Interview: Xavier Velastin Talks New Show [Whalesong]

[whalesong] is a new immersive show heading to the Camden Fringe this year so I caught up with the man behind the Whalesong, Xavier Velastin, to find out what the show is all about. [whalesong] will play at The Monkey House, London, from 1st-4th August and there’s a ticket link following the interview so you can pop along to the Camden Fringe site and book once Xavier has sufficiently intrigued you with his answers here!

[whalesong] sounds very intriguing, where has a show about whales and their sounds come from?

[whalesong] came about through singing and speaking underwater. It’s come out of a bigger project which I started making as my dissertation for my masters from Goldsmiths almost exactly two years ago (I’m a Master of Sonic Arts, as I tell literally everybody). I had gone with a friend to the pool in the olympic village in Stratford to help her record sounds of her swimming – that’s where I first encountered a hydrophone (underwater microphone). I borrowed it and started playing around – putting it in a bowl of water and singing or talking into it. My practice as an artist usually revolves around voice. Then I started listening to whale vocalisation to hear how aquatic mammals communicate. On youtube most of the whale sounds have sickly piano music underneath it, so I listened using scientific and conservation resources such as Ocean Conservation Research. Through them, I discovered that whales’ sounds are firstly, far richer and more complex than the popular depiction of them; and secondly, their voices have almost always been electronically manipulated, pitched up to a human vocal range.

I started thinking about the manipulation of voice politically, while the migrant crisis was in full swing, and how those in charge of distributing voices use their power to suit their own agenda. I learned about the sound of the oceans, about how three million whales have been hunted in the past two centuries, and thought about how quiet the ocean must have gotten. I learned about seismic oil drilling, a technique used to find petroleum – which is itself crushed organic matter – by blasting sound at the sea floor, a technique which kills zooplankton, deafens whales and blocks out their long-distance social calls. I read about our own nature as aquatic apes, about cetacean intelligence, about the mammalian diving reflex. The show that came out of it, Me & My Whale, is about a submarine captain who falls in love with a whale, and [whalesong] is inspired by the stories and sounds that have surfaced from that.

[whalesong] isn’t really meant to be an educational show, though there are moments where I share what I’ve been learning. It’s more of a carnival of listening – a celebration of ears, of cognition and of the water. Through listening to the whales’ actual sounds, I found a beauty that was deeper and more alien than the relaxation videos. Whales are so tantalisingly similar and also so different to humans in how they make sense of the world. 

[whalesong] is also about sound in performance more generally. I wanted to make a sound piece in a theatre festival to see how the different context changes the way the sound is heard. I’ve been involved in theatre in some way or another since I was a teenager – I used to want to act, and then I did music for plays when I was doing my undergraduate, I’ve worked in technical theatre and I’ve produced, too. It’s also an opportunity to trap people in a room for an hour while they listen to me, which is basically what I want all the time.
6E275EE9-DFF6-406F-AD07-698F9B00EC3B.jpegLondon is bursting at the seams with shows of all shapes and sizes. What can you tell us about [whalesong] and why should audiences come and see you?

Because I genuinely don’t think they will have seen and heard anything like it before. Sound has a quality of being able to have emotional impact on a level slightly under consciousness. It can trigger memories, create and break attachments, personify objects, make you dance, make you trip, make you violent, stop you dead and get you ready to party. In performance, I’ve found it can add deeper meaning to text-based theatre, change the interpretation of a visual moment, and undermine the on-stage truth. We live in an intensely uncanny visual environment, and a detachment from reality is such a strong part of our visual consumption. And I use the word consumption literally. I mean, it’s actually called an instagram “feed”. Everyone who watches reality tv knows it’s mostly faked. We get personalised advertising depending on what we scroll on, who we vote for and where we go – to tell us what to scroll on, who to vote for and where to go. We’re starting to have less freedom and individuality online than in the physical world. Within this reality/non-reality, I think it’s very important to learn to perceive things we can’t see, and to be able to choose to not see – listening as an act of resistance. Plus, who doesn’t like whales?

The pitch for [whalesong] seems quite political, with various references made to mankind’s detrimental impact on whales. Are you conscious of delivering serious, political and environmentally conscious messages with this show?

There are definitely very clear messages of our impact on the environment in [whalesong]. I’m glad that whales and ocean plastic have come into people’s awareness recently, probably because of Blue Planet II. I don’t know if I’d call the show ‘serious’ though. I feel like in our increasingly chaotic, incomprehensible, traumatic world, people don’t necessarily want to go to the theatre and hear about how horrible everything is. Not that they should just stick on Russell Howard and think everything is candyfloss and rainbows, but why depress people? We shouldn’t screw up the ocean, because screwing up the ocean is shitty. Instead, let’s listen to the water and sing along.

