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The power of Silence

Composer and artist Stano told David Hennessy about his audio project that includes personal stories from Roddy Doyle, Aidan Gillen and Damien Dempsey among others.

The Dublin composer Stano brings his In Between Silence, where we really exist project to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this Saturday night.

In Between Silence is a collection of intimate personal stories by diverse participants, including many leading Irish writers and artists.

The project launched at the International Literature Festival Dublin in May 2016 and made its North American debut in December 2016, in the off Broadway Barrow Street Theatre, New York.

This will be its first time in the UK.

In Between Silence began by chance and has organically grown to a collection of almost 100 stories.

It all started by accident when Stano was hit by inspiration when listening to a story from American musician Brian Palm.

Stano would take the track home and share it with his wife.

He says he knew that all his 30 years of recording had brought him to that moment.

Stano told The Irish World: “I think it was five or six years ago I started In Between Silence.

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“I was working with a Dutch guitar player and we were messing around with this strange tuning and I didn’t really know what the album was going to be whether I was going to put poems or it was going to be instrumental.

“The following week I had a guy called Brian Palm and I had him in playing harmonica.

“We were having a break and just out of the blue he just said, ‘You know me and my wife Mary were travelling across America and we stopped off at this Indian reservation-‘

“I just said to him, ‘Look, don’t tell me the rest of the story (yet)’.

“And I got my engineer to open up one of these random tracks that I was working on so he goes in and he goes, ‘What will I do if I don’t know what to say?’

“I said, ‘Play your harmonica between the gaps’.

“So he did that. He stopped, the track stopped ten seconds later and I knew in that moment something really powerful had happened so I took it home, played it to my wife and she just said, ‘It’s like film running in your head’.

“And then a few weeks later a friend of mine called John Duffy who was an artist actually passed away from cancer and I was with him three weeks before he passed.

“We were having a conversation and  I just said, ‘The biggest regret I have is I didn’t get in the recording studio with you’.

“Just off the top of my head I said, ‘John, I’m doing a spoken word album, have you got anything for me?’

“He said yes and two days later he was in the studio with me.

“He was fairly weak at this time so I got together a few tracks really, really quickly for him and brought him in the studio.

“I noticed he had a book with him and they were all these end of life stories and they weren’t pitiful or anything, really powerful.

“I said to him, ‘Why don’t you just read all of the pieces you have?’

“So he read them out and then a few weeks later after he died we decided then we were going to have a night for John in Ballymum and we were trying to figure out the exhibition would work.

“Because my wife works in film she said, ‘Why don’t we try and run the stories in the theatre?’

“So basically what happened is the title comes up and then it goes dark.

“We ran together a load of John’s stories and it was really interesting.

“The director said, ‘This is Ballymun, it’s a fairly working class area. You’re going to have people walking in and out, people going for a drink, going to the toilet’.

“(But) when we played the stories, you could have heard a pin drop in the place and these weren’t art type people, they were just working class people from Ballymum and grown men were coming out crying.

“We realised it was the darkness that liberated them to really be in touch with their feelings and then from there I just said to myself, ‘I’d like to open this out a bit more’.

“So I put the word out and I ended up getting stories from Roddy Doyle, Joseph O’Connor, Anne Enright, all famed Irish writers and then local people were giving me stories and that’s how it happened.

“It wasn’t pre- planned, it wasn’t worked out.”

Stano with Denise Dunphy, pictures by John Minihan.

Stano creates a piece of music for each participant but he doesn’t hear the story and the participant doesn’t hear the music until they start to record. His desire is to capture the spontaneous response of each person to the music and the impact it has on their delivery.

“When people come to my studio, I meet the person before and I would have a chat with them so I would get an idea about them and then I would compose a piece of music.

“When they come to the studio, I don’t see the story and they don’t hear the music until we press play on the recording.

“That’s the way it works.”

The topics covered in the collection of stories stretch across a wide variety of sobering areas including abuse, grief and racism.

“The track seems to calm them down in some way, it’s really conversational and the way I would describe it would be maybe 100 years ago when we sat around the fire telling stories, the background music was the crackle of the fire and that’s the impact the music has.

“It’s going back to the way we used to tell stories years and years ago.

“We played in New York in 2016 and we were having a cup of tea with a woman and she said, ‘By the way you were talking about this guy John Duffy, have you got a poem by him?’

“And I  played her one piece and she burst out crying and we all got emotional and she said, ‘That man is a real poet’.

“I didn’t know him as a poet, people didn’t know him as a poet so it seems to have been a key to just unlocking whatever is in people.

“We had a show at Collins Barracks and then after the show this woman came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got some young people here, they want to talk to you’.

“I didn’t know who they were and they were really emotionally impacted by the stories and it turns out they were young people with mental health issues in St Pat’s.

“Me and my wife went up on a Saturday morning and we played a few stories and at the end we said, ‘Why don’t we have a cup of tea and if people want to do a story they can put their hand up?’

“There was 18 people in the class and 17 people put their hand up and she came to me and she said, ‘Look I’ve been working on this area for years trying to get people to speak and you come in here within half an hour and you seem to have a key that’s unlocking it’.

“We had one girl who came in and did a story and it’s really really powerful about her journey through mental health issues.

“Another example was Aiden Gillen, the actor, agreed to give me a piece and he was in South Africa working on a film and he kept emailing me backwards and forwards saying, ‘Give me an idea what the story is about’.

