How Brummie Stacey learned to love The Mabinogion and the Welsh language
Question: What do you get if you mix magnetic Welsh storyteller Michael Harvey, the wonderful and simply stunning voices, harp and accordion of Stacey Blythe and Lynne Denman and production company Adverse Camber? Answer: Dreaming The Night Field, the fourth branch of the centuries-old Welsh-language literary masterpiece, The Mabinogion – and Michael, Lynne and Stacey will be touring this wonderful, magical show in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, located in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, on Thursday, November 18 (7.30pm).
Dreaming The Night Field is an adaptation of the ancient Celtic legend where the audience is drawn into living landscapes and the brilliant night sky to discover a world that is bristling with life, filled with animals, people and constellations caught between creation and destruction. Gwydion, nephew to the King, a magician and master storyteller, provokes a war between North and South Wales and unleashes a chaos of consequences. Blodeuwedd, an intoxicatingly beautiful woman conjured from flowers, is torn between desire and duty, with fateful results. Lynne and Stacey, core members of the Welsh duo , pepper the legend with Welsh folk songs and composed tunes.
The Mabinogion was translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, the 19th-century Lincolnshire wife of Dowlais ironmaster John Josiah Guest, and a celebrated linguist – however, she mis-translated Mabinogi into the double-plural The Mabinogion. Apart from Cardiff, the show is performing just over the border at the Chester Literary Festival in The Storyhouse, Hunter Street this Tuesday (November 14, 7.30pm), followed by a story walk in Bishop Lloyd’s Palace on Wednesday (1.30pm). The tour ends with four shows in Dorset, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
Stacey is a composer and multi-instrumentalist who has performed all over the UK and America. She is a regular composer for the Welsh National Opera and also plays with the trio Elfen, with expert violinist Helena Rees and double-bassist Jordan Price Williams. Dreaming The Night Field is inspired from a line in the song, ‘Breuddwyd’ an original composition by Ffynnon (Lynne Denman and Stacey Blythe): “Bum yn rhodio yng nghaer nos “ – (“I wandered in the night field”); the show is a direct follow-on to the first piece that Ffynnon made and toured with Adverse Camber, based in Derbyshire – the award-winning Hunting The Giant’s Daughter, the story of Culhwch And Olwen. The enchanting stories-and-music Beyond the Border Festival, located at St Donats Castle in the Vale Of Glamorgan, originally commissioned Michael and Stacey to create a piece: “Mike and I were already performing together, so it made sense creatively to deepen the music element by fusing Ffynnon with our work and draw on the rich resource Lynne and I have as a duo.
“Mike and I met totally by chance when I played piano a youth drama class for a friend 25 years ago – the class was all about improvisation, and he needed me to create music for different scenes. I felt totally at home finding music in the moment, so we started working together after that.
“We were incredibly lucky that Naomi Wildes saw us perform Culhwch And Olwen at a festival. she contacted us to say she was interested in taking us on creatively with her company Adverse Camber, and we were blown away by this opportunity.”
Paula Crutchlow was brought in as director, and they re-made Culhwch And Olwen which became Hunting The Giant’s Daughter, touring the UK and Europe. Stacey said: “Dreaming The Night Field is the next show on, and it has pushed us into even more new ways of working – again with Paula as our director. Mike and I had toured this show as a duo 20 years ago, so we already had a relationship to it. When we were thinking of what could be next, I knew I wanted to come back to this huge, wild story and rework it with the skills and confidence we all have now after working with Adverse Camber.”
Lynne and Stacey are sisters-in-law (“or rather ‘out of law’, as Lynne is divorced and I am not married”.) Stacey had never played or heard folk music before she met Lynne; she said: “I find that really sad, considering I did a music degree in Wales which never really mentioned the Welsh folk tradition at all. I did sing in Welsh with the college choir, but I was totally oblivious to the language and the culture then – again, I feel sad about that.
“A few things came together at the same time that set me on an exciting cultural path – I learned Welsh to tour a show which Mike and I had composed the music, and met my lovely partner whose sister-in-law is a stunning folk singer and entirely self-taught.
“When I heard Lynne sing, I immediately said we should make music together. I arranged for her to come and rehearse with me in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where I lecture. She came and we rehearsed – I knew we would perform together, because creating piano or accordion accompaniments to all the folk songs she knew and loved felt entirely natural for me and really made me happy. We formed Ffynnon and began recording albums and performing.”
Their first album, Debatable Lands, featured Carwyn Jones on harp. Green Linnet, the American celtic label owned by Sandy and Caroline Paton, recorded Lynne and Stacey’s second album, Celtic Music From Wales. Ffynnon met and were working with amazing jazz musician Dave Reid, who played bass with Meic Stephens many times – however, tragedy struck when Dave died of a heart attack in New York while Ffynnon were touring America.