There’s a principle I’m using in writing this show which I call ‘sustainability in composition’. The idea behind this is to bring environmentalism into the compositional process. Around a year ago, I was designing the sound for Powder Keg’s BEARS at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It was a piece about polar bears trying to live in a world where all the ice has melted, and they were meticulous in keeping the carbon footprint low – the set was entirely out of recovered materials, we logged out carbon footprint getting to rehearsals, the programme was online. From my part, I repurposed broken speakers and amplified the set. But it also got me thinking about how pointless the act of domestic recycling is in the context of global pollution. Because the way to stop waste and reverse the damage to the planet isn’t by asking people nicely to recycle, it’s by making waste impossible. Sustainability in composition is a way to restrict the written and sonic materials I use to only things that can be re-used in other parts of the composition. In [whalesong], for instance, I collect the products of electronic manipulation (called artifacts) and reshape them to generate one of the sections in the show. This is themed around how phytoplankton populations decline when there are fewer whales to move them around.
F9301B70-F8D1-46B6-9622-30A3E63EEEC0Would you define the show as a celebration of whales or are they a vehicle for delivering a wider message or meaning?

I guess on some level, I use whales as a lens to talk about wider society – about the nature of consumption, of cultural capitalism, of the manipulation of voice by the powerful. It’s also about the performing body, about risk and chance, about how it’s okay to be out of control. But it’s mainly actually just about whales and how great they are. I think a performance should be able to communicate clearly on a surface level of enjoyment as well as on a deeper one of analysis.

Influences and aesthetic likenesses for this show make an interesting list; Blue Planet,  Greenpeace, Bjork and Samuel Beckett. Can you give us a taste of the ‘theatrical absurdity’ created? Without too many spoilers, naturally! 

The opening of the show is me gargling the [whalesong] theme song which is electronically transformed to sound like a whale’s call. Then I step away and give a mini-lecture on the semantics of listening, before throwing it all away and moving on to the next thing. I’m constantly stepping in and out of characters, and the whole thing could maybe be read as just my disordered internal monologue. I use a lot of silliness and repetition to sort of play with reality (which probably comes from being a bit of a fanboy for things like Watt by Samuel Beckett or Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry). When it’s just sound, those things are quite normal, since detachment is part of how music works. Theatre, though, tends to want to be linear and make chronological sense. I’ve always felt that theatre is by its nature completely insane.

You describe yourself as ‘a sound artist, performance maker and contemporary theatre composer’. Can you enlighten us with your vision for the show when it comes to merging your apparent speciality with sound and the visual elements of theatre?

The first thing I’d say is that the show is set underwater, where sound travels about four times further but light only goes a few hundred metres. So it makes sense in [whalesong] to prioritise sound. For the same reason, the visual language makes use of dimness and refraction. 

I think switching the order of importance of visual and sonic elements in theatre brings out some really interesting ideas, but I don’t really see them as separate. The trouble with making a distinction between sound and visual elements is that we never perceive them by themselves. There’s no sound without movement, because sound is made from vibrations. Everything visual creates or implies sound, even in silence. Silence isn’t the absence of noise, silence is the noise of absence. That’s just how we’re wired, with all the senses mixed up. One of the pies I have one of my fingers in is in designing sound and music for theatre. As much as I can, my designs are in dialogue with the other elements – in my work for Powder Keg’s BEARS, I used the performers’ physical presence and gesture to create, adapt and disrupt the sound environment. Christopher Small’s argues in his book Musicking that music is not a noun, but a verb, and exists as a participatory activity rather than an object – for me, music is an activity that many people take part in, not just the composer or musician, but audience, promoters, bloggers, box-office managers, bartenders, front of house and technical staff, drug dealers, ticket touts. But in English cultural conversation, music is in the score or the recording, and theatre is in the words and the acting. I think that’s why English theatre has a reputation for being dull compared to its European counterpart. So I guess what I mean is I’m not merging anything that isn’t already merged, I’m just not separating it!

80C602AD-4FB2-4890-8CB1-56B221782470This show uses ‘specially-designed sound- and motion-capture technology’ – what do you think such mediums bring to your show and do you believe them to improve the audience experience?

On one level, designing performance technology makes it really fun to actually perform. It makes it challenging. It means I make mistakes and can improvise from them, something I couldn’t do with a soundtrack. The audience witnesses a dialogue with the programming, which sometimes works with me and sometimes against me, which I think they’ll respond to. The motion-capture technology I use is actually a hacked gaming controller from a golf simulation game from the early noughties – they’re called the GameTrak, though I call them the Magic Gloves™. I love them because they’re super low-tech but they still allow for such a huge range of expression. I used them last year in my sound design for Ekata Theatre’s show Unbelonger and I was surprised at how well they went down with the audience!

