Songs and Stories Remembering Our Earth

Australian native singer-songwriter Susanna Orr Holland joins the American musician KeLan on a freezing February night to bring the audience gathered in the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s auditorium tales of shrinking sea ice juxtaposed with creation myths. It’s an odd and often precarious combination that misses as often as it hits and produces in equal parts rapture and bewilderment.

The first thing one notices on entering the theatre is the impressive array of instruments spread out across the stage. Holland makes use of a harmonium throughout the evening, using it to create drones reminiscent of Swedish songstress Anna von Hausswolf or, closer to home, Kathryn Joseph. Backing her is KeLan, surrounded by a diverse set up of percussion at the centre of which sits a “hand pan” – a beguiling type of steel drum capable of producing complex and brilliant melodies.

For an evening that sets itself up as a post-apocalyptic-type tirade against global warming and environmental catastrophe, we seem to start at the book of Genesis rather than Revelation, as Holland expounds on a distinctly Australian creation story. The repetitive structure is designed to draw you in and echoes the declarative style of scripture or the childlike cadence of a fairy-tale. Here, however, the performative mysticism is grating and the sparseness of the images uninspiring, especially considering the very real and concrete issues invoked by the event’s title.

Although the show is unified by a consistent performance style that switches between spoken word with drones and sound effects and singer-songwriter guitar strumming, it lacks a coherent overarching narrative. An anecdote from Lesbos at the peak of the refugee crisis pleading for a recognition of universal humanity is valid but seems an uninspired departure from the evening’s theme. Likewise, the plundering of myth is usually only tangentially connected to the pressing issue of averting ecological disaster, and where it is made clearer, such as in the connection between a story about hunting bears to extinction and the melting permafrost threatening the Global Seed Vault in the arctic circle, the link is too great a stretch.

These rich folklore tales contrast wildly with the songs thereby inspired where clichés abound. It is difficult to really get behind the trite “Stop the world, I want to get off” that makes up the chorus of one such tune, especially when accompanied by the totally disconnected bass-playing of KeLan, which is jarring on a physical level. For all his expensive gear, which includes two six-string basses (one fretless) he can’t seem to hold a groove down and the conclusion of every song is amateurishly uncoordinated.

Who, then, is this show for? The convinced spiritualist, perhaps. It did not move a sceptic and I suspect is incapable of such a feat. Holland’s vocal acrobatics and the instrumentation are interesting but beyond that, it feels like a self-indulgent wallow in faux-mysticism.

 

Image: Chih-Peng Lucas Kao

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The Student Newspaper 2016