The Space Between Our Ears
At The Barbican recently I attended an extraordinary performance by Simon McBurney of the Complicite theatre company.
The Encounter considers issues of environmentalism, materialism, communication and time. In the play McBurney relates the story of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who in 1969 was dropped into the Amazon rainforest on an assignment for National Geographic. McIntyre soon locates the nomadic Mayoruna tribe that he had been hoping to shoot, but soon loses the camera he had been hoping to shoot them with. Nonetheless, he follows the Mayoruna deep into the jungle, to the brink of starvation, tripping on their mystical herbs, joining them in their quest to find ‘the beginning.’ McIntyre is convinced that the tribe’s shaman is communicating with him telepathically. ‘Some of us are friends’, he seems, rather cryptically, to be suggesting, over and over again.
McBurney enacts this compelling story without costumes, or set, or other actors. In fact the stage resembles a radio-recording studio as McBurney, surrounded by props, circles a ‘binaural’ microphone that records in a kind of 3D.
We the audience listen through headphones. We hear voices, sounds, noises in the dark; we hear McBurney creating beautiful birdsong, the buzz of mosquitoes, the growl of airplane engines. He blows into the microphone and we feel the heat of his breath on our ears.
We are together in the theatre, but alone in our private soundscapes. We close our eyes and follow McIntyre into the heart of darkness.
Overall it’s a disarming experience. It made me think of the phenomenal power of sound, of storytelling and of the imagination. It took me back to the power cuts of 1974’s Three-Day Week, when we listened with mother in the candle light, to Radio 4 plays and Dr Finlay’s Casebook…
In the communications industry we spend so much time and money these days on location shoots, on CGI and special effects. We seek to recreate the past, to simulate the future, to bring distant lands to our doorsteps. But we leave little room for the imagination. It’s as if we’ve lost our faith in the phenomenal human capacity to dream, invent, envisage.
In his book Hegarty on Advertising Sir John Hegarty urges us to think beyond platforms, technologies, channels and media space. He encourages creatives to concentrate on ideas, and on communication’s ultimate destination, the mind.
‘The only space worth occupying is the space between someone’s ears.’
It’s a healthy reminder. Ideas engage the brain more effectively than any cunning creative device, canny media strategy or quirky technology. Ideas are comfortable unadorned, in the nude so to speak. And the best ideas have a life of their own. They are suggestive, seductive, conspiratorial. They linger.
As I left The Barbican that night, inspired but also confused somewhat by what I had experienced, I could not help hearing a voice whispering quietly at the back of my brain:
‘Some of us are friends.’
(The Encounter is on tour across the UK and the rest of Europe until 25 June)
‘I’ve weathered the storms. I’ve fallen down and I’ve gotten back up.’
The recently released documentary film Mavis! tells the story of Mavis Staples, singer with The Staple Singers throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and even on into the ‘90s. She has now been performing for 60 years and still sings her heart and soul out at the age of 76.
Mavis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the neighbourhood that spawned soul legends Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. Her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples organised his children into The Staple Singers, combining his own country blues heritage with a vibrant gospel sound. Pops sang with a sweet, thoughtful voice, young Mavis sang with raw, deep emotion. As Bonnