Barbara's Musical Theme 1

Composition played on guitar used in live event in family home

Barbara's Story, by Sarah

Barbara’s story is one element of the installation 31 Days Old. Barbara chose to work with this image taken whilst she was on holiday in 2010. Barbara's Story and the following narrative explores her battle with breast cancer. Her story was presented in two parts, an aural recording and a dance film, here I will just share details about the dance film. The process of making and presenting this work reveals certain issues pertaining to status and ownership of the story, ethics and notions of care.  Barbara chose to share this particular story as it related to a range of images she was working with in the project. In the initial stages of the creating her film, I showed Barbara Cancer Shock (1982) by the late Jo Spence (1934-1992), to demonstrate how artists work with intimate and graphic materials. This work demonstrates how Spence used photography as a non-clinical therapeutic tool in response to her diagnosis of breast cancer. Cancer Shock, her final work, was her way to expose the medical side of illness whilst presenting it through a critical, distanced gaze, and yet still communicating the emotional toll of a very frightening experience (Spence 1986). Barbara’s feelings towards cancer, and her expression of how she experienced her body, inspired the making and aesthetic of her dance film. In a recorded interview she states:


“I was in and out of hospital, I felt like my body was not my own. I am never going to look the same again, I am never going to feel the same again, I want to show how scary that feeling is and how beautiful I am” (Barbara, personal communication, 10th February 2017).


The aesthetic of the film is a deliberate play on the scale and perspective of the body.  Barbara wanted to show the physical and emotional impacts of the radical alteration of her body after surgery. Extreme close-ups of her scarred skin were filmed, which looked like a desert landscape, and was then overlaid with the vision of her naked upper body. The solo dance, comprised of film edits of her skin and gestural material developed by Barbara as she gently touches and follows the operation scars on her body. 


The film, Barbara's solo dance and accompanying music were installed into a small box room in our home. A tent was made, and the viewer could enter into the tent room and sit with Barbara's film, this created an immersive experience, where one was invited into her world. 


Barbara comments: “I didn’t think I was going to live, so having the opportunity to think about my cancer in this way, was a new experience for me, it was a celebration of living” (Barbara, personal communication, 10th February 2017).  


This process revealed certain implications, both of working closely with family and of the notion of care as explored through this research. I believe – as Barbara’s niece and because of our close relationship – we could develop a level of intimacy which enabled us to create such work. This way of working allows me to embrace a range of working principles, the nuances of which can change depending on the context. Working with her on such personal content in this way is an implication of this research. I was working with Barbara on an element of her internal life, exposing her body, her thoughts and life experience to family and to guests. This reveals a deep commitment to this principle of performance making, where I, as instigator of the practice, need to work with Barbara to share her story, and realise with her the representation of her life.


Barbara, like other family members involved in this project, had never performed before, therefore the making and curating of her story documents my efforts to develop sensitive working processes. This can be described as an ongoing responsibility and commitment to the notion of ethics and care. Caring in this context is a relational term, which Sara Ruddick explains as caring which attends to the needs of the other in a particular circumstance (1989). I worked with care and attention throughout this project to discuss Barbara’s thoughts on process and on the aesthetic qualities of the film. For example, she wanted to film in her bedroom, rather than in a studio. This presented some technical difficulty but Barbara felt more comfortable. These kinds of considerations attend to individual needs rather than prioritising aesthetic and technical issues.


Secondly, story ownership is a fundamental way that we manage our relationship to our own experiences, mobilising the powerful role that narrative storytelling has in understanding power relations and social relationships (Fivush 2011). Through the development and setting of her experiences through performance, Barbara found another way to articulate her story. The process of creating the dance film was not the appropriation or exploitation of Barbara’s story – not one’s person tragedy for another’s person creativity. 


Scholar Amy Schuman helpfully suggests that claiming ownership of a story, or challenging someone else’s right to tell it, points beyond the stories themselves to issues of status, dignity, power, and moral and ethical relations between tellers and listeners. (2015: 38). 


The relationship between tellers and listeners in the context of this performance practice invites a certain form of intimacy, not only in the subject of the materials but within the context of the home setting.  Jerome Bruner explains: “Like all speech acts, a story is a location, but it also has a specific purpose: What a speaker intended by telling it to this listener in this setting” (2002: 24). Similarly, my work is not governed by the analysis of quality or the reception of the performance work; I am concerned with the home as a setting for such material, that this may present opportunities to engage with the work in certain ways. Stories extend and travel beyond the person who has experienced them; they can, like memories, change or take on new interpretations or meanings (Schuman 2002). In this way, Barbara’s story extended beyond her own experience into sharing it with guests within the intimacy of the home. In the creation of her dance film, I was not speaking on behalf of Barbara, but from a place of privilege – I had insider knowledge of the story and we discovered a new language to represent it. As Bruner states in Life as Narrative, “In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (2002: 694).  After the performance of 31 Days Old, Barbara and I discussed how she felt about the work and in particular her cancer story; she commented – “Well I’m not easily embarrassed when it comes to my body, but witnessing the performance being watched, was actually ok.  As the performance came over very caring and gentle, so I enjoyed watching it… and it gets it out there, the reality of it, that’s what I and everybody needs” (Barbara, personal communication, 10th February 2017).


Andy describes the process of developing Barbara's musical theme 

Barbara’s musical theme contrasts with The Box as the music was generated in the same way but with very different results. The scores reveal many differences. The two examples used in this research display very different musical characteristics. When Barbara speaks about her holiday, she is absolutely sure of its circumstances and how she feels about it, and her melodic and rhythmic patterns are regular and harmonious. When Sarah tries to recall the particular events surrounding a house move in her childhood, the irregularity of her speech reflects the struggle to remember. She concludes, in fact, that she cannot.


I use this as an aesthetic device only. I am not attempting to draw psychological conclusions from these musical findings, rather allowing the contrasting pitch and rhythm characteristics present in the speech to create a variety of musical effects. Barbara’s theme is considerably more harmonically and rhythmically stable than Sarah’s and this offers an impetus for musical composition.


The range of notes is much narrower in Barbara’s speech, and there is much repetition. I was even able to assign her a key signature (E major) as most of the notes repeated and all were from that tonality. Rhythmically, Barbara’s fragment is much more regular than Sarah’s and we have a sense that she knows what she is about to say. There is a certainty there.


I chose not to set her voice against the music this time, instead using the pitch and rhythm material to create a musical theme, which went through a number of different forms before settling on the guitar version. The visual material and back-story of Barbara’s dance film were very sensitive and it took some time before I was satisfied to be representing it in the right way. One piano version, though beautiful on its own, conveyed the wrong message when coupled with the Barbara’s dance film (I have included the audio here). I settled on the guitar piece using predominantly open 7th intervals, which I felt gave a plainer quality.


I responded to the visual material (first of the photograph and then the film) but also the actual location of the installation. Being in the house in a room near my recording studio I was able to re-record and re-edit, trying out several versions of the theme before choosing the right one.

Barbara's speech pattern 

Barbara's Musical Theme 2 

Barbara's Story 

This page is dedicated to a narrative in Barbara's story, Sarah's auntie.  Her memory was intimate and traumatic and presented questions as to whether it should be publicly shared, this decision primarily rested with Barbara.


Below the process of making and sharing sensitive performance work is explored, Andy reveals the process of creating musical scores from speech patterns.