Some songs can take your breath away. Listening to the radio many years ago, I first heard Song to the Siren performed by a group called ‘This Mortal Coil’. I was entranced. The ethereal female voice hovered around the speakers; then sometimes darting, sometimes slowly gliding, the waves spiralled and flickered through the room. The sounds played hide and seek inside my head. The voice was slow, simple, drone-like, but full of subtle colourations and shadings. The melody was sparse, yet achingly romantic. The accompaniment, though elementary, threaded through the voice and melody, generating a scintillating sense of wholeness. Rapt, sitting quite still, I knew I would not forget this song.
Later on, I heard the composer’s original version. Tim Buckley’s voice was honey dripping through the speakers. He was a human ‘Theremin’ producing sounds in flux, seamless notes of warmth and emotion that ebbed and flowed, that slipped and slided over, under and around each other, entwining and entwined. Again the backing was sparse. A sometimes barely audible guitar keened, sometimes sputtered in counterpoint to Tim’s smooth fusion of melody, words and notes. Sporadically, often almost subliminally, I perceived glancing echoes of a feminine voice, perhaps voices, investing the background soundscape with a fragile melancholy that was always about to, but never actually did, teeter into an understated resolution of muted fulfilment.
I started to sing the song. Actually, I had sung or hummed it to myself off and on over the years, joining in with the radio or the CD player. What I really mean is it was only then that I started to seriously sing it, to approach it as a song to be sung for an audience, as a work to connect me as a performer with those watching and listening.
What I discovered is what I would call the song’s metaphysical scaffolding, its secret pulse. If it has a genre, it is a song of quest; but a quest forever unresolved – one of pothos, of a yearning that can never be satisfied as long as one expresses oneself in a living, breathing body.
And to start with that body, it is a sexual quest. The hunt for a mad, dangerous, totally fulfilling passion – “Were you hare when I was fox?” – a veritable amour fou, always on the edge, always more and more bewitchingly all-consuming. It is very much a romantic quest also, scanning the world for the truest of loves, the most perfect of companions to share home and hearth, the fruits of the earth, all of life’s joys and sorrows; a quest where “your singing eyes and fingers drew me loving to your isle”.
The quest is also sacred, a search for the completion of one’s soul qualities, the unfoldment and expression of one’s character. From this perspective, Odysseus wandered those ten long years in search of his beloved soul. To hear the sirens’ song, the music of the feminine, proved irresistible.
Yet these searches for the sexual, the romantic and the sacred are brought squarely face to face with the doubts, uncertainties and hesitations that riddle the quest for death, the quest to discover what, if anything, remains after the body dissolves. Here love of life does battle with curiousity about death. “Should I stand amid the breakers? Or should I lie with Death my bride?” The song, as it must, leaves this unresolved.
Perhaps, Song to the Siren is questing for the essence of song, for the muse of creative voice, slyly contrasting the numinous beauty of poetic inspiration with the inadequacies of the human vessels attempting to express it in the world.
Authentic performance must weave these elements – sex, romance, the sacred, death and song – into a sonic and emotional fabric that bathes the audience in an experience which goes beyond, yet is still imbued with these five strands. After all, the word strand can denote the seashore too, the shore where the singer’s boat is stranded, “broken lovelorn on your rocks”. And then the song turns itself inside out and emerges as a simple song of love, a song of the sea, tides and moon.
© John Hopper