:: Article

Chancing Repetition

By Christian Coppa.

Photo by Laurel Turton

A review of ‘A Certain Sense of Order’ by tick tock.

There is something unmistakable about a double take: that sudden claim of interest in an object initially clocked without much ado—a face peripherally scanned, maybe a voice overheard, one almost too familiar to be attended at first. The ordinary thing become peculiar, significant. An uncanny kind of recognition; an awkward one, tentative or unreliable, a misrecognition, even. Perhaps it was the face of someone you had hoped to see, or feared you might. In any case, we double take when we suspect something is worth a second look, however casual, patient, or risky. Voluntarily or not, we enquire further.

The writerly and therapeutic disciplines of American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) were shaped by an instinct not unlike that which might compel a double take, as the familiar thing is first registered (perhaps in a vocal recording, or in a poem) and then revisited (either in the experience of reading, performing, or listening back) in the hope that something new might be discovered or produced in the process. As a patient of psychotherapy, Sexton was encouraged to record her sessions and study them on account of her forgetfulness; as a poet, Sexton often performed her poetry to live audiences and made studio recordings. From both practices emerge a portrait of someone invested in technologies and uses of vocal reproduction, sensitive to the potential of her poems for re-voicings; someone aware of the dangers in searching for self-knowledge through self-implicating artistry and excavations of traumatic memory, figured in an early poem, ‘For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further’, as ‘that narrow diary of my mind’, ‘where the cracked mirror…outstared me’. But Sexton took the risk that artifice and association might rebound upon the truth, for she intuited a paradox: that repetition is susceptible to surprise, that remembrance even of the ‘worst of anyone’ might be liable to suffering ‘an accident of hope’.

In the hands of tick tock, the potencies of Sexton’s poetic voice for performance are skillfully and experimentally conjured. ‘A Certain Sense of Order’, their new opera, was presented at the RADA Studios in London on 10/11 August 2017, in affiliation with Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, in its 10th annual summer run. The performance was created collaboratively by Naomi Woo, Sasha Amaya, and Catherine Kontz, who also wrote its memorably restrained score. The opera takes Sexton’s aforementioned poem, ‘For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further’ (published in her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960) as its text. Doubleness and repetition serve as its structuring principles: the performance abstracts almost entirely from narrative as it explores and pursues the poem’s lyrical development, through experimental voicing of its every line. Sexton is figured doubly, in two roles acted by mezzo-sopranos Rebecca Cuddy and Rosie Middleton, who successfully mirror one another without sacrificing individuality. Both captivated with their versatile acting and commanding stage presence. The whole performance was structured in two parts—the second a non-identical repetition of the first—separated by a brief lecture in which scholar Victoria Van Hyning elaborated relevant contexts of Sexton’s life and poetry, and her ambivalent relation to performance.

The RADA’s Club Theatre, with its low-ceiling, black walls and black curtain, provided an intimate yet almost eerily indeterminate framing for the performance, which featured a minimally furnished domestic interior, one which—in its sparse arrangement of two armchairs slightly angled toward one another with a plant between them and a low table before them—bordered on the clinical. A piano (with an electric reed organ) sat stage-right; a typewriter placed on a low stand near one of the armchairs, and another electric reed organ stage-left, filled out the rest of the stage. The table was occupied by nothing but a mirror, a small clock, a meditation bowl and an orange ashtray. The stage design set the tone for the work, as the familiar and elusive coincided in the crossing of the domestic, clinical, and theatrical spaces. This created a mildly discomfiting if subtly reassuring effect, but also entrenched an interpretive dilemma which proved productively unresolvable: at times, the actresses seemed like two objectifications of a split consciousness; at others, like occupants of two roles—analyst and patient—which overlap and fluidly swap. Which would be the more uneasy scenario, which the less distressing? Whatever their relation, the gap between them is the thing worth minding: though dressed identically, with equal vocal ranges, the non-identity or unfixed relation between self and self is negotiated through a thoroughly dialogical effort. The two volley verses of the poem back to one another, and often linger on the same one, repeating it, as if asking or waiting for the other’s response, for another line; sometimes, the repetition feels like the answer requested. This dialogicality elaborates the self/selves in question as a fundamentally experimental and open-ended agency: each voices lines and repeats musical phrases in various moods and intonational patterns, as if to rehearse or even test the range of possible articulation and emotive effect they can generate, find or share by way of voice, gesture, and song.

