope together was however left ambiguous as the pupils preferred the "to be continued" version.

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Burravoe and Cullivoe Primaries. 29 November (pm)
(x23 children)

Odyssey stories : Sirens,Scylla and Charybdis; Circe.
Joining the workshop team: Mark Lawson, head of Mid-Yell Junior High and Cullivoe Primary; Caroline Breyley, head of Burravoe Primary.

Before the session began Bill and I met with the four children who had been to the performance of the Odysseus Unwound opera in Lerwick, and showed them the score of the work. They had enjoyed the performance, and had lots of questions.

Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis
(led by Stuart King and Marcus Barcham-Stevens)
The children acted out the rowing of Odysseus' men, ears stuffed with wax, to an accompanying percussive beat, whilst Odysseus (acted by Logan, the grandson of Margaret Peterson, one of the Shetland knitters/spinners in the opera) stood resolute, tied to mast, and gave orders.

The Sirens, by contrast, were portrayed as alluring and exotic, whispering the name "Odysseus" continually, and musically playing imitative patterns of scales, glissandi and rhythmic figures on two glockenspiels and triangle. The refusal of the rowers to succumb was brilliantly acted by the boys, whose faces expressed resolution, as the girls weaved around them.

The Sirens metamorphosed into a swirling circle (in which all held hands and spun round) representing Charybdis which encroached on the boat with increasing tension. Scylla was performed as a two-person monster, and with a Burravoe twist to the original Homer, one who devoured every rower in the boat, including Odysseus himself (to a musical accompaminment of successive crescendi each culminating in a sforzando crash as a man was eaten) leaving no one left alive.

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Baltasound Juniors. 30 November (am)
(x12 juniors)

Odysseus Unwound scene: Penelope and the Suitors.

Giant-knitting was done as before:a tutti manifestation of the knitting process.

Penelope and the Suitors
Having read the libretto together of this closing scene from the opera, Baltasound Juniors re-enacted a stylish and somewhat dark realisation of it. Penelope languished in bed with the obsequious suitors to the musical accompaniment of an acoustic guitar alternating A and E minor chords with a languid free violin solo.

The arrival of Odysseus, by contrast, was portrayed, by the antiphonal placing of an acoustic guitar playing a sinister heart-beat figure of repeated As, building up tension to the climactic point, at which Odysseus sees before him evidence of his wife's adultery. The killing of the suitors was expressed in a frenzy of slides and scratch noises on guitar.

Similar to the antiphonal placing of the guitars, the characters of Athene and Hecuba faced each other antiphonallly from the sides, representing oppposing voices in Odysseus'now deranged state of mind. Athene's corrosive force urged Odysseus on to violence and more killing : "Kill her!Kill her!", whereas the ghost of the humiliated Hecuba plagued and taunted Odysseus with false implorings of seduction "Love me!Love me!".

The weaving of ribbon from different directions around the body of Odysseus, just as in the opera, was used to strong dramatic effect representing Odysseus' mind being pulled in different directions. The souls of Odysseus' dead colleagues emerged chanting "What did we die for?", the soul of Odysseus' mother emerged too chanting "My son!My son!", and together with Hecuba's and Athene's chants, a rhythmically varied pattern of all the combined chants produced an exhilirating effect.

A coincidental striking of tubular bells was incorporated into the performance to create a dispersal of this cathartic energy into the forgiveness and healing of Penelope as the couple were reunified.

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Baltasound, Uyeasound and Fetlar Primaries. 30 November (pm)
(x33 children)

Odyssey stories : Circe; Cyclops (a la Peter and the Wolf, in which a line of narration was followed by a dramatic/musical realisation by all, for instance the children would act as giants, sheep or Greeks, or express these musically).

Circe (led by Stuart King and Marcus Barcham-Stevens)
The children acted out the rowing of Odysseus and his men (to a strong rhythmic accompaniment), the landing of the boat and the exploring of the island and its special food.

A group of girls played the roles of Circe and her princesses, Circe in particular charcterised as being an enchanting but rather nonchalant witch-queen. Musically this was expressed by a sound-world of glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, seed-pods and violin, with an Aeolian modal flavour through a repeated EGBD refrain and glissandi on the glockenspiel.

Magic music for the casting of Circe's spells was also created, culminating in a sforzando stroke as the men were transformed into pigs and back into men. A considerable amount of free dialogue was spoken by Circe, Odysseus and his main warrior, as Circe welcomed them to her island, during their response and the spell processes.

A mini-scene of the god Hermes, intervening to give Odysseus the protective herb moly was also included and convincingly acted by the boys involved.

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Fair Isle School. 1/2 December.
(x8 children)

The Tale of Two Giants - Cyclops and Surtr
With Fair Isle school, we performed a story combining the Homeric Cyclops, with the Norwegian fire-God Surtr, imagining Surtr to be a brother giant, who is so angry at the news of hearing that his brother has been blinded, that he and his fellow Nordic giants, refuse to pardon Odysseus, when he lands shipwrecked and alone at Muspelheim, and instead internally combust into the flames for the end of the world.

However, in this version, at the apocalyptic point of fire-inducing, the sound of church bells terrify the giants into running off, leaving the bewildered Odysseus as the lone and heroic survivor.

For part one, the story of the Cyclops, the children acted out the rowing of Odysseus' men, to the accompaniment of a folk-song taught by the local musician Lise Sinclair, the exploring of the island, the entrance into the cave through a tunnel, the eating of cheese (simulated by yellow balls), the confrontation with the Cyclops (the words and splutterings of the Cyclops were the off-stage voice of Bill Bankes-Jones), the offering of the wine, the blinding and the bucolic escape as sheep.

Part two saw a highly dramatic entrance scene for Surtr the Fire-Giant and his fellow giants was then created: some children drummed out a dotted military rhythm, which grew in a rousing crescendo, and the others processed individually across the hall. Each then announced his or her name defiantly (the characters invented were Grabbit the Bone Crusher, Truncher-Face the dog- and puppy-napper, Adivia the water-giant, Surfeit the Mucklefoot, Surtr queen of Muspelheim and Gobbledropper the volcano breath) each followed by a terrifying musical gesture on a percussion instrument.

The entrance of Odysseus, by contrast, was characterised by humility and desperation as he begged forgiveness, to which the giants screamed "Never!". This led into a rendition of the chant "Hear us!Fear us!Black as night, blazing bright!Queen of fire!Queen of fire!Surtr!", based on the "Cast off!" chorus from the opera, though rhythmically altered into 3/4 metre.

The climactic cacophony was dispersed by a heterophonic collage of bells, played on chime bars, which induced the terrified giants to run off screaming. Odysseus alone rose from the floor, his relief at surviving being expressed through the pastoral jig theme from the start of Act 2 in the opera.

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