Even with a healthy suspicion of 'cultural universals', there is a notable ubiquity to the relation between song and death. Peoples seemingly unconnected as the Plains Nations of North America, the Urubu Indians of Brazil, Japanese Zen Buddhists, and the Irish Celts have deep traditions relating voice and Death. The most obvious basis of this association may be the shared physiological phenomena of 'the breath leaving the body' – a process necessary to life when accompanied by breathing in again – but which also marks 'the end of a life'. Taking the popular Greco-Roman myths of the nightingale as a starting point or our performance, we are to engage an audience in an exploration of the aesthetics of the Death-Song.
As those familiar with end-of life situations know, encounters between life and death are not always occasions of silence: there may be tears, cries, raving, even laughter. Such expressions may be part of 'a good death'. What is certain is that even with the utmost fore-knowledge and preparation the reactions to death are unpredictable. The medieval ars moriendi pamphlets were helpful but necessarily incomplete for the same reasons that the contemporary 'professionalisation' of end-of-life care can never be adequately codified. Living and dying are arts requiring ornamentation and improvisation.
Our ideas for a vigil-performance ritual emerged via a series of dialogues and improvisations starting in the fall of 2019. An 'ornament' in the musical sense, the research is shaped by personal closeness to Death; by an exploration of Nothingness; by the uncertain landscapes between living and dying; by an exploration of the borders of the real and unreal. It is a conversation between two performance philosophers: a singer, and a poet; between music and word. The only axiom we accept in the research is that living and dying are not antithetical but rather mutually implicative.
Given the complexity of the material and the historical trajectory we wish to pursue from the early Renaissance to the present day, the performance will necessarily be a demanding one. If the audience is willing we would present the material as a far-from-silent vigil structured around a song or poem at each hour, beginning at sunset. There would follow a reflection and discussion period, then a short break before the next piece, and so on until sunrise. Needless to say the dialogic and improvisational content of the material will bend this framework as the ideas and performances find their own lives and deaths.