Making The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea

Bethan Huws in conversation with James Lingwood, London, 18 May 2004

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. — James Joyce, Finnegans Wake 

James Lingwood: When did the work begin to take shape in your mind?

Bethan Huws: It began with your invitation to the TSWA – Four Cities Project in 1989, so it was some years before the work was actually made. I followed the spirit or logic of the title: the Four Cities Project. It inspired me, the vast vision it conjured up in one's head like the title of Charles Dickens' book A Tale of Two Cities, it shares the same grandeur or largeness of vision. I then looked for what these four cities had in common. Derry, Glasgow, Newcastle and Plymouth are all coastal or near-coastal cities. What they shared was the sea. A first location was established for Long Sands, Tynemouth, Newcastle Upon Tyne and at that time we realised that the project would need more elaboration. It was then taken up by Artangel in 1991. This was the very beginning of the project. The notion of the sea and the city are conceptually linked, the vision of a liquid moving mass... of people. 

JL: Juxtaposing two ideas of vastness – one made up of people, the other without people. 

BH: Yes that's it, although not quite so straightforward. 

JL: Is being given something to work with useful to you – a place, a context? 

BH: I very much started from site-specific practice. What I found useful is that what is yours and what is not yours become quite clear. I had to learn or relearn to make things that function independently of an environment and are more dependent on context and art discourse or art language in general. But also in that period, I had made a work where I chose the entire site, like the piece made in a Frankfurt park where there wasn't any structural exhibition at all. 

JL: Your work up to this point had mainly been interiors - in your studio, at the Royal College of Art, a number of works you made with floors. So The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea was a very different proposition: you moved from working in an environment which was contained and controlled, where you control almost every aspect of your work except perhaps the light, to working in a place where you had much less control. 

BH: I didn't experience it as such a big change at the time. In 1989 I had been invited to Clisson in France and made my first outdoor work in extensive parkland. At first I was completely lost and it took a lot of effort to make a work. 

JL: What gave you this sense of being lost? 

BH: The type of information entering your brain or system is not the same; the sheer quantity is much greater and the rate is much faster. You suddenly change as if from one day to the next from an environment that consists of light fixtures, window frames and hard concrete floors to running streams, grass under your feet and no light switches. 

JL: Is the comparative lack of control interesting to you? 

BH: No, not at all. It's very unsettling not to know exactly the ground or base, the cause of your actions and decisions. 

JL: When did the idea of bringing the singing human voice to a place come to you? 

BH: Once the sea was established the voice followed on naturally. The sound element would have made me immediately think of human song. Sound carries over vast distances: originally the idea was to reach those other three cities. There's something very ancient about shouting to each other over vast distances. It was then, during my first visit to Newcastle when I took the Metro straight to the sea that this single singer become a whole group. The most directly related thing to singing... is something I'd often noticed about the pop videos that were current throughout the 80s, and which still continues today. The presence of the sea in the background is almost like a backcloth: we never hear it. What we see is this immense, beautiful, wild, natural phenomenon and what we hear is the human voice, an equally wild, natural phenomenon. 

JL: Up to that point, your work had been characterised by silence - they were very still, contemplative places which seemed to be more concerned with issues of perception. Bringing in sound as an active material was quite a change. 

BH: I spent time investigating the way I worked and was curious about such processes. My own speech was very much part of these structures. For me, therefore, there is not such a huge difference; I don't see it as a change. The sound was always there in my own speech, in what was passing or running through my head at the time of each construction. 

JL: You decided to use a very specific sound, an archaic one – the Bulgarian women singing. 

BH: In 1989 there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing fall of communism, and there was an immediate influx of eastern European music played on London radio. I had seen a Kate Bush video that featured a group who were running across a tempestuous Yorkshire moor. It was like in the Greek myths or Shakespeare – describing our tormented, conflicting thoughts through the weather. I think they were Bulgarian. Anyway, this sound marked me deeply.

JL: You have talked about your North Welsh background. Why didn't you want to work with the Welsh choral tradition? 

BH: It's the polyphonic or many-voiced quality of eastern European singing generally that I was drawn to; they pull against each other in permanent tension. The Welsh choir is homophonic; they sing in unison, with one voice, as if they all agree. The experience of being in a choir resembles the eastern European version: it's total mayhem behind the scenes. The eastern European choir resembles a very lively conversation around a dinner table where for the most part we don't agree and when we do, it's by sheer accident.

... Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse The bounteous largess given thee to give?... — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 4

JL: It's like an ur-form of singing, an original sound. It may seem raw but it's also quite pure. 

BH: It's what they call a natural voice in music; it's the voice that's nearest to speech. 

JL: You would also know what the Welsh are singing about, but you didn't know this with the Bulgarians. Their language was not accessible to you, almost pre-linguistic? 

