It’s cold and damp in Brierfield Mill. The staircase I’m ascending smells of mould and decay, and black paint from the handrail is flaking off in my hand. I’m getting closer to a distant sound of singing, the acoustics fade and rise with every corner turned. Breaking out into a vast, derelict space, approximately 30 men and women, all wearing layers of Puffa jackets and scarfs, and some wearing Sufi caps and turbans, are sat in a tight square on white, foldable chairs. They face each other, and in mournful harmony sing:
I am a poor, way – far – ing stran – ger, While journ-n’ying thru this world of woe, / Yet, there’s no sick – ness, toil nor dan – ger, In that bright land to which I go.
It’s a rendition of ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’, the American gospel covered by artists from Johnny Cash to Jack White to Ed Sheeran, but here it’s in its 1935 Shape Note – a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing – arrangement by John M. Dye. No instruments, only voices; bouncing off the high ceilings and slate floor, and washing over a small film crew, and us: a tiny crowd of critics and invited locals gathered at the back of this former textile factory.
I’m here for the performance of Fusion (2016), the final part of ‘Shapes of Water – Sounds of Hope’, US artist Suzanne Lacy’s 18-month project in Pendle, Lancashire, in North West England. I first heard about this project last year after taking an interest in its commissioning body, arts festival Super Slow Way. Situated in areas along the Leeds & Liverpool canal in the Pennine hills of Lancashire, the SSW team recruited local organizations Building Bridges Pendle and In-Situ amongst others to work with Lacy – probably best known for getting teenagers and police to communicate in California in the extensive and intensive ‘The Oakland Projects’ (1991–2001) – to address issues facing residents here. The demise of the local textile industry with the closure of mills like Brierfield – which used to be one of the biggest in Europe – just ten years ago, and which still dominate the landscape, seems both an historic and timely choice of subject. Now lying empty, the mills’ futures along the canal are resigned to demolition or redevelopment. Brierfield Mill will become a hotel and apartment complex within the next four years. Its former employees still live locally yet cease to mix: skilled textile workers from England and Pakistan who used to operate the looms side-by-side, from the early 1960s (following the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962) to the early 2000s.
Without the mill, and a common meeting ground, the two communities have grown further apart. Lacy saw singing as a key tool to re-build community relationships, and restart conversation about public commons. As collaborator and Shape Note specialist Professor Ron Pen put it, ‘Musical harmony begets social harmony.’ Two distinct types of singing were researched and chosen: Shape Note singing, which became popular with New England pilgrims in the 18th century but with this project returns to its spiritual home of Lancashire; and Sufi chanting (Dhikr), practised by Sufi Muslims, and involving recitation of scriptural words and phrases in praise of God, which has traditionally been used as a form of bonding by those who had migrated to Lancashire and wished to keep a connection to a community thousands of miles from home.
Today, Lacy paces the floor in a gilet and boots, issuing orders to runners. She’s directing a film of the performances (plus interviews with residents and former mill workers and their families), to be premiered in Spring 2017. This gathering is clearly not the entirety of the project; much of it has already happened in community halls and practice rooms over the past 18 months as the group learned Shape Note and Sufi singing together. You can see a video of this process on the Super Slow Way website. We’re witnessing a closure of sorts. A taste of what the participants have been through. There is a banquet planned in the evening for 500 people, in a more formal version of the group’s regular, monthly format: learn to sing together, then eat together, and talk together, about issues pertinent to the area. I’m told that discussion is respectful but also fairly provocative; prompt cards on the dinner table tonight include: ‘Why does Pendle seem like such a downtrodden place?’, and: ‘Why are there still so many social and economic differences between us?’
