Sue and Vivien


Sue Evans in conversation with
Vivien Conacher

Vivien is a classically-trained mezzo soprano and founder of Songhaven. She runs live, professional, dementia-friendly concerts at public venues and in care homes. Recent concerts are now online as free films under the banner Songhaven at Home. People can also request Songhaven Dedications bespoke video performances. Sue Evans is a freelance writer.

26 Weeks: Reflection

I met Vivien Conacher very briefly on Saturday 12 October 2019 at a Bloomsbury Festival talk at Goodenough College in Mecklenburgh Square. The event was part of 26 Leaps, a writing project around people who have made a difference. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing so leaps were much in evidence. Vivien was there to talk about Songhaven, the thoroughly worthwhile professional concerts she runs for people with dementia and for people in care homes.

I remember the date because it was my birthday. It was raining heavily. I was with my daughter and afterwards we planned to see a film at the Brunswick Centre. Because of the bad weather every screening had sold out and we ended up going to a pub instead.

Little did I imagine one year later Vivien and I would be conversation partners during a pandemic, and crowded pubs and cinemas consigned to the past. I’d also never heard of Zoom. Well, that’s changed.

Our three conversations had two strands. The first concerned elderly people in care homes. They seemed to be falling through the cracks at the beginning of lockdown. An impression not without foundation as things turned out, since there were few voices speaking up for them. Vivien told me she’d received emails from care home staff grateful for Songhaven’s online resource of previously recorded concerts and singalongs.

The second strand was the Government banning musical performances on stage, including singing in public. This left thousands of people facing financial hardship along with uncertainty about work. The same was true for other performing arts and, in the main, still is. Artists and musicians also counted a psychological cost on top of coping with day-to-day economic worries. Imagine spending years training, dedicating your life to performance at the highest level and then being denied the opportunity to showcase your skills. Performing behind closed doors to camera cannot be the same.

For us too, as a society, how can we countenance a world without singing? Church services, weddings, funerals without celebratory hymns? Opera companies without their stirring choruses?

I decided to write a poem, a villanelle. I wanted to consider the voices that are heard and privileged over others, certainly over those of artists unable to perform currently. Villanelles tend to be associated with obsession, suggestive of an inner tension, and the repeating poetic form is redolent of something perpetually unresolved. Vivien thought the project worth pursuing musically and sought the help of composer Tom Floyd, who agreed to write a musical setting. Both of them were taken with the idea of singing about not singing. Tom’s avant-garde contemporary music contrasts well with the cusping archaic form of the villanelle.

We now have a working recording and an excerpt is included here. To mark the end of 26 Weeks with such an inspiring collaboration reminds me there are ways we can amplify one another’s voices and continue to be heard. A fully mastered studio recording should follow shortly.

Villanelle for an empty stage
Music composed by Tom Floyd with words by Sue Evans
Performed by Vivien Conacher accompanied by James Long on piano

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