Ffynnon’s third album, Adar Gwylltion, was recorded, with Dylan Fowler producing at his Stiwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny and featured Matt Lovett on bass and Emma Trend (ex-Allan Yn Y Fan) on fiddle. Lynne and Stacey returned to their original duo for Ffynnon’s fourth album, Llongau, with some featured moments of Dylan Fowler.
Stacey said: “The wonderful O’Connor brothers played with us at one time, too. As a band, we have toured the US, Europe, the UK and Brazil. I think there may be a pure ballads album on the horizon for Ffynnon, which will take us right back to the beginning – ballads were the first songs I heard Lynne sing!”
Dreaming The Night Field was a collective decision. Stacey said: “Naomi, Paula, Lynne Mike and I talked together about what the next show would be, but I always hoped we would do the fourth branch. I knew it was deep, and I really wanted to explore it again. Thankfully, Naomi wanted to produce it!
“When I had the green light for Branch Four, I instantly started prepping ideas and resources. I knew I wanted a mixture of mostly freshly-composed material as well as traditional elements. I drew out musical motifs for the characters in the story, as well as themes I wanted to use for the magical elements.
“Nearly all the music is freshly composed, but there are two songs that Lynne and I have already recorded with Ffynnon: ‘Breuddwyd’ (Dream) and ‘Beth Yw’r Haf I Mi?’ (What is the Summer to me?) I knew I wanted to use these two in particular places in the story to do specific jobs dramatically. Their meaning changes when they are put in the context of this piece, so that’s exciting for me.
“Another traditional song I chose was ‘Y Ddaear Yn Glasu’ (The Earth is Greening) to start the show – the story is so rooted in the landscape that this song was always perfect for me to unfold the beginning. We hope to record the new show with all the music – there is a live album available of Hunting The Giant’s Daughter). One of the elements I enjoy the most is the live improvisation during the performances – this makes every show unique to the place we perform it in, and I love that!
“In Dreaming The Night Field, Math fab Mathonwy is a big character in the story and is a powerful magician, but there are plenty of other great characters involved too: Gwydion, his brother Gilfaethwy, Goewin, Pryderi, Lleu, Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, Gronw Pebr and a host of magical wolves, wild boar, stags and pigs.
“The story unrolls as a series of desires and actions causing terrible consequences, with punishments you could never imagine and magic you could never predict. It’s a lesson in why we should not mess with nature – it is wild, surprising, tender and powerful.”
As a RWCMD lecturer, Stacey is looking forward to performing so close to home: “It’s odd odd – and lovely – to be doing it on my home turf! We have already sold out the circle, and the balconies are being opened for extra tickets, so we know we’ll have a good crowd.
“This show will be a strange mixture for me – a special kind of fear plus pure excitement and joy. I think, as a lecturer there, I have to be able to stand up and say to my students: ‘I perform, too.’ I have to be ready for them to come and tell me what they think of me as a performer – that bit is scary, but I know in my heart how good this work is and how much we immerse ourselves in the story. Once it starts we go right in there until the whole tale is unravelled – it’s pure pleasure to perform such a bizarre and beautiful story for us and the audience.”
As a very competent Welsh learner who was born in Birmingham, Stacey revels in the literary language of The Mabinogion: “My life is utterly transformed by being bilingual. As an artist, I feel I have two worlds to live in creatively, which is wonderful and enriching.
“I get a lot of pleasure from dispelling the stereotypes. I am so often asked why as a Brummie do I speak Welsh, and was it hard? I have to answer No. I think Welsh is actually easier to learn than English or French – and I speak French fairly well – because it is phonetic, and there are fewer letters in the Welsh alphabet too.
“Becoming bilingual has been an exciting adventure – I only speak Welsh at home to my three children. I love working in Welsh, especially in the RWCMD and other freelance arts projects. I always pick a song in Welsh for my first-year drama students, so they know what country they are studying in and that it has a rich tradition of music and language there for anyone who wants to taste it.
“As a composer, I am totally inspired by Welsh poets (in Welsh and English) and the music for the englyns (special poems) in the show was composed with great care. I also play with Elfen; we are working on new music for our next album which will feature brand-new Welsh poetry, as well as some by T Llew Jones and other older Welsh poets.
“In a recent commission from Live Music Now Wales, I composed music using Ceiriog, Hedd Wyn, Waldo Williams and Owen Sheers – so yes, the language and landscape of this beautiful country totally inspires me as a musician and composer.”
Mick Tems – Editor, FolkWales Online Magazine (www.folk.wales)