On Wednesday 4th of November a sold-out Byre Theatre played host to the unlikely duo of PJ Harvey and Paul Muldoon as part of the University of St. Andrews’ “Soundings” series. “Soundings” is an experimental series of events which pair renowned musicians and writers together for an in-conversation style event. The series was launched with two-time Mercury Prize winner Harvey and Pulitzer Prize for Poetry receiver Muldoon.
Despite hailing from different creative background, the pairing of Harvey and Muldoon provided a cross-over of disciplines that sparked an insightful discussion. After eight critically acclaimed studio albums, her forthcoming publication The Hollow of the Hand is Harvey’s first published collection of poetry, while University of St. Andrews honorary graduate Muldoon is an avid musician, having collaborated with the composer Daron Hagen on several operas and serving as lyricist and guitarist with the Princeton band Wayside Shrines.
The series has been created by Reif Larsen, the University’s new International Writer in Residence, and Professor of English, Don Paterson. Mr. Larsen explained that “Soundings” aims to breathe new life into the stale state of in-conversation style events:
“I approach other disciplines with a great degree of awe and a bit of suspicion. I sometimes get tired of the same little loops of conversation that can happen when you bring two artists of the same discipline together. But when you pair two people from different disciplines together, suddenly anything can happen. We’re hoping to capture a little lightening in a bottle with these events.”
The evening was kicked off with a recital by T.S Elliot Prize winner Muldoon. Delving into lyrical poems such as “Sadie and the Sadists,” “At Least They Weren’t Talking French,” and “You’ve Got Nothing On,” Muldoon’s warm persona filled the room with his words dancing throughout the audience in a humorous tone.
PJ Harvey started her performance with a selection of poetry from her new publication, with poems such as “The Orange Money” and “Chain of Keys” providing a notable brace. Picking up a guitar, the Dorset native continued the evening with a four song set comprised mostly of new material. Among the selections played, the stand-out was “Near the Memorials of Vietnam and Lincoln,” a new song that has had limited public performances this year. With a foot-stompin’ chord progression, this one will definitely be a hit on its release. Performing on both guitar and piano, Harvey’s distinguished voice filled the auditorium and, like Muldoon, it was a shame the performance didn’t last longer.
The second half of the evening was filled with a conversation between the two guests allowing those present an insightful glimpse into the creative process of writing song and poetry as well as discussing the effects of aging on their work, the nerves of performance, and the inspiration of travel. As Reif Larsen commented in his introduction to the evening, the dialogue was to be likened to a conversation between two people on a train – with all the imperfections thrown in.
Harvey mentioned how her style of composition has changed since her first record at age 19 from a visceral “writing to a guitar rhythm” progressing to today where she focuses intently on the lyrics of the song before adding accompaniment. Muldoon also gave insight into the nerves of producing creative material, emphasizing the notion of “repeating oneself” as a prominent fear of all creative artists.
“Soundings” is the latest in a long line of events that Harvey has been a part of this year after recording her, as of yet unreleased, new album in Somerset House in London as part of a collaborative project that saw members of the public viewing her recording process through a one-way glass window.
As far as St. Andrews is concerned, “Soundings” is a decisive step in the right direction as the town continues to develop its cultural scene. A thought-provoking and entertaining evening that served as a welcome change in the repetitive calendar of student events. As usual the setting of The Byre was perfect as the town’s eminent cultural venue continues to build on its already impressive reputation,
The duo of Harvey and Muldoon provided a high calibre start to the series and this trend is set to continue with the announcement of the guest performers for the remaining events. On Wednesday 17 February 2016 “Soundings” will host composer Tansy Davies and writer Michel Faber, while the series will conclude with multi-instrumentalist Johnny Flynn who will be joined by writer Robert Macfarlane on Wednesday 27 April 2016.
Tickets can be bought here.