Composer, Catherine Kontz has introduced a brand new work, Fleet Footing (Sonic Walk), that combines interactive performance and urban exploration. As part of Tete-a-Tete 2018’s opera festival, Fleet Footing enables participants to discover London’s landscape, from Hampstead to Blackfriars, using binaural sound recordings, immersive performance and urban space. In this Q & A, Catherine shares with us the key inspiration behind Fleet Footing (Sonic Walk), what it is like to collaborate with various artists, soloists and sound designers to make it happen as well as her extensive experience as a regular theatre maker at Tete-a-Tete.

When did you realise composing music was your calling?

About 20 years ago I came to the UK to study music at Goldsmiths – I went in as a pianist and came out a composer. These were very formative years for me and the free-thinking spirit of Goldsmiths is hopefully still alive in me!

Since when did you become interested in theatre, classical music and elements of visual dimension?

As a performer and listener, classical music has been my world since I was very young, but it was very traditional and abstract at the outset. When I started composing however, I noticed quite quickly that when I think about creating music, I think about it in a three-dimensional space and I enjoy the theatre of it. More than just dots on a page, I want to create an event, a moment where all the elements fit together and join to furnish an experience for the audience. Through research for my PhD I got interested in total theatre, mime, physical theatre, Kabuki and opera at its most experimental. And still, with every piece I am striving to discover new grounds, tap into different fields, combine new media and challenge the way we think about performance, music and how we experience it.

What was the inspiration behind Fleet Footing – Sonic Walk?

About a year ago, Sarah Grange, the artist and writer I collaborate with on this project, came to me with the idea of writing a choral piece to be performed on the steps of the Old St Pancras Church, as apparently, if you listen very, very carefully (and there is no traffic) you can hear the River Fleet running beneath! This initial idea developed quite quickly into something much longer and larger once we started looking into the history of the Fleet, with all its legends and stories. It’s a deep well!!

Fleet Footing – A Sonic Walk sounds pioneering. I’ve never come across a work that combines music with maps and expedition before. Is this a way to engage new audiences with theatre, opera and classical music?

Fleet Footing can certainly be enjoyed by anyone, young and old! It will make you re-discover the boroughs of Camden, Islington and the City of London as the map follows the turns of the river, which has shaped the modern streets of London.

When Sarah and I first set out to look for the Fleet, we got so excited every time we found a grating where we could hear it, see it, smell it. We absolutely wanted our audience to have that same “expedition fever” and experience, and it would have been a shame to make the work about it to be performed in more traditional setting. Instead, we liked the audience to be immersed in the sounds and smells of the city, and follow the trail of the Fleet from its source at Hampstead Heath to its mouth at Blackfriars Bridge.

We soon identified 17 spots along the way that we ask you to pause and listen to one of the tracks of Fleet Footing, which we created in response to our historical and geographical findings. We also commissioned a hand-made map from artist Rowanne Anderson, which will save you from getting lost! The route is step-free and it takes about 4 hours (10 km) to complete the walk in its entirety. However, there are also buses on the way and a number of enticing pubs for anyone in need of a break! Join Sarah and myself on 28/29 July for one of our launch walks or download the tracks and set off on the walk any time you like. Fleet Footing will certainly be an unusual and fun day out in the company of family, friends, pets or on your own.

To your knowledge has a work of this nature been made before?

There are plenty of city walks and guided tours available, of course, and composers have always found inspiration in their surroundings. I don’t know of a work of exactly of this nature or a combination of elements.

The musical material includes recordings of the Fleet, recorded binaurally, giving you a 360° experience through headphones and ranging from a light trickle to a flood-like current. We had some of Sarah’s words translated into Old English and I then set these for Soprano Juliet Fraser to sing. Tom Jackson recorded clarinet and bass clarinet for us and I also included a bass waterphone, reed organs and prepared piano in the instrumentation. The tracks come with a set of instructions for the audience to follow, so there is also a playful, interactive element to it.

Is this the first time you’ve worked on a tech-savvy project of this scale?

I roped in recording expert James Bull for this, and it was quite a surreal experience to take the binaural bionic microphone head by the name of Freida all the way up to Hampstead Heath and have it peep in on the sound of the bathers and crickets there. It’s been fascinating to work with this sort of surround sound and so we also made use of its spatial possibilities within the composing and recording processes. You will for instance hear (and feel) actress Sibylla Meyenberg pacing around your head as she lists facts about the Fleet while Tom Jackson’s clarinets play catch with Sibylla and adds to the whirlpool of sound. In another instance, Juliet, Sarah and I gathered around Freida and whispered words in her ears. As the listener, you will hear this exactly as Freida heard it – as if we were breathing right into your ears.

How much research did you do to understand the Fleet of London?

We researched the history of the Fleet quite extensively. We unearthed some fantastic old texts that describe how the water from the various wells that feed the Fleet was used as a remedy for certain ailments. The Fleet also gradually changed from a clean source that feeds the Hampstead ponds to the sewer that it became further down the track. On one occasion a farmer is described to have lost a pig in the Fleet only to find it again a week later, fattened up and worth a lot more money!

For us, the trickiest part was to make sense of various maps and routes that showed the river before and after it was buried underground, and identify the best route for our walk.

Are there any other parts of London that would be a great fit for music, maps and expedition, or, perhaps, abroad? If so, which place(s) and why?

There are several other hidden rivers in London and also in other cities. We have fleetingly discussed the hidden rivers of Newcastle, Bristol and Manchester, and in a grander scheme of things, we have set our eyes on the underworld of Paris.

Have you worked with Sarah Grange before or is this the first time you’ve worked with the multi-disciplinary artist and writer?

This is the first time we have worked together on a project. We also have a couple of other ideas for opera collaborations, which will hopefully develop into something concrete in the future. We have known each other for a while however, and I have followed Sarah’s work with great interest over the last few years. She, on the other hand, has also been a keen performer in some of the “opera happenings” I have created over the years for the Tete-a-Tete opera festival, such as Twitching, Whisper Down the Lane and Bon Voyage. In fact, on 3rd August at 19.00 there will be another of these short flash-mob style events as part of the Fleet Footing launch at the Tete-a-Tete opera festival. Anyone can take part, and as a reward participants will get a free copy of Fleet Footing. Register your interest at catherinekontz @ gmail.com.

How do you want participating audiences to feel when they see and experience Fleet Footing?

I hope it is a very enjoyable experience, which leaves participants with a sense that they have been on a journey and have re-connected with the city and its past through words, sound and music.

Are there any places you go to find inspiration? E.g. a favourite place in London, Tate Modern, vacation, etc….

When I need inspiration, I go to a busy street, sit in a cafe and watch people go by. I never tire of this. It’s the energy of the people in London that feeds me. Other than that, I find that there is no place like Japan to feed my soul.

As a composer, what would you say is the most gratifying part of what you do?

Imagining things and then seeing/hearing them come to life. The first time a new work is performed is always a bit of a moment. Suddenly it’s not only in my head and on paper, but other people can actually hear it too! Ouf!

What advice would you give to an aspiring composer?

To write exactly what you want without compromise and without worrying what anyone else might be thinking or not thinking. Be fearless!

Fleet Footing – Sonic Walk ‘s meeting point is Vale of Health Pond, Hampstead at 2 pm on Saturday 28th July and Sunday 29th July. There is also 3 Friday July starting at 5 pm.  

Fleet Footing – A Sonic Walk is part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival. Click here to book your tickets now. 

For more information about Catherine Kontz, click here.