Damien Ricketson on The Howling Girls

We have just started working with Adena Jacobs, Damien Ricketson and Sydney Chamber Opera on their extraordinary collaboration The Howling Girls.

A wordless experimental opera, the work is striking and confronting, seamlessly fusing choral and electronic instrumentation with stunning visual design.

Ahead of their pitch at the Australian Performing Arts Market, we sat down with composer Damien Ricketson to dive deep into this intriguing new show.

More about the show

  • Tell us a bit about The Howling Girls. What should we expect going into the show?

The Howling Girls is an experimental opera that explores the medium and metaphor of the voice, its loss and attempted rehabilitation. Featuring a solitary soprano and a chorus of young voices, together with an immersive orchestration of theremin, keyboards and electroacoustic music, the work attempts to address questions around how we speak. How we form sound? How we form language? For those voices who have been historically silenced, or pushed to the margins, these questions are infinitely more complex.

Although the act of speaking is at the heart of The Howling Girls, the work is entirely wordless. Audiences can expect an abstract procession of images and sensations that act upon their bodies in a very direct and visceral mode of expression.

  • The work draws on a traumatic event in our shared history, the attacks nearly 20 years ago on the World Trade Centre on September 11, and more specifically on an extraordinary response to that trauma. Can you tell us a bit about the story that provided the jumping off point for the show?

Susan Faludi, in her book The Terror Dream, narrates an anecdote in which five gaunt teenagers presented separately at a NYC hospital with identical symptoms – they all believed that some debris or body part from the destruction of the towers had lodged in their throats. The ear, nose, and throat surgeon who examined the girls discovered that their throats were constricted though there was no physical obstruction.

The image of five young women rendered voiceless in the wake of the terrorist attacks is an extremely haunting and powerful one: an image loaded with symbolism beyond its specific circumstances. We never set out to tell the story of these young women, rather the anecdote was a springboard for a number of auditory and visual explorations. The Howling Girls is a response to catastrophe and fear. What happens to the voice when one’s sense of safety has been violated and familiar systems shattered.

  • How did you approach that as a composer? How did you attempt to capture something as visceral as trauma musically?

The music attempts to capture how trauma may be inscribed on the voice. The vocabulary of sounds were made in collaboration with soprano Jane Sheldon, and six performers from The House That Dan Built, a Sydney-based company of theatre and music artists aged 12-19. The score was created from a catalogue of expressive sounds offered by the performers to form the basis of the musical language. From gasping tones sung on the inhale, to glottal percussion to powerful cries from the belly, the sounds are suggestive of the unconscious vocalisations we make in intense emotional states, sounds that speak more directly than the rational organization of language. This non-verbal approach was inspired in part by the feminist writings of Elaine Showalter, who proposed an understanding of hysteria as an alternative proto-language to communicate a message of power and protest that, for various reasons, cannot be verbalised.

The singers are also heavily amplified as though the audience is put in the throats of the performers and augmented by a body-enveloping sound-design created in collaboration with Bob Scott and performed by one-man-band Jack Symonds.

  • The work is really arresting aurally, but is also really striking in its other design elements. Can you speak a little about how the design evolved? Were you composing with visuals in mind , or did the two develop separately?

The Howling Girls is co-created with Adena Jacobs, and unlike most conventional operas, it is impossible to separate the staging from the score: the sensory combination of sound and image stems from a singular collaborative conception. While we did work separately in our respective media, several development opportunities with cast and creatives enabled the music to drive visual design and vice versa, and with the underlying ideas gestating over several years Adena and I were very attuned to an integrated aesthetic.

Set and costume designer Eugyeene Teh and lighting designer Jenny Hector worked closely with Adena to create a void in which the performers bodies fuse into their environment. The intention was a space in which light can be controlled in very specific ways, to create a sense of sensory deprivation, or to shock the audience with blinding light. It’s a guiding force which works in conjunction with the sound to create an immersive experience for the audience. The first 35 minutes of the piece, is a vocal endurance feat, that plays out in extreme dark and accompanied by sub-audio frequencies which heighten the audiences’ perception of sight and sound.

  • For you, what was the driving impetus to make the work? What does it offer to audiences?

Much of my recent music has been preoccupied with trying to create sounds that bypass the brain to work directly on the body, an aspiration entirely aligned with themes explored in The Howling Girls.

For audiences it is undoubtedly an intense experience. Much of the work is confronting and even anxiety-provoking, though it does end with a radiant glow of possibilities. Audiences thus far have described it as “psychologically searing, strangely edifying”, and “terrified, disconcerted and glad to be alive”.

  • We are nearly at the 20 year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and since then our political and public discourse seems more fractious and divided than ever. What gives you hope in 2020?

Adena and I discovered the September 11 story in Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America. In this blistering critique of the response to attacks, Faludi argues the political and media establishment reasserted patriarchal values in the way they positioned the event as an assault upon the sanctity of the domestic home. From within this mindset, the catastrophe was seen, in part, as the result of the ‘femocratization’ of the West that had ‘pussified’ men, leaving them coddled, castrated and impotent to protect their homes. And hence, we are supposedly in need of virile rescue – enter the Daniel Boone, John Wayne, NYC fireman strong-jawed figure of masculinity. Alarmingly, Faludi not only draws attention to the ascendancy of the gun-slinging chest-beating male, but also tracks a corresponding silencing of the female voice in public commentary.

Originally published in 2008, The Terror Dream took on an almost prophetic character as Adena and I read the book in late 2016 in the midst of the Trump election campaign. The rise of Trump and similar figures around the world, while alarming, has also been a catalyst for resistance. One of the first acts of defiance following Trump’s election was a women’s march. The voice of the teenager in particular, while often dismissed, has cut through with clarity and urgency as can be seen from figures such as Emma González on gun control to Greta Thunberg and the climate movement. What gives me hope in 2020 is a generation of young women finding their voice and demanding to be heard.

In everything we do, we acknowledge that we live on Aboriginal land and constantly learn from the wisdom of our First Peoples.

Where we are and the history that precedes us informs how we work and how we move forward.