BH: That a language is not accessible to me doesn't make it pre-linguistic. It was an important part of the work that these were Bulgarians and that they were singing in England - the displacement - where none of us in the audience would understand the meaning of their words. And yet we stay to listen to them as abstract sound or pure sense with much less meaning. That's what we're doing here by the sea. It took many thousands of years historically before speech was written down. Writing is a derivative of speech and not the other way around. 

JL: Was it important that these were women singing? 

BH: No, they could have been men; it's just ... I'm not sure if they could have reached all those high notes! But joking apart, they were chosen for the quality of their voices and how these voices interact with each other in the group, the polyphonic quality we talked about earlier. Incidentally, within the Bulgarian context it's the women who sing and the men who play the instruments. It could not have been instruments - playing instruments to the sea would be grotesque or comic. It had to be the human voice - our principal or first instrument. 

JL: They felt like they were coming from the centre or the old heart of Europe and you were bringing them to the edge. Was that of interest to you? 

BH: I was concerned with Britain's insularity, I had never intended to stay long in England after my studies. Therefore the notion of looking away or outwards was important. The east coast of England is the coast that faces Europe, eastern Europe included. Europe was always more important to me because I'm Welsh. In Wales we always considered ourselves to have neighbours, the English. The English, however, always considered themselves to be surrounded by water; perhaps there's even a touch - as in a touch of pigment - of this sentiment that we, the Welsh, might as well sing to the sea for all the sense we ever got from the English. But things have changed since then. 

JL: You needed to bring these elements together in a particular place. 

BH: I don't know if I needed to, I just did. There I had difficulties. I was looking for a place that was in my head and I spent a lot of time searching. I was a bit lost in looking. I used to spend my summers in North Wales on a coastal farm and this was certainly a model. 

JL: I wasn't aware of that. 

BH: Well, I knew it, but on such a deep level that I couldn't communicate it to you at the time. 

JL: In this book there are some photos of coves in Wales that aren't so different from the place in Northumberland where the work was made. They are a surprise to me. I had no idea you had such a specific model in mind. 

BH: At the time I would not have related them so closely. It's only in retrospect, in trying to analyse my thought processes. When we look at these coves, we can see that it's a natural theatre situation; there are various tiers. 

JL: The place gave a framing for the singing. 

BH: I think it was more than a framing. It was an integral, ready-made component or part. I also thought of the piece as a ready-made equivalent of the floor. It's interesting to compare them now: what characterised the floor was its depth; ordinarily we think of a floor as a flat surface. These floors had both, which is what they share with the sea, except that here the surface is much vaster and the depth much greater.

Vladimir: Did you ever read the Bible? 
Estragon: The Bible... (He reflects.) I must have taken a look at it. 
Vladimir: Do you remember the Gospels? 
Estragon: I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Coloured they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That's where we'll go, I used to say, that's where we'll go for our honeymoon. We'll swim. We'll be happy.
Vladimir: You should have been a poet. 
Estragon: I was. 

— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot 

JL: The demarcation between the beach and the sea was not fixed, because of the tide. The separating point was constantly changing. The changing threshold between the land which seems quite stable and the sea which seems much less stable. 

BH: This changing threshold is more akin to spoken or living languages, permanently on the move. 

JL: There was a number of cuts and lines within the work - sea and sand, sea and sky with the horizon line. 

BH: Everything happens in between – "A nobler sir never lived between sky and ground" – as all-encompassing as Shakespeare ever was. 

JL: What about the timing of the piece? We looked at the charts of the tides to determine when the piece could be made, when the tide was high and then turning. 

BH: The fullness of the tide was fair enough, but what I hadn't quite envisaged was that high tide doesn't stay for long before it turns and descends. When we start at full we end at empty, which is not exactly what I had intended. It should have gone: going up to high, high, then turning and going down to low, like a wave with the Bistritsa Babi accompanying the displacement of the tide. 

JL: How much did you talk to the singers about their repertoire? 

BH: Their repertoire consists of around two hundred or so songs; that is what they told me. I talked to them a lot about what they were singing, the trials and tribulations of life. A lot of their songs are work songs. During the communist period the women were left to work in the fields while the men were called to the factories. They also had indoor work songs for the winter, some of which were to alleviate the pain of monotonous work. They had a song that was endless: they just kept adding to its end. "Boy drinks wine, the wine was a girl..." that's part of a humorous song, I remember. Also, I learnt when I visited them of a song that welcomes spring into the village, where they sing to such things as the stones, the flowers, the cows, the trees... 

JL: Did the singers come up with the programme of songs? 

BH: They had an almost endless repertoire which was too great a material for me to deal with. In Bulgaria, we had already made a first selection together which included many of their favourites, some of which I had found beautiful. I think we discussed the duration, which was just under an hour. 

