Verity Standen creates a soundscape inspired by our relationship to our voices throughout our lives, in site-specific work Undersong. Sophie Talbot reviews:

As I sit in Ovalhouse’s car park an ambulance passes, its sirens blaring. The noise is deafening, grating. My hearing is pretty much ‘normal’ when I’m wearing my hearing aids – sirens are deafening. What if I can’t hear some of the music in UndersongVerity Standen‘s piece about how we experience vocal music?

Bristol-based composer Standen describes Undersong as a theatrical experiment; this much is clear as soon as we walk into St Mark’s church. The site-specific location and man-made amplifier houses small clusters of stools, seemingly placed at random. As we sit down on them, we soon realised that the stools form paths for the nine-strong ensemble to weave amongst us, all the while performing a 45-minute set of a cappella songs. Standen’s polyphonic compositions range from choral-sounding to pop music-esque, to gargles. There are only half a dozen words in the piece, yet it seems to feature the entire range of the human voice. Undersong is an exploration of the sounds humans can make and the ones we hear.

It’s an experiment with form as well as voice. The performers weave but they also lie down, scatter themselves about, stand in lines, and spin around on stools. The way they around the space informs our individual experiences of the music. Standen states that each of us is supposed to draw what we want from Undersong – it’s impossible for us not to. Where one singer is right by my ear, another is right by somebody else’s. What I can’t hear doesn’t matter. This piece is all about what you can.

I can hear my friend’s baby murmuring; I can hear the music from the first time I was in a club; I can hear Pingu’s voice from my days of watching Saturday morning kids’ TV; I can hear the screams I felt like screaming myself; I can hear the most beautiful harmonies I’ve ever heard, and the voices of my friends and family. More than that, I feel all these sounds.

This is happening all around me to the other audience members – we can face one another if we wish. A couple of people are quietly crying, some have their eyes closed, some ae smiling. And many are laughing, particularly when the singers slap their tongues around the outside of their mouths. The tone of this world often feels melancholic, so it is pure joy to hear silliness.

The word Undersong is defined as ‘the subtle murmur of a landscape, often drowned out by other sounds’. Standen’s collection is a soundtrack, a journey that exposes an array of life’s acoustics that we’re often too busy to either hear or appreciate.

The sirens of another ambulance encroach on the piece midway through and I struggle to hear the music. But Standen’s work has softened me; I revel in the performers’ screeches, such that the noise of the sirens doesn’t annoy me like it had previously. The sound signals help and safety now.

Undersong is truly transformative. Both the compositions and the singers’ otherworldly voices transport me from the outside world to a place of calm. As I exit the church, subtly drying my eyes, I am glad to be alone. I am content with listening to, wholefully embracing, life’s Undersong.




Undersong ran at St Mark’s Church as part of a site-specific work in the Ovalhouse season until 9 June 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.