“And I said, ‘Look, Aidan it can be anything at all. It can be about God, your mother, just something that means something to you’.

“To break the ice with him I said, ‘I’ve got this story’.

“I had this really strange story a few years ago. I was in Dublin walking on a bright summers day and then out of the corner of my eye I see this flashing on the ground.

“It was gold orangey colour so I went over and it was a goldfish on the ground and there was no water around. I couldn’t figure out where it had come from. People were just looking at him so I just grabbed him, ran into a restaurant and there was a couple at a table having some dinner and I threw the fish into the glass.

“The waiter ran over, thought I was mugging them.

“So Aidan was coming in to tell a story about a rabbit.

“When Aidan arrives in the studio, we were just talking and then just before he went in to tell his story he said, ‘What was Roddy Doyle’s story about?’

“I said about an old man and he said, ‘I’ve got a story about an old man’.

“I said, ‘Well tell me that story’.

“So Aidan went in and told that story so in a way the story that he had prepared wasn’t the story.

“Aidan’s story was when he was working on The Wire in Baltimore he came out one night and seen a man walking down the street in a dressing gown with a drip attached to him and he went over and talked to the man and the story unravels from there.

“That was just a memory that Aidan had in his head, that was just there.

“And that would only come out having a conversation with a friend in the pub or over a coffee, that seems to be the way it works.”

Are all the stories real or is there some fiction say from writers of fiction? “They’re all events that happened in their life.

“What was interesting with Roddy Doyle, Joe O’Connor, particularly with Roddy, Roddy had said to me I can normally never work like this because if this was my work it would be worked, reworked, edited and turned into something completely different.

“He had said to me at the time, ‘I think you have created a new art form. I’ve never seen something like this before’.

“Two weeks later Joseph O’Conor came in and he had said the same thing so I don’t know, it’s a magical thing.

“It’s really interesting because every time I get a story I think, ‘That’s a great story, I’m never going to get a better story than that’.

“And then somebody else comes in and I go, ‘That’s a better story again’.”

Would Stano give a story himself? “People keep asking me that. I stay the other side of it.

“Maybe one day I will.”

But the composer goes on to say that someone got a story out of him in the very same way.

“A guy came to me and he interviewed me, he has a podcast.

“He was in my studio talking to me and I was playing him a bit of music and talking about what I did.

“I said, ‘Look, give me five minutes. I just have to go in to my mother, she’s inside’.

“So I went in.

“He said, ‘How’s your mother?’

“’Well, she’s suffering from dementia.

“And he said, ‘Tell me about your mother’.

“’Well she’s from Birmingham originally, going through dementia, we’re trying to keep her at home but she’s started to see things and hear things and every time I bring her out in the car if she sees a man walking down the street she gets really, really frightened.

“She says, ‘That man’s going to kill me’.

“For some reason it just popped into my head, I don’t know where it came from. I said, ‘No Mam, that’s not a man, that’s a scrupalsprogler- I made up this little creature name and she said, ‘What’s a scrupalsprogler?’

“I said, ‘They’re little creatures and they won’t touch you and they’re very nice’.

“So every time she saw a man walking down the street then she says, ‘There’s the scrupalsproggler’ and it calms her down and she was less frightened.

“And then he came back a few weeks later and said, ‘I’m after getting an amazing response to your story, do you mind if people want to use it?’

“So I got calls from care homes in Canada and America wanting to use the story because it resonated.

“I got a letter from a guy then saying, ‘A very similar thing happened to me when my father was in care with me and he was suffering from dementia and every time he would see a police car he would go mental, ‘They’re going to arrest me, they’re going to arrest me’.

“He turned around and said, ‘No it has to be a pink police car, the pink police cars are the ones that would arrest you’.

“He never saw a pink police car so it calmed him down so my story seemed to resonate.

“So that guy did the same to me as what I do, just talk to people and say, ‘If you have a story come to the studio and it can be about anything’.”

A particularly moving story was the one from Marie Howe.

“I didn’t think she was going to come to the studio.

“I said to her ‘Would you give me a story?’

“And she didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no.

“We were out for the day and she just came and said, ‘Where is your studio?’

“And I said, ‘It’s ten minutes away’

“iI have a story for you’.

“It’s probably one of the most powerful pieces.

“She began, ‘My brother was a loving, knowing kind man and he’s dying of aids’.

“You get a shock when you hear something like that.

“She said, ‘I said, Please don’t go, please don’t go, stay with us’.

“She said he was in a coma for three weeks and every day she would hold his hand and tell him not to go and then she says three weeks later he came out of the coma.

“She was having a conversation with him and she said, ‘What happened, where did you go?’

“He said, ‘I don’t know but there was a light’.

“’And then he said my boot and it didn’t make sense, ‘Your boot’.

“He said. ‘I had to hook my boot into your leg. I was being pulled towards the light and didn’t want to go. I knew all my life I was going towards this and I didn’t feel frightened anymore.

“And then she said, ‘What was it? What did you see? Did you see God?’

“And he just said, ‘No’, and the last line in the story is, ‘I didn’t see that but it recognised me. Whatever the force was, it recognised me’.

“It was really profound and really powerful.”

In Between Silence, where we really exist is at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 11 February from 6.30pm.

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