30 or more voices with stones
Text: Thomas Paine: Agrarian Justice and The Liberty Tree
f.p. Glasgow Chamber Choir (Michael Bawtree, director) & Glasgow University Chapel Choir (James Grossmith, director), Tectonics Festival, City Halls Glasgow, 11th May 2014
Climbing steeply from beside the Palace of Holyrood to run along the rim of Salisbury Crags before descending to meet the Queen’s Drive a kilometre or so to the South, Edinburgh’s Radical Road commands a picturesque view. From here the royal city spreads out its splendours in panorama, the Firth of Forth a glistening backdrop. It is a scene worthy of Sir Walter Scott; and no accident, for it was the novelist himself who had the idea of creating the Road in 1820, in the aftermath one of the bloodiest episodes in modern Scottish history. The Radical War, or Scottish Insurrection, had seen impoverished tradesmen briefly take up arms against the authorities, and Scott’s proposal for the Road was one of a number of measures taken to shore up the status quo against any further outbreaks of political radicalism.
Not only did the Road (which is purely recreational in purpose) thus provide an elegantly politicised vista for those treading its path; its construction was the work of unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland – potential ‘radicals’ themselves – neatly providing them with temporary employment and quelling rebellious instincts, whilst helping to set in stone, as it were, a symbol of a social order of which they remained at the bottom.
My vocal installation Radical Road is free re-imagining of this scene: small groups of singers are distributed around the space, through which the audience moves like walkers along a path. The singers could stand for the weavers themselves, only here they are weaving songs, and the road they are building is one directed towards a fairer and more equal society. Texts from Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice are debated and declaimed, and his famous verse Liberty Tree is sung in spontaneously improvised harmony. The rhythms of the voices mesh with the rhythms of physical labour through the sound of stones struck together and gravel poured into metal pans. The singers work together within each group, taking turns to articulate the music and create the line. All the groups perform simultaneously in a superabundant tableau of musical activity: the mobile listener encounters each group one-by-one, sometimes listening in to their conversations and songs, other times standing back to admire the view.