How does a harpist play the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

One of the modules in my first year at the RCS has been an Introduction to Collaborative Practice – the hot topic of ICP that has alternatively been much loved and loathed, often by the same people at the same time.

It’s a pretty unique concept – take the full first year of 200+ students, consisting of all artistic disciplines from classical/jazz/Scottish traditional musicians, actors, singers, dancers, film makers, stage managers, stage designers, to everything in between. Carve up the group into 21 groups of 10-12 people, with a range of disciplines in each group. Give them a starting point and ask them to create a short presentation/performance to deliver to the rest of the group. Then do the same thing again with a different starting point. Along with this, invite working professional artists to deliver lectures on various themes such as their own practice and collaboration.

It was one of the reasons I came to the RCS – because of the range of disciplines being studied here and the opportunity for some weird and wonderful collaborations.

The final presentations were an incredible experience to be a part of. We had been asked to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to choose one of the 30 articles to form the basis of our performance.

I’d never read it before. I feel more than a little ashamed of this.

We based our performance on Article 1 (and yes we did read them rather than choosing the first one we saw :)) which states:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Our 10 minute performance featured a contemporary dance choreographed by one of our group and performed by three talented dancers with a tableau featuring the rest of the group,  a monologue performed by an actress, a spoken word piece set to music which was read by a musical theatre artist and accompanied by five classical musicians, and a short protest set to Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Our set was created in miniature by a theatre designer and then intricately shot and projected by a film maker as a backdrop to the performances.

It’s quite amazing to think you can get all that into 10 minutes. It’s even more amazing that this generated 20 minutes of passionate discussion by the audience, after both performances. Some people thought it was too provocative and in your face, others were inspired by our performance and felt compelled to take action, and some of the foreign students celebrated that we were able to express our opinions in this way at all.

Our group was quite a mixed bag, not unsurprising given the range of disciplines, and there were some big personalities to deal with. It was quite fraught at times, but after our first performance, we were all surprised to realise that we had at last become a unit, and this was a really special feeling. I also felt incredibly glad that all the content that we had presented had been received as we hoped. Our message was about taking action and not just sitting back saying “oh oppression, how terrible” and moving on. Some of the audience referred to some text at the end of the performance which came from a suggestion I had made and I felt really proud of this.

Watching the performances from other groups, several things happened. I genuinely enjoyed sitting back at the end of the project, knowing all the hard work was done, and being able to really appreciate the work that everyone had put into their final pieces. I was now watching from a more artistic perspective, as we were being encouraged to give feedback to the performers, but I also loved the sense of magic and wonder of being an audience member and not knowing what is coming next.

I was simply awestruck by the level of talent in our year, the creativity that was displayed in putting together a performance in response to the articles, and the standard of the performances, both individually and as groups.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as a slave driver burst onto the stage on stilts. I got goosebumps when hooded figures appeared from within the audience to silence and then abduct artists as they were performing. I felt an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism watching a performance by a dancer dressed as a young child, which was being videoed and played back as she danced. The audience were drawn to watch the film of the dancer, rather than the actual dancer, and there was a gradual realisation of how creepy this was. A piece on the article about privacy asked us to leave our phones on full volume rather than switched to silent, and various musicians played all the common ringtones over and over again – a trombonist and violinist were particularly effective. Various texts and phonecalls were received by the audience throughout the performance, which added to rather than interrupting what happened on stage. Original scores had been composed to accompany live action on stage, and these were astonishing in almost every case.

As well as being awestruck, I also felt quite intimidated – the feeling of comparing your own talents against those of others mostly younger than you is not necessarily a pleasant one. However this gave way to a sense of feeling very fortunate to be studying in a place where the standard is so high that you can only be influenced and pushed on to improve your own work even further.

The week of rehearsing and performing left me feeling inspired as to how I could develop my own creativity and my own performances, both in terms of the material I perform, the people I work with and the settings I perform in.

As a (mostly) classical harpist, I struggle with the common image of my instrument. I truly aspire to play the ‘big’ pieces from the available repertoire in traditional solo recital context, but I’d also love to tear it up a little and try working with some spoken word performers and with some visual art, be it photography, fine art or moving images. I feel really glad that I’m in just the right environment to explore these – as well as the RCS, Glasgow School of Art is just around the corner.

As well as my thoughts of the impact on my own work and life, I was also forced to think about some political thoughts and feelings. I’d hesitate to say I am now a radical, but some of the contributions from the foreign students who spoke so passionately about their own experiences of protest and oppression in their own countries really affected me, and I was reminded how lucky I am to live in such a free country, despite the amount of people who moan about it.

I am so grateful to be able to pursue my ambitions and to be able to study, especially being female, and I am lucky to have the right to travel and see the world and express my opinions.

I also realised just how much I value having artistic/creative freedom. Oppression has contributed hugely to developments in art, music and film, particularly in the twentieth century, and I feel strongly that I should consider this and how I can reflect this in my own presentations of my work.

The masking and abducting of the artists in one of the performances provoked probably the strongest reaction I had to any of the groups and I was amazed at the strength of this reaction and how it could come from a piece of theatre. I’m struggling to express how I felt during this, but it was something along the lines of, “If they come for the artists, who really aren’t harming anyone and are just expressing themselves, where on earth does that leave us?”

My head is still spinning when I look back on that week, but in all the right ways. When choosing my sign to wave around for our protest piece at the end of our performance, I was immediately drawn to the word Spirit, and have kept my sign to put on the wall at home in my practice room.

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It really sums up the week for me as I feel that my creative spirit has really been awakened and pointed on a new path which I can set out on with a new energy and sense of purpose. This was further strengthened by my post on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon here.

So, with a Bernstein quote in my head and a Spirit sign on my wall, I’m looking forward to what comes next…

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5 thoughts on “How does a harpist play the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”

  1. That was fascinating to read Katherine, it sounds a wonderful, thought provoking experience . Let me know of any public productions your year are doing! I never go to enough productions and gigs – for which I always berate myself the next time I do and realise how much I feel and enjoy them.

  2. So inspiring hon! I love hearing and being part of projects with cross disciplines… You reminded me of my days when I was involved in social action and seeing the creativity on the streets was amazing and challenging…..can’t wait to see how your
    creativity develops

    1. Thanks John – I tried to email you to say thanks but it bounced a couple of times unfortunately. It’s been quite a first year!

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