Rebecca Collins on the work of composer Anna Braithwaite

"In listening to each piece, her presence at each site and the time spent with members of the local community become clear..."

Before I had the chance to listen to Anna’s work, I met her in a café in Folkestone. In retrospect, this is a very likely place to encounter her, or one of her compositions.

Site specificity plays a huge role in Anna’s work, everyday locations such as the Cabin Café in Folkestone or the Corn Exchange in Doncaster, have not only inspired two of her most recent works, Cabin Café Cantata and Look Up Doncaster but have also played host to a public performance of these pieces. During our meeting, Anna talked about her compositional methods, part of which involve gathering voices through interviews, sound recordings and spending time really listening to a site and the voices of those who traverse and live within it. Her artistic process resonated strongly with my own practice that seeks to combine sound, performance and site specificity leading me to listen at length to these two pieces.

In Look up Doncaster, Anna gives a distinctive voice to the site and foregrounds the potential of the Quirky Choir, a local Doncaster-based group led by Janet Wood who meet regularly to sing and perform musical scores. Their voices, not necessarily those of trained singers, bring an interesting dimension to the work foregrounding individuality and identity, themes common to Anna’s work. The town crier’s wail, split amongst several voices, opens the piece. This is combined with sounds of the market and details of the current price of bananas that are sung out. In a later section, choir members step forwards to introduce themselves. These singular introductions are layered over each other, gradually building an atmospheric texture that evokes the hustle and bustle of Doncaster’s Corn Exchange. Though there may be a crowd, it is a crowd of individuals, each with their own unique voice.

As a contemporary performance practitioner and scholar, I was also very interested in the theatricality of Anna’s work manifested by the incorporation of quite subtle actions, costume and everyday speech. For example, in Look up Doncaster, the Quirky Choir, are required to walk, indicated in the score by the image of pair of pink stiletto’s. In Cabin Café Cantata a navy blue pinstriped apron is put on, subtly alluding to the habitual garb of the café worker. In both works, Anna makes use of the cadences found in natural speech weaving interjections such as ‘um’ and ‘er’ into the composition, giving the sense that you, as listener, are in dialogue with the voices that are heard, the site and the piece as a whole. Such techniques effectively provide a sense of the aural and vocal textures operating in these site-specific locations. The phrases, sounds, attitudes and fragments of personal narratives all contribute to a sense of place.

For me, one of the many strengths of Anna’s work are the methods she uses to generate original compositions. In listening to each piece, her presence at each site and the time spent with members of the local community become clear. When the works are then performed in and/or by the local community, an interesting relationship between the composer and the community is created one that not only allows insight into her working process but one that also builds and strengthens relationships within the community itself.

To fully experience the careful layering of site, voice and sound within Anna’s compositions, there is a necessity to attend the live performances. Though where, in some cases this might not be possible, the video documentation of the works provides a sense of what being a listener at the event might be like; whether crammed into the Cabin Café or a face amongst the crowd at Doncaster’s Corn Exchange.

Rebecca Collins is a creative arts researcher and currently lectures in contemporary performance at the University of Leeds.