The Dead Sea Poems
The Dead Sea Poems was an hour long show written and performed via a commission from Wakefield Lit Fest. The project took the poetry collection of the same name by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and re-interpreted it into a live show that combined original music and spoken word / vocal performances.
The majority of the music was composed by Dean Freeman with additional pieces by Harry Rhodes. As noted below, part of the writing process took place during rehearsal with the core musical band – also including Dan Hayes. Spoken Word / Vocal performances were also provided by Ralph Dartford, Paul Bateson, Simon Widdop, Eleanor Aldous, Andrew Whittaker, Jacqui Wicks and Jayne Freeman.
“I decided to propose a soundtrack to The Dead Sea Poems as it was a poetry collection I studied in detail at school. Given how long ago that was, I thought it would be interesting to go back to it – using my original book with biro’d notes in the margin – and see how it resonated. There are 25 poems in the collection of which 18 made it to the show.
I started by creating a series of demos. I wanted the show to not take an easy route of the music being really ambient and passive – basically identikit content that would suit any spoken word that happened to be placed over it. I decided to base most of the compositions around simple piano melodies but I took care not to over develop at this point. As the outcome was a live performance, I wanted to main ideas to come together in a rehearsal room.
With a collection of rough sketches in place, I took them to the wider group of Harry Rhodes and Dan Hayes and we started to jam out / expand them. The creative atmosphere brought out new ideas in the space as we got a sense of what would and wouldn’t work. Harry added some ideas to the pot too. From here I filmed the performances and took them away. I now spent time figuring out which poems suited which pieces, and how long each would need to be to enable time to perform it. It was an interesting approach in terms of songwriting as I wanted the music to be emotive in its own right, but it couldn’t lead the spoken performance too heavily. I wanted to leave room for the performers to put their own spin on the words.
It was time to bring in the spoken word performers. I wanted a mix of experienced spoken word artists and first time / other types of performer. Spoken Word can have what I feel is a very specific delivery style; especially as performers develop in their career they settle into a style and rhythm that doesn’t seem to vary, irrelevant of content. I wanted this to feel more grounded, especially as much of the language was colloquial and down to earth.
Rehearsals with the spoken word performers took place and this allowed me to create a setlist that I felt really ebbed and flowed in style and mood.
The final show took place at Mechanics Theatre and was performed to a sellout audience. The music flowed from one performance to the next with no ‘banter’ or between song chat. Technically, the band was often playing to a click and/or backing of some kind. This, alongside the three musicians switching between instruments, required a real discipline aswell as detailed rehearsal and preperation (all songs having different tempos / count-ins etc.) I also created video loops for each poem to be projected behind us.
I feel the show was a real success. I think it challenged how music and poetry can work together. Some pieces, such as At The Quarantine Station were brutally loud (a former Death Metal singer was used to perform this piece) as befit the subject matter, whilst I Say I Say I Say was performed acapella from within the audience, to really hammer home the uncomfortable message within. It was a strong crossover show between music and poetry and the process of its creation was a really interesting learning experience.”