an ocean of rain
On the island of Haiti, Kiev, a young prostitute, witnesses the murder of a client and desperately seeks refuge from the authorities and her abusive husband. She returns to the girls’ orphanage, run by Sister Delhi, where she once lived. When refused sanctuary, she takes drugs to cope with her fear. Meanwhile three cosmopolitan women: Cairo, an archaeologist; New York, an architect and Kyoto, a doctor make their annual pilgrimage to Haiti to help in the orphanage. As the women tend to the orphans they explore their emotions, which are slowly re-awakened by their surroundings.
Whilst looking for Sister Delhi’s ring, Cairo reveals the grief she suffers for her child who died of Leukemia and her husband who left her for another woman. Sister Delhi relates to Cairo through her own insomnia and constant worry that her orphans will be kidnapped and sold to traders. Guilt ridden lovers, New York and Kyoto yearn for more time together, rather than focusing on their careers. In desperation, Kiev shatters the comfort of the women's lives as she sets herself alight with petrol. The women treat her wounds in the orphanage, avoiding hospital for fear of her husband finding her.
Sister Delhi is torn, wishing she had been more kind but resenting Kiev’s selfish act, which has forced her to hide a fugitive, putting her orphans in danger. While caring for Kiev, Kyoto reflects on her sense of longing for what is missing in her life. New York discovers Cairo in the middle of the night having nightmares and hallucinating the memory of her child. Kiev dreams that a stone has fallen from the sky, flooding the orphanage with salty water, a premonition of tragedy on the horizon. The four women make their way to the beach with the orphans then the Tsunami arrives. Body bags line the ground, unveiling the faces of the four women. The natural disaster has taken them. As Kiev marks the anniversary of the women’s’ death we learn that the events we have just witnessed are Kiev’s memories of the past. Kiev is left to continue the work of Sister Delhi.
When my friends asked me, this past year, what I am currently working on, I had to reluctantly admit that it was a 'kind-of-opera'. Since there were characters, a story, even themes of love and death interwoven in the narrative; it didn’t seem right to call it the more hip 'music theatre’' this time. I make that distinction because in my previous stage pieces I have always assembled the text myself, which has been there to serve an image or abstract concept that the music would elaborate on; a more abstract form, hence music-theatre.
For an ocean of rain I was presented with a script, a libretto, that Daniel and Cathie had worked on the previous year. It was essentially opera already. The rhythms of the text, which are traced in fragmented dialogues and monologues are a gift to any composer; the music more or less writes itself. At the same time this can also be a hindrance, as the need to serve the text becomes of primary importance. In this case it happened to be a gift indeed, as I was already falling in love with the characters, the story and the language.
My starting point was to imagine that everything could be spoken by the characters on stage and then to try and take it to a musical dimension through the use of digital media or in ways other than singing. I sometimes have a problem with the accepted convention in opera that everything should be sung, and sung in a particular way. Not so much in the craving for naturalism, but in the questions about musical language, conventions and the socio-economic status that it represents. The trained classical voice can sometimes be too beautiful, too much centered on its own cultural currency, whereas the speaking voice can offer richer, more complex and multi-dimensional musical information.
In an ocean of rain the scenes differentiated themselves between the introspective ones, which could inhabit a more lyrical dimension, and the more narrative scenes that could be presented in a clear, unelaborated and succinct way. In fact, it was only after realising that the whole text could be interpreted as the figment of Kiev’s imagination, that I felt comfortable to let the characters sing at all; seeing the characters of Kyoto, New York and Cairo, the cosmopolitan women who volunteer in the orphanage as ghosts, enabled me to imagine them as having different voices to the living. The key point being that all but Kiev, the character from which the story unfolds, could be seen as dead, or at least inhabiting a disembodied space of memory and desires. We actually never know if Kiev is imagining them, if they are a result of Kiev’s morphine induced hallucination, or if they are indeed ghosts.
There is an almost 'Orphic' play about the narrative line that reveals these dead women, as if the only way Kiev can enter the orphanage, metaphorically and perhaps literally a place in limbo, is to set herself on fire, as though she were entering the underworld. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the story takes place in Haiti, there seems to be something resonating in Voodoo culture that at the crossroads of the living and the dead there is a ritual of fire.
For all its disjointed narrative and changing viewpoints, the architecture of an ocean of rain has some similarities with ancient Greek drama. The three main pillars of the libretto are the 'wave' scenes, where the women observe their lifeless bodies that have been washed up by the tsunami, hinting at the coming (or past) cataclysm, which has left them in this after-life limbo. These scenes divide the work into three time strands, seen through Kiev as; her attempt to re-enter the orphanage on the run from a possible crime, her recuperation after her self-immolation, and an epilogue after the tsunami, where she comes to terms and peace with the ghosts that inhabit her mind. And all the way through the drama, a chorus of orphans reflect and comment on the passing scenes, becoming increasingly darker and disembodied as the narrative unfolds.
The relation between concrete and abstract is carried into how the instrumentation and electronic sound is used in the piece. Sound is often dissolving from the representational, for instance the sound of rain, Creole dance music on the radio, a bell or the sound of surf, into something abstract or textural, mirroring the transformation of reality in Kiev’s mind. The concrete and tactile texture of some of the electronic sounds are meant to be as much a physical presence in the space, almost like sound props or backgrounds, as well as symbolically representing the natural forces of fire and water, sound images that permeate the work.
The choice of instrumentation used in the piece was formed as a way of coming close to a sound world that is a mix of resonances of Haitian traditional music, and Christian missionary music: recorders, trombone, electric guitar, Indian harmonium, violin, double bass and electronics. While there are certainly influences of Haitian music in the melodic writing and the rhythmic patterns, I have avoided the referencing of strong rhythmic patterns and percussive colours – as if the island’s sonic environment is something that gets filtered through the walls of the orphanage. The most direct use of Haitian music actually comes from recordings that Cathie made of girls singing in one of the orphanages that she visited in Port-au-Prince, a beautiful lo-fi recording which captures the atmosphere at once of the defiance, innocence and even joy of the orphan girls in the face of the circumstances of their lives.
Premiere at Aldeburgh Music Festival, UK, 2008. Further performances in Almeida Theatre (London), Tramway Theatre (Glasgow), Muziekgebouw (Amsterdam), Stadschowburg (Rotterdam)