The Bistritsa Babi & Bethan Huws: A Work for the North Sea

6 July - 8 September 2013
Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 5AL.

22 - 24 July 1993
Near Alnwick, Northumberland

Photograph by Izabel Jedrezjczyk Photograph by Izabel Jedrezjczyk

In 1993, Bethan Huws orchestrated a memorable performance called A Work for the North Sea on the north eastern coast of England. The work was made in collaboration with a group of Bulgarian women, The Bistritsa Babi, who, for an hour each evening for three days that summer, stood at high tide and sang to the sea.

The project had two forms – the first this live performance which took place over a number of evenings in July 1993, the second a 16mm film, Singing for the Sea, commissioned by Antwerp, Europe’s Cultural Capital 1993 where it was also presented as part of an exhibition. The film juxtaposes sequences of the singers in front of the North Sea with close-ups of the lapping waves and has since shown internationally at venues such as ARC Musee d'Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, Hayward Gallery, London, The Nordiska Museum, Stockholm and Tate Modern, London.

Huws first researched the music that she had heard in the National Sound Archive in London. It appeared to be a particular form of antiphonal choral singing which was still practised in Bulgaria, based on groups of women singing in the open air – calling to each other. An expert of Bulgarian choral singing set up a number of visits for her with different groups. She found a group called the Bistritsa Babi, the grandmothers from Bistritsa, a village not far away from Sofia. They were invited to sing to the sea. In their first visit to Britain, they sang at the edge of the North Sea near Craster on the unspoilt Northumbrian coastline over three evenings in late July. Pitched into the wind, their haunting melodies combined with the rumbling of the sea to create a unique polyphony of sound and voice. The singers carry their homes, their traditions and the lives of their villages in their voices. Their songs are the living embodiment of a tradition which stretches back unbroken over a thousand years, a pure folkloric expression. In the villages of the Plana region in Bulgaria, the songs are traditionally performed in the open air - at the end of a working day, or at festivities and celebrations. Facing the power of the North Sea, they sang a repertoire of songs such as Vai Dudole (A Prayer for Rain) and Sultz Saide (for the Sunset) in a poignant meeting of movement and stability, language and sound, the human voice and the North Sea. Beginning at the turning of tide each evening, as the repertoire of songs built, the tide began to recede.

The film Singing to the Sea is included in The Artangel Collection.

A Work for the North Sea was commissioned by Artangel assisted by the New Collaborations Fund of the Arts Council of Great Britain Northern Arts, Balkan Bulgarian Airlines and Antwerp '93. With thanks to Alnwick Playhouse and Alnwick International Music Festival.

This project was supported by Arts Council England, Artangel International Circle, Special Angels and The Company of Angels

Funders and Collaborators
ACE logo Balkan Bulgarian logo Alnwick logo