The concept of Tamara Saulwick's Endings, on at the Roundhouse as part of this year's PuSh Festival, sounded so interesting on paper: record players, reel-to-reel tape recorders, live speech and song, all combining into a mix-tape of voices speaking about and with the dead and departed. But the content and execution of the work felt directionless and somewhat trite.
Saulwick, working with singer-songwriter Paddy Mann and composer and sound designer Peter Knight, spends much of her time moving sound and lighting equipment about an otherwise bare black stage, and one of the things that did compel me about the piece was its subtle choreography of objects and bodies. This extended to Saulwick and Mann's downstage, on-the-floor dual DJing of a series of vinyl recordings with interview subjects reflecting on the passings of loved ones. But what surprised me about the mixing and overlaying of these voices was how conventional was the cutting between them. Saulwick would spin one record, we'd hear a snippet of conversation, and then she'd press a finger on the record to stop it. This would be the cue for Mann to lift his finger from one of his records to let us hear a snippet from another voice. And then we'd return to Saulwick's interviewee, and so on. Surprisingly, however, the cumulative effect had less to do with the formal counterpointing of multiple voices than with Saulwick's apparent desire to have us clearly distinguish the continuities between individual narratives. I was frankly surprised that Saulwick didn't exploit the capacity of her technologies to manipulate and synthesize and distort the different voices she'd recorded. When it comes to death and voices from the beyond, it seems that for Saulwick the message clearly supersedes the medium.
Which is where that other kind of medium comes in--that is, the spritualist variety. We learn that Saulwick herself has consulted one in connection with her own father's death--which seems to be the impetus for the entire show. Clearly Saulwick is aware of the connections between analog recording technologies and nineteenth-century seances focused on the transmigration of voices from the spirit world. But whereas back then the gramophone was often used as a feint, or a means of deception, here the deployment of the record and tape players is utterly--perhaps even overly--sincere.
Endings has one more performance this afternoon at 2 pm.