Submarine Revisited 15’09”

Submarine Revisited is the third stage in an evolving work born out of my submarine obsession. The first was Submarine, a dance theatre piece created by choreographer Sarah Fahie and myself and performed by naked fish productions at The Place, London, in 2002; the second was Submarine – Radio Edit, a radio art piece broadcast by Resonance FM in 2002 and 2003.

The obsession began in 2000. Sarah Fahie and I were discussing ideas for a new collaboration at the time of the Russian Kursk disaster, and our conversation became haunted by submarines. We were compelled by their apparent contradictions; a ship that sinks – on purpose. A claustrophobic space moving through the vast ocean. A mass of densely packed technology set loose in the chaos of nature.

We splashed around naively at first, initially wary of, then sucked into, the military nature of our theme. This was a vessel conceived as a weapon. Our research turned from Kursk to World War Two, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Atlantic; and even earlier, the First World War, The American Civil War. Espionage, surveillance, stalking, killing. The pressures of combat, the claustrophobic conditions, the regimented, repetitive actions of the crew, saturated the work.

As a composer I was fascinated by the sound world of the submariner, and by the prime importance of listening in the daily routine - for navigation and to assess the dangers outside the hull. The submarine is blind, there are no windows to see out, no windows through which light might betray presence. You must listen, your life depends on it. In the stage version of the piece, an old blind man tapped his cane across the space, as if already dead and wandering across the ocean floor. Searching for human contact in the terrors of the ocean, but his cane spat out the sound of torpedoes firing.

When stalking you must be quiet, when being stalked, even more so. The submarine holds a community of humans fully aware of the value of silence. How appropriate, then, to discover a Quixotic submarine link to experimental composer John Cage, whose inventor father designed and built a submarine in 1913. A Cage-inspired prepared piano became a feature of the sound score, along with scores of other sounds, some water related, others gathered during visits to actual submarines.

The resulting piece was a collection of songs and sound-scapes, for voice, piano, electronics and several dancer/performers, featuring singer Shie Shoji. There were distinct scenes; we were stalked, fired upon. A dream sequence. An attack. Someone sank, not on purpose. An elegy; a setting of the shipwreck verse from Shakespeare’s Tempest, Full Fathom Five.

Once the dance piece was performed, I set about preparing Submarine – Radio Edit for a slot on Resonance FM called the “Houyhnhnm Tales” after the talky horses in Swift. It seemed appropriate, in the absence of dancers and visual texture to add a new spoken layer to the piece. I conducted a number of interviews; former submariners or submarine captains, a diving instructor, a military historian. Connections emerged, themes intertwined. My mother remembered the basement in Illinois where Cage spent a summer – humid, damp, moldy, like the belly of a submarine. People spoke of their fathers, of losing friends to the deep. A more recent submarine history emerged; the Cold War, and the role that nuclear submarines played in it. These roaming missile platforms are at the forefront of a mechanism which has nearly pushed the planet over the brink, more times than we realize. What is it like to be in the position to control such a thing, such unconscionable power? In a round-about way, the cold war pulled the piece back to its starting point: the Russian’s Kursk, the star of the fleet, a concentration of seemingly impregnable technology, suddenly so vulnerable and alone at the bottom of the Barents sea.

In preparing Submarine Revisited for Unknown Public (which released this version of the work in 2007 under the Critical Notice label) my thoughts turned more towards shipwreck and memory, as an old submariner might remember, in fragments, sometimes elusive, sometimes vivid. I wanted to put the songs, re-recorded with Loré Lixemberg and Dominic Saunders, on the submarine. Now we’re listening on some old gramophone in the captain’s cabin, or down a pair of headphones, over the sound of the engines, through the hull. Now the ship has sunk, and the fragments drift by. Now we’re back in the control room, the soprano slips free of the gramophone, takes over the firing of torpedoes. It’s a disturbing, messy scene; to make any sense of it at all, you may need to listen closely – almost, perhaps, as if your life depended on it.

I think now that I will never get to the bottom of Submarine, it will always be pulling me back with the tides, the undertow, to pick through the rusted fragments and salt encrusted layers, and see if some strange vessel can be refashioned from the shipwreck of the last time.

Evelyn Ficarra