Flit - Barbican, London, October 27, 2016
It began with a visit Martin Green made to his grandmother to collect stories he could tell to his children and if he’d contained his interest to his own family history, he still might have had enough material for a large-scale musical production, possibly an opera.
As he began to speak to other people, however, Green confirmed what he already knew really: people generally move around. They may not do so with as much drama as his grandparents, whose back story involves fleeing from Vienna in the 1930s and settling in London, with a sideshow of double lives and supplementary families. But the general aim is, if at all possible, to be somewhere where we feel safe and have enough food.
“This is something that happens naturally,” he says. “It’s universal, and it’s why there’s quite a strong focus on birds in the animations that illustrate the music. Birds are the perennial migrants – it’s what they do.”
In the two years between having the initial idea and bringing Flit to the stage for its premiere at Edinburgh International Festival in August, Green watched and read as world events underlined people’s basic need for safety and survival. Flit’s theme is undeniably topical but it’s not designed to be preachy. It’s about examining the phenomenon of migration, which Green finds fascinating in itself.
Flit is a departure in a number of ways for the accordionist and sonic experimentalist with the multi-award-winning trio Lau. The plan was to create a show that is more than a gig, with a visual element that becomes an integral part of the music which in turn tells a series of stories.
After speaking with his grandmother, Green asked his wife, the singer and accordionist Inge Thomson about her family’s experiences on Fair Isle in the Shetlands. The Thomsons themselves hadn’t actually moved around very much but they knew lots of people who had ventured out from the islands in search of better circumstances. Then a random meeting with a chap in a pub, whose father had been born and brought up in Goa but was forced to leave for Portugal, added further material.
Rather than deal in specifics, Green rewrote these stories and more as he collected them, turning them into fiction with no sense of time or place. He then sent them to songwriters Karine Polwart, Anais Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Aidan Moffat. By this time he had also brought on board BAFTA-winning animators whiterobot (aka Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson) and after meeting Portishead’s Adrian Utley at one of Lau’s Lauland mini-festivals and getting him to mix the album from what was essentially Flit’s predecessor, the Opera North stage show Crows’ Bones, Green was determined to work with him again.
Singer Becky Unthank had also worked on Crows’ Bones and both Green and Utley were keen to spend more time with her voice.
“You ask Becky to sing something and she’ll just do it in a very natural way,” says Green. “A lot of singers think a lot about their singing and how they’re going to phrase something before they start but there’s something beautiful about the way, with Becky, that it just comes out.”
Unthank’s frontline partner in Flit took longer to find but became a natural choice for Green – Scottish singer-songwriter Adam Holmes, whose first album, Heirs and Graces, was produced by John Wood, the sound engineer responsible for John Martyn, Nick Drake, and Sandy Denny’s Island Records output. Despite having quite different regional accents, Unthank being from Northumberland, the two singers’ phrasing is similar to the point that, Green says, they can sound like twins.
With Dominic Aitchison, bass guitarist with Glasgow rock band Mogwai, completing the onstage band, Green began developing a series of atmospheric backing tracks which he gave to the songwriting team along with the stories he had collected. At the same time the animators worked on bringing the spirit of the stories to life. Their first thought was to use cardboard boxes to signify possessions being transported – and eventually being left behind when people pass on - and out of that came the idea of using brown packaging paper, a material that’s familiar to everyone and is used to send things around the world.
The paper was torn and folded into human figures and birds, as well as inanimate objects like suitcases, and these are projected in response to each song on screens among and around the band onstage, giving the feeling that both the visual and musical elements are happening live in situ. It’s a simple, everyday commodity but one that has allowed Anderson and Henderson to create a narrative film that’s threaded throughout the performance and conveys moments of sweetness as well as heavier emotions.
On its premiere, on a customised stage in Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Flit was enthusiastically received by the audience and warmly praised by the press.
For Green, who has expressed doubts that he would have set about making a show about migration if he’d realised the topic was going to become quite so inflammatory in the time between conception and performance, Flit doesn’t have to be seen as heavy.
“After two years of thinking about it as we worked we decided that we didn’t need to present our opinion,” he says, although he changed his mind about this in performance and made what felt like an impromptu and very powerful statement on opening night. “On the other hand, if Flit inspires people to think about the subject as they leave the performance, then that will be enough. We’ll have done our job.”