It’s worth pointing out that I am a terrible sound engineer. I hate cables and phase and impedance. I have no interest in the newest sound desk and I use the cheapest microphones I can find. But using sound equipment and learning programming has been the way I’ve found to best bring out what I want to express. With the Magic Gloves™, I can use my body in loads of ways to make sounds, manipulate sounds and move sounds around the space. A sneak peek to some other tech bits: I use contact microphones on bits of metal and hydrophones in bowls of water, I tape a contact mic onto parts of my body to listen to it. Today I downed a litre of water and then put it on my stomach and you can hear it swirling around! Everything is hooked through max/msp, a piece of software that builds everything in the moment. All of the content – the script, the sound, the score, the structure itself – changes and is changed by all the other content. I’m not really in control of it all, either, making the form change every time I perform it. There is no pre-recorded sound at all in the show. I hope that excites someone apart from me!

Descriptions of your work suggest that your piece is a hybrid of avant-garde theatre and performance art; how would you describe your show?

I call it a ‘sound play’, because it’s a piece of storytelling using musical composition rather than scriptwriting. So instead of characters and character development, I think of themes and thematic development: the narrative is found in how the sound changes. I wouldn’t describe it as avant-garde theatre, really, since the character work is probably closest to Brecht and clowning, which aren’t exactly new. I also need to make it very clear that [whalesong] is silly and ridiculous. It’s not for university professors scratching well-groomed beards. Yes, there are a lot of academic and intellectual background and techniques going on, but unlike a lot of contemporary theatre, it’s created to be simply beautiful and connect with people. Unlike a lot of political performance, it presents a nuanced view – it’s message isn’t ‘people are bad, feel bad about it’. And unlike a lot of sound art, it’s not noise for the sake of noise, it’s understandable, and it’s more than a european academic on £50k frowning behind an apple logo. There are a lot of moments that are definitely musical, it’s not like I reject harmony and melody and all the other things that make up music, I just use them alongside more sound-art-y things: watch my teaser-trailer i hear the ocean for an example of this.

The show is not for families. Does that disclaimer indicate adult content of some sort or does it more simply shake off the instant attraction of shows about animals for families?

The latter. It’s not aimed at families or children, I don’t think they would find it interesting. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression, since that will make it harder for them to accept the show as it actually is, and because I don’t want people to waste their time and money! 

Content-wise, there is some very visceral imagery created by what I’m talking about. Not visually, but I do talk about whales’ death and the death of the planet. To be honest, I think children are actually way better at dealing with extreme ideas than adults, but parents rarely think so.

If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing [whalesong], what would you like that to be?

I’d like them to hum the songs on the way to the pub.

Time for the Quick fire round: Questions in all things theatre!

Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?

Nobody, really. I’ve never had that feeling towards somebody of ‘I want to do that’ or ‘I want to be like that’. Whenever I find myself doing something like somebody else, I instantly stop doing that. The person who I’d say has influenced me most in theatre was probably my old drama teacher Jack Stigner. He taught me to be meticulous and ridiculous.

Favourite theatre genre and why?

Modernisations of Shakespeare. I really think we could do with seeing another inner-London Twelfth Night with an “all [insert gratuitous under-represented group here] cast”. 

Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line? It’s a hot topic right now.

All debates are worthwhile! But, as it might be obvious by now, I love chaos, so I’m all for rejecting etiquette. The only thing I will say is that if you can’t grab attention then you shouldn’t expect it.

If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?

London needs to get its head out of its arse – by collectively supporting grassroots performance making and rejecting the gentrification of community spaces. London is horrible at the moment, it’s a free market playground manufactured for oligarchs and craft beer drinkers. People should become aware of and head down to support grassroots venues like The FieldDSFL and The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. You said earlier that London is ‘bursting at the seams with shows of all shapes and sizes’, but comparing it to five or ten years ago, I don’t know if that’s really the case. I’ve worked as a technical stage manager in the London scene, and most shows are terrible and derivative, and it’s kind of obvious why. Les Mis has been on for a million years and meanwhile Fabric’s shut down, the ‘culture industries’ are still in the hands of old white men, and most people, me included, make shows at a loss – unless the shows are for oligarchs and craft beer drinkers. It’s London, it will always be home to me, but unless Londoners take an active role in fighting against the commercialisation of its nightlife, it’ll just end up homogenous. That’s the biggest threat to opportunities and representation in the arts.

In terms of me bringing change, I hope I can make a case for intersectionality in arts as a political movement, and for the public funding of music. I hope that the style of the show can inspire other people to make exciting pieces using digital technology. I hope I can get Latin American listed on ethnicity monitoring forms and not be under ‘Chinese / Any Other’.

Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence…
If you cried at the poisoned whale in Blue Planet, this show is for you.
[whalesong] plays at The Monkey House, London 1st-4th August 2018 and you can find tickets here.

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