Photo by Laurel Turton

Silence, and the work seems to already have begun without any cue, without anyone’s noticing exactly when, as Cuddy and Middleton, seated, stare the back of the theatre in the eye. Middleton makes a sequence of gestures: a palm outreached and stretched arduously open toward the crowd, then withdrawn, anxiously contracted to a fist, now cleaving a shirt collar. She stands, and more gestures follow, with regular and deliberate pace: three down-beats chopped with a forearm, neatly placed in a row of air. I detect in these gestures, yes, a certain sense of order, without a firm grasp on just what that order entails, unable to specify what significance they carry or grope toward. This sense recurs throughout the performance. It is articulated not only in gesture but also in word and music. In various sequences, each speaker or singer slides in and out of attunement, whether that be conceived in terms of pitch or affect, as they chart diverging and converging paths through the same material, whether that material be a unit of verse or melody. To give an example, as the two begin recording each other’s lines, and registering a response which takes its lead from the previous voicing to develop it further, the dialogical activity splits into simultaneous readings of the poem’s opening, which are performed autonomously but in increasing tension: a measured reminiscence—not that it was beautiful—and the delicate, tentative phrasing that follows—but that there was—develops into excitement and confidence; Cuddy leans in, eagerly determined, as if poised on the brink of a breakthrough. As if something to be remembered was on the tip of the tongue. But this excitement degenerates into an exhilarated terror, as if something was found dangling on the edge of disaster rather than redemption. Meanwhile, Middleton’s initially tempered confessions become more confident, but a confidence that develops into an alluring secrecy, a mischievous reserve; eventually, a more violent excess erupts. Such developments torque dramatic tension and pacing quickens until song feels like the only option to handle this excess. Song presupposes prior order, but the hyper-ventilated breathing that ensues upon the climax of these outbursts into pitch seems to both dismantle that order, the support required for sustained voicing, but also to feebly affirm its specter, as a series of staccato gasps mediate the return from inarticulate shock to equilibrium.

As each performer recovers her breath and wits, meditation bowls are picked up, peered and sung into by both, respectively. These cover their faces from claustrophobically close-range, almost like masks. The sounds that resonate into and out of these bowls seem like probes for self-presence. The bowls allude to Sexton’s poem, which figures self-enquiry as such a tapping: I tapped my own head; / it was a glass, an inverted bowl. This slight haptic gesture is invested with significance from the start of the piece; the first sound we hear at all is the clicks of a typewriter; the keyboards also insist upon this action, sometimes synched with typing. Much as the bowl is ‘tapped’ and scanned along its surface to create resonant sound, so the singer and poem’s speaker seek some kind of live confirmation or recognizable response, through the repercussions of vocal and instrumental performance. Such a gesture—the absurd voicing into a bowl—presents nicely the findings of the poem, the way that apparently inarticulate raging somehow escapes itself into something other, to evoke another order entirely: first it was private, / then it was more than myself. The gesture seems almost superstitious, if not magical. But here, too, comes the haunting prospect: that another’s enquiry could lead to an icier result, her turning away ‘because there is no lesson here’, nothing worth learning from or remembering; an intolerable rejection, by another, by oneself.

As they slowly lower the bowls, Cuddy and Middleton stare face to face, and the piano plays a duet alongside a recording of Anne Sexton’s own reading of her poem. Her voice, by this point in the piece, is charged with an originary authority and almost mythical aura. It has the effect, it seems, of bringing the duo on stage closer to one another, listening and looking silently, though it is not clear what they see in the other’s eyes: when is it ever? The particular interpenetration of performance media, which has been developed throughout the performance to this point, doesn’t jeopardise the intimacy at stake here, but, in fact, seems to encourage it: it welcomes our identification with the performers, and permits their self-identification through one another, the mutuality of their recognition. The option of identifying the mysterious thing that might have revealed as ‘my face, or your face’ devolves from balanced deliberation into a fiercer attribution by the poem’s final lines, as the conjunction drops out. Sexton’s reading is still more insistent that ‘my face, your face’ amount to an equation of sorts; it betrays a longing for a shared space, a wish for identity: yet the ostensible difference between the less-than-sure duo remains, however reconciled (or confused) it might have been, as they part.


The second half of the performance repeats the entire first act, with minor variations. This repetition invests the first sequence with a sense of familiarity and authority, but also opens this first look to further enquiry, as in a double-take. Starting positions were exchanged, and several objects added or replaced—necklace beads to thumb, an orange peel where the ashtray lay before. The once estranging patterns and gestures now felt more comfortable, but this made me more, not less, attentive or gripped, as the new voicings recalled and voiced over their initial versions. The search became more clearly framed for us, a search for something both eminently familiar but still thoroughly incomplete, unexhausted. Gestures are repeated, too, as if going through the motions could summon the secret out of hiding. This time round, recital of the poem begins at a whisper, a fact which seems to confirm that the repetition of the first part has not reduced any of the text or performance’s mystery, but instead has discovered its preciousness and precariousness. The second part does not just form a loop of interpretation with the first, but continues the first part’s experimental project: the division between interpretive representation and creative response breaks down, as the first part simply generates more material for further elaboration, allusion or variation; the reading of printed typewriting alongside recordings seems to register this accumulation of new material. The final sequence, in which the duo sings a steady line that slides barely perceptibly between vowel sounds—are they abstracted words?—seems to strip poetic utterance to its musical fundament, into sonic play, which strikes an unresolved yet auspicious final note, as if the ‘invisible veil between us all’ were more friend than foe.

The opera’s conceptual abstraction unsettles the ‘confessional’ style of Sexton’s usual portrayal, but without merely negating it; the piece works to reveal the enigma at the heart of any subject and her self-relatedness, and the fertile gap between the two out of which any work of art is generated. In each performance, the relation between the subject and her work must be negotiated anew. A sign of the success of ‘A Certain Sense of Order’, and the credit due to tick tock, is the freshness and seriousness with which it musically and dramatically explores the radical performative potential of Sexton and her poetry, in addition to the active questions it leaves us with. I look forward to any further development of this project, and to the delight with which I’ll welcome announcement of their next.

Christian Coppa
is pursuing a PhD at Clare College, Cambridge.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 12th, 2017.