Emily Hall – Folie a Deux (Bedroom Community)


The latest signing, and the first woman, apart from label associate and viola player Nadia Sirota, to Iceland’s Bedroom Community label is British composer Emily Hall, with her opera Folie · Deux. It features an English libretto by Icelandic novelist, poet and former Bjork collaborater Sjon, who visited the Sydney writers festival in 2013. The title refers to a psychotic delusion shared by two people, performed by Swedish soprano Sofia Jernberg, also an experimental jazz artist, and with English tenor Alan Clayton.

Sjon came up with the idea of using a pylon under construction as the transmitter of the disorder, and its hum is represented by a specially constructed electromagnetic harp, played on the recording by the composer. There is also an acoustic harp, and electronics on two tracks by Warp recording artist Mira Calix.

A recent performance by Mahogany Opera Group at the Spitalfields festival in London, with Icelandic tenor Finnur Bjarnason got a stinker of a review in the Guardian by George Hall, presumably no relation to the composer, who described it thus: “Musically, the result feels almost entirely static, something to chill out to, perhaps, but fatally lacking in dramatic momentum.”

It is a minimalist work, described by the composer as a ‘concept album,’ with just the two principal singers, two harpists and electronics, so one would expect it to be rather static, especially as the action is entirely internal. On disc it sounds very effective, especially in the track “Mantra”, where the two singers harmonise in strong vocal performances. It opens with “Ode to the Pylon,” where the tenor is double tracked, chanting a mathematical formula, while the soprano then takes over on “Loneliness,” narrating the love affair in the third person, in a farmhouse on the top of a hill, and the arrival of a chainsaw in preparation for constructing the pylon. A harp instrumental follows, and then “Wonderful Things” shifts to South Kyoto with both soloists, then West Virginia and Cairo, “haunting the ether”. “Mantra” repeats the lines ‘I’m bound to you, skin and claws,’ and the brief “Scream” is another instrumental, with electronics prominent. “Embrace”, sung by the tenor to a drone, combines “steel and bones”; in “Ode to the Nature” the soprano resumes the third person narrative accompanied by the harp, until the final section transforms into, “I was the sound of the shadow, he was the shadow of my sound.” The final piece, “Prelude,” resumes the pylon drone, which gradually increases in volume. It’s an oblique dramatisation of events, which requires some reading between the lines. A couple more brief runs of the opera are planned in London towards the end of the year, and it was premiered by the Bergen National Opera and Borealis in March.

The result may well lack external dynamics, lasting just under an hour, while the recorded version is 39 minutes, but the nature of the subject matter demands an intensely psychological approach. It even got a write-up in the British Psychological Journal, where Hall stated the idea came from a conversation with the psychiatrist Lisa Conlan, who acted as an advisor on the production. The recording was mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson at his Greenhouse Studios in ReykjavÌk and co-produced by Valgeir and Hall. Hall is a welcome addition to Bedroom Community, which has long explored crossovers in classical, folk and experimental jazz, as well as works for harp by the duo Harpwerk. Hall, who specialises in vocal composition with a touch of folk and jazz, is a prolific composer who has had work performed by the London Sinfonietta, including her previous opera, Sante, and is part of the Camberwell Composers Collective. She is already at work on her next opera, ‘seek and hide’ with poet Matthew Welton, scheduled for September, for which she has a month as the Corithia Hotel Artist in Residence for their opera year, which consists of a month full board at the luxury 5 star hotel.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.