Roger Marsh Composer

Andante Cantabile 1972



Steve Stanton and I were at William Ellis grammar school together and both grew up in Kentish Town, in north-west London.  Steve took some time out working in music publishing before coming to the University of York, where I was already studying.  We shared musical tastes, for the most part, having played together in a pop band for a few years in London, and discovered ‘the new music’ together, mostly via specialist records that Steve was very good at rooting out in the West End.  When Steve came to York we immediately started collaborating on ‘events’ that were somewhat anarchic and combined music and theatre.  For example we compiled a tape piece by overlaying three or four of Berio’s ‘Sequenze’. While this was played I explored a pile of junk at the back of the concert hall, eventually making so much noise with it that the Sequenza tape was disrespectfully obliterated. Layering disconnected musical elements while presenting anomolous visual distraction was a technique we favoured for a time, and it worked its way into our composition too.  In 1972 we challenged each other to compose a solo work for each other.  I wrote Dum for Steve (but added an orchestra), while Steve wrote Andante Cantabile for me (but added a chorus line of miserable lost souls).

Andante Cantabile (1973) was perhaps the most astonishingly original work to emerge from York during the period. Key to its genesis was Steve’s submersion in Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  I think he came to Dante via Samuel Beckett, pursuing the Dante derived images in Beckett’s work.  The text he compiled for the piece is formed of quotations from Dante’s Purgatorio, Beckett’s The Lost Ones, and a futuristic story by E.M.Foster The Machine Stops (1909), which was not well known at that time and seemed wildly and improbably ‘science fiction’, although in recent years it seems to have been more widely recognised as an uncannily accurate prediction of the modern age of video conferencing and controlling Artificial Intelligence.

Andante Cantabile  sets a white suited, trilby hatted Mafioso figure, in front of a seated line of nine shabbily clad lost souls, who begin the piece entirely covered by a thick black plastic sheet.  Behind them, an aluminium ladder reaches up towards heaven, suggesting a means of escape.  One by one the Mafioso reveals members of this despairing chorus, taunting them and increasing their despair with his celestial musings.  His texts, mostly spoken, and mostly taken from Purgatorio, are delivered half in Italian and half in English, but with a strong, comic Italian accent.   A third element to the piece, consists of an insistent drone, on tape, which represents the controlling machine of E.M. Forster’s story.  The Mafioso figure uses Forster’s opening words to explain the scene:

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds.

A completely engaging piece of theatre, Andante Cantabile was itself a breath of fresh air.  It also made ingenious use of notational devices employed in recent works by Berio (Laborintus II), and Rands (Ballad I), such as mobiles – independently repeated phrases – and a three line staff to indicate relative pitch.  Not only did such devices ease problems of co-ordination and memorisation (one of the pre-requisites for any kind of serious theatre), but it allowed a cast to be assembled on the basis of acting ability and musicality, but not necessarily singing experience.  Indeed, one of the hall marks of the new music theatre at this time, was that it deliberately avoided the need for trained singing voices.  The Laborintus II influence is perhaps the most obvious one here, and in retrospect I think our caricature of Sanguineti’s beautiful and powerful recitations in that work were a little juvenile…..

After the first performances at York, Steve made a second version where the chorus of 9 was reduced to 6.  This made touring the piece a lot simpler, and with Clap we presented the work in a number of other venues. In San Diego I put the piece on in the Mandeville Auditorium, and we tried to film the work at the Centre for Music Experiment, which engendered some great photographs but no film, for a variety of reasons beyond my control.  I also performed the piece with Vocem at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and at City University.  At Keele in the 1980s I staged it again and we took it to Huddersfield.

Rehearsal photos from San Diego, 1977.  Chorus: Ed Harkins, Debbie Kavasch, Terry Setter, Debbie Wise, Sue Rands, Linda Vickerman, Vladimir Vooss, Rami Levin, Rob Gross.  Cameraman: Al Rossi.