Unexpectedly, I’m ushered to join the group. I suddenly feel incredibly nervous and self-aware; this must have been how the residents felt in their first practise session. I can’t sing, and haven’t done so since my church-going days as a child (karaoke doesn’t count). I’m given a song book. We won’t be taught Shape Note singing today, says Prof Pen, there just isn’t time, but we should have a go anyway. There is no doubt that Pen is a Shape Note fanatic; a kindly grandfather type in an embroidered hat, he enthuses: ‘I’ve heard it said that people would walk over broken glass to take part in this singing.’ In fact, there are Shape Note singers here who’ve travelled from Glasgow and further afield just to join in for the day. Professionals have been recruited to help, including Jennifer Reid, who performed live at Venice Biennale for Jeremy Deller, plus composer, musician and Brierfield resident Julian Evans, and local Nasheed artist Hussnain Hanif.
We are arranged facing each other, seated in a square: treble, counter, lead and bass. Folk musician Hannah Land, from Nottingham, got involved a year ago to teach the group; she’s here today to lead. Her voice is like a whip crack in the air – Land sings the four notes we need to know, and everyone joins in. I mouth along silently, watching other people for cues; gradually building up to a quiet mimicry. Am I getting it right? I can feel the vibrations in my throat but (thankfully) can’t hear my own voice as the group is so loud. There is time to ponder the lyrics; the six songs contain stories about parting friends, ‘the night of death’, working in a mine, the American Civil War. When a song comes to a sudden stop, there is a palpable silence; the atmosphere changes as the sound is withdrawn from the air. My ears have to adjust. The singers smile, relieved; some have eyes closed in deep meditation. It is the same when we move onto Sufi chanting, yet even more intimate; I’m facing, watching, people in prayer. When the chairs have been rearranged into concentric circles, as opposed to the hollow square of Shape Note format, we sing the opening Sun Ray devotional song, swaying from side to side:
La ilaha illAllah, La ilaha illAllah
(There is no deity but Allah)
This part, for me at least, is significantly more intense; I feel dizzy and lightheaded with the repetitive breathing and steady escalation as the song speeds up. We do about three or four takes, and I’ve now been here for five hours; being filmed performing songs that are usually sang in privacy and for the purpose of contemplation, prayer and solidarity.
What to make of it? Lacy is an artist who understands people, even if she’s not from this area, or country. In previous projects, she has meticulously prepared and implemented activities and performances, via arts education, that build coalitions with communities experiencing deep mistrust. In Pendle, this cultural mistrust is expressed through fear and stigma. At the banquet, one young woman stands up with a microphone and explains how her mother wouldn’t even be able to take part in these discussions – about distanced commonality, racism, or redevelopment of their former workspaces– as she doesn’t speak English. She would need a translator. Yet with song, especially song that shares an uplifting spirituality, or talks of shared pain and experience, no translator is needed. Prof Pen’s statement – ‘to hear Shape Note singing is to hear the soul of democracy’ – might seem dramatic to those who haven’t seen it work in practice. Yet here, in Pendle, singing has started a genuine trans-cultural conversation, where typically politicians and developers – here and nationwide – have been seen to be failing.
Residents at my banquet table, who have not been involved in the project but have come along to learn more, are fairly sceptical about its long-term impact. As he is on the next table, I ask the composer Evans whether he has any confidence that these conversations will lead to any significant change. He thinks Shapes of Water – Sounds of Hope’s legacy will be seen in the concurrent school projects that Hanif, Reid and himself have been involved in and will continue to teach – utilizing a powerful fusion of Shape Note and Sufi singing – and can be exemplified by the ‘commitment and dedication’ of Building Bridges Pendle Project Manager Rauf Bashir, and In-Situ Director Paul Hartley. Crucially, and by communicating with the developer, In-Situ has managed to secure new premises in the refurbished Brierfield Mill to continue their Pendle-focused work in contemporary community arts, performances and residencies.
Outside it is pitch black, and I walk to the tiny train station, nearly nine hours since I arrived, and oddly deflated that it’s all over. The songs whirl in my mind; in particular, Parting Friends:
I go a - way, be - hind to leave you; / Per - haps nev - er to meet a - gain, But if we ne – ver have the plea-sure, I hope we’ll meet on Pen - dle’s land.
Suzanne Lacy’s film Shapes of Water – Sounds of Hope will be shown in spring 2017.