‘Refrain’ is the first off-site project by the Attenborough Centre – produced by Situations, in partnership with English Heritage and Heart of Glass. It’s an immersive, site-specific choral work by composer Verity Standen, and it’s an altogether beguiling experience.
Arriving through the main gate into Newhaven Fort, a 19th century building overlooking the harbour, we receive an introductory talk explaining the work. It is, we’re told, a piece about conscientious objectors – those men who refused on moral grounds to enlist during World War I. They were court martialled here, and many were sent to live and work nearby in Seaford camp. “Follow the song,” our guide advises us before we begin. She explains that the voices of the choir will lead us into rooms. Once inside, we can literally mill around among the singers.
The fort itself, an amazing historic space, offers a range of varying acoustics in interior and exterior locations. These function as an extension of the simple palette of melancholy, wordless harmonies emanating from the mouths of the male singers. Verity Standen seems to have composed a work in which Newhaven Fort functions much like a musical instrument, the rooms acting like different valves on a trumpet. The voices remain quite consistent, but each room delivers a different acoustic flavour.
In one room, for example, the space is limited and, once the audience is inside, it’s a fairly tight fit. The volume of the voices rises and falls. As the singers grow louder in such a small area, the music fills our heads, ringing in the ears – harmony on the edge of discord. Verity Standen works with non-professional singers. These are local volunteers, dressed in everyday clothes. There’s something beautiful about the rapt concentration on their faces. We share a moment of connection with them, and can literally feel their breath on our necks as they sing.
Roaming through the space, we find ourselves wondering in what deeper sense this can really be a piece ‘about’ the conscientious objectors? The title ‘Refrain’ (a recurring melody, or the decision to abstain) offers a hint – yet in truth the narrative element of local history feels rather tacked on to an otherwise quite sublime piece of essentially abstract, site specific sound sculpture. Does that matter? Ultimately, as listeners we take the view that it does not.
Standen was right not to load the piece with overt attempts at historical context (period costumes, voice-overs and the like) to drive her point home. The conscientious objector story is provided at the start, and we are free to take it or leave it. The composer herself echoes this when she writes that she believes “some people will enter those spaces, having read about the inspiration for the work, with the historical context at the forefront of their experience. Others might purely enjoy spending time in those environments… the piece itself doesn’t take a stance on the history”.
Standen seems to conclude, like us, that there isn’t a right or wrong way to approach this artwork. The piece therefore, being so accessible, feels like a very fitting choice for the Attenborough Centre’s first foray into immersive, site specific art. We can only hope that this will be the first of many to grant new life to the hidden historical spaces in and around our city.