Roulette, Brooklyn, New York
By Sarah Swong
Landays – folk couplets created by and for mostly illiterate women who live on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – found potent musical form in Waves + Lines, a song cycle by Gemma Peacocke that premiered at Roulette in Brooklyn on Thursday night.
Stemming from a traditional oral and anonymous form, landays give voice to Pashto women’s experiences of war, grief, separation, homeland, and love. Their economy of form and unbridled turns in feeling make for stunning reads. Peacocke captured both their visceral expressivity and startling voltas by slowly unfurling the poems’ tightly coiled words; the music ebbed and flowed in a Modernist portrayal of inner life. In ‘Father,’ we heard the sound of an eerie wind, generated from the strumming of the piano’s lower strings, and the groan of a low bass drone with a fast drum roll on the first word, ‘Fa…ther.’ By the end, we learned that this woman’s father has sold her ‘to an old man.’ In the most poignant song of the evening, the soprano sang, in two-note figures that sounded like sighs, that ‘blossoms blister’ on her heart. After minutes of tense, ascending melodies (haunting and piercing in the voice of Eliza Bagg), intensified by lilting syncopation in the percussion, we learned the reason for her heartache: ‘because my love’s American.’ Peacocke revealed the syllables, then the word, then the phrase, then the meaning.
Peacocke’s songs are moving, dramatic, and serious, as many landays are. But others are boldly sexual, with a mocking attitude towards men and the Taliban. I wondered why Peacocke did not focus on any of the ribald, witty poems, which so well display these women’s abilities to surprise, to contradict and to defy.
That said, Peacocke has written sensitive, gorgeously textured settings of poems, which deserve a wider audience.
For more work by Gemma Peacocke, click on the video below.