A cracked voice…

Writer Graham Palmer (@GP_writer) explains how he’s using music to explore the past in his exciting collaborative project, Cracked Voices.

Warning: my history is suspect. It is fake news. I am not a historian.

But I am fascinated in the way we are all complicit in fashioning stories, in interpreting our own lives and those of others (however distant). The narrative thread is well and truly woven into our being now that Time Team and Who do you think you are? have taught us that anyone can uncover truth with a trowel, a census or a curious mind. In an online world where the loudest, most outrageous opinion echoes and re-echoes over social media and blogs, everyone has become an expert (including me). History has never been so contemporary, nor so contentious (or so goes another myth that strokes our fragile 21st century egos).

Fittingly, my current project grew out of a twitter exchange with the composer Jenni Pinnock. We had already worked together on ‘The Devil and the Draper’, a piece that spliced together the traditional resurrection myth that centres on the Devil’s Hopscotch (Therfield Heath), the discovery in October 1856 of an unusual burial on a remote hill overlooking the earthwork, and a newspaper report from August 1912 about how the body of the shopkeeper Sidney Powell had been found on the hill’s summit.[1] The resulting piece blended the source material first into a poem, and then a song. Objective historical analysis it was not, but when it was performed by Meridian School Choir, it struck a chord. People who had forgotten (or never known) their local history and traditions, wanted more. More songs, more facts. Perhaps a whole classical song cycle based on original research. Cracked Voices.

The Hopscotch & Church Hill - copyright Graham Palmer 2015

Thanks to support from Grants for the Arts and the PRS Foundation the project took flight and, with the help of professional local performers, Cracked Voices will premiere in 2018. Jenni and I are also running educational workshops to feed into these performances. The legacy will be a collection of 12 historically-based songs rooted in the area. A recording is also planned.

Our desire is a simple one, to give emotionally truthful voices to a wide range of people who lived in the disputed borderlands at the eastern end of the Icknield Way (an ancient pathway which may in itself be a modern construct). As we set out to explore their stories, we had little idea how challenging it would prove. Who should we select? What aspect of their lives should we focus on? What was ‘ordinary’ anyway in any given era? Since the unremarkable seldom wrote and often only appeared when they did something remarkable, their voices would already be filtered by the news values of the day or the bias of the scribe. And then there were the women, or rather lack of them in the historical record.

As I dug about in local museums, archives and libraries, it became obvious that the act of amplifying, editing and interpreting would automatically distort the faint whispers – or silences – of the primary sources. It would be like taking a fossil fragment and extrapolating a whole animal from it…an act of imagination, true, but one based on evidence, context and precedent. Amongst others, we’ve found women branded as witches, a man whose madness was misinterpreted by Dickens, a refugee giving birth under a caravan.

As we share our discoveries, we share something more important: a challenge to everyone to question our choices and interrogate our truth.


Cracked Voices will premiere in Cambridge (UK) in March 2018.
Blog / e-newsletter at: www.cracked-voices.co.uk



[1] Hertford and Bedford Reformer, Saturday 31 July 1841; Alfred Kingston, A History of Royston, (Royston, 1906, reprinted 1975) p.194; Royston Crow – October 1865; Herts and Cambs Reporter, Friday August 23, 1912.

Images: Featured image – Graham Palmer and Jenni Pinnock (Copyright Terry Hartga); Image in text – The Hopscotch and Church Hill (Copyright Graham Palmer).

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