JL: We also had long discussions about the extent of orchestration of the visitors' experience - for example they heard the singing and the sea as they approached the bay and before they could actually see the singers. You had considerable concerns with the whole idea of an audience being there. 

BH: My original intention or vision was a work which could have been made without an audience. It's actually made for you and so much so that you don't ever realise it. This was very difficult for me to have an organised audience, rather than just a chance one. This was something I thought about for a very long time. It was difficult for me; I couldn't place it. Having an audience there or not is a personal choice and alters its meaning, so the audience thing was very important to me. 

JL: It was hard for me, from the perspective of Artangel, to take on board that the piece could be experienced only by us and possibly a very small handful of people who would stumble across it. I knew that the image as you approached the singers from a distance would be beautiful, the standing figures in the curve of the bay. And I knew that the sound would be beautiful so I wanted people to be able to experience all this. To me it was interesting that there was also a body of visitors there – a different kind of mass. 

BH: The purity of the landscape without many people was meaningful. This is also something which I then structured in the realisation of the film; there was no audience included in the film as there is already an audience for its screening - from the beginning it is made for that. 

JL: To me the singers stand as if they are on the edge of the known world, looking out across the sea. 

BH: That's another way of thinking about it which was also part of the work. Yes, I think that very much part of the sea, of being there and looking at it, over it, its moving surface, its hidden depths, is so central to human thought and feeling. 

Juliet: But to be frank and give it thee again; 
And yet I wish but for the thing I have. 
My bounty is as boundless as the sea, 
My love as deep: the more I give to thee 
The more I have, for both are infinite.

— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

JL: The figure looking out to sea has one explicit art-historical reference: the Caspar David Friedrich painting which is an embodiment of a Northern Romantic tradition of a solitary human contemplating the power of nature and the place of the individual within it. Were you thinking about this? 

BH: This painting or group of paintings were called to my attention on several occasions whilst I worked on the project. This is a group, not a single or solitary figure, and they're singing to the sea, not contemplating it. What interested me when proposing this project was to know whether you realised the work in your head? 

JL: I imagined something from your proposal and then I held back my imaginings. Is the sea a metaphor for the workings of the mind? 

BH: When I'm deeply or profoundly touched by something someone says to me, it's my whole physical system or body that moves - cause and effect - not just a small or single part of it, my big toe or left leg for example. That's what is described by the sea.

JL: Getting there was a part of the work as well as being there. 

BH: There were many coves and bays within this area which would have been suitable. I saw Northumberland, or this part near the coast, like a large field that extends and continues over the sea; it is relatively flat here but not like Holland with a low horizon line.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, 
So do our minutes hasten to their end; 
Each changing place with that which goes before, 
In sequent toil all forwards do contend...  

— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 60

JL: Can we talk about the film of the work, Singing for the Sea? Do we talk about two different works or two versions of one work? 

BH: For me they were always two distinct works. First the live performance and then the film which issues from it. The film was mostly constructed at the editing stage with a minimum of filmic effects. It documents the singers singing to the sea as well as the location and access to the place where the singers were exactly located.

JL: Was the film an integral part of the project? 

BH: I had thought about it from the beginning. I also mentioned it in the first 1991 description. I was concerned with the recording because of the very short-lived nature of the event, and film suggested itself because of the overlap in movement, sound and sight in both. For you the concentration was more about the performance – researching the singers and finding a place.

JL: You had an almost mathematical structure for the storyboard, I recall. 

BH: There was a proposal for a more abstract film. Just the moving surface of the water with the travelling frame of the camera set on an arm and fixed at a certain distance and parallel to the water's edge, slowly turning on its own axis to draw a complete 360 degree circle. The sequence would have been rearranged in the editing process and mixed with the recording of the Bistritsa Babi in a studio together with live ambient sea sound. It would have looked like an abstract painting. But you didn't like that proposal. 

JL: Well, I'm surprised if I dissuaded from you from doing that. I don't remember suggesting that you had to have the singers in it. 

BH: It was unknown territory for us both in a way. It could have been many different things. In the beginning there was a more documentary style, then the more abstract one, then the film that we made. All were based on the performance. 

JL: Did you – or do you – have any disappointments about the project? 

BH: At my own incapacity to understand, perhaps. 

JL: I was disappointed by the sea. It was much flatter and quieter than I had expected. But the rain and the clouds and the sun and the light were very changeable. So that gave the sense of fluidity to the experience which I'd expected the sea to bring. 

BH: The sea still stole the stage.

Walking parallel to the shore 

Its vastness is my vastness 
Its immensity is my immensity 

Its surface is my surface 
Its depth is my depth 

Its highs and lows are my highs and lows 
Its tos and fros are my tos and fros 

Its force is my force 

Its debility 

— Bethan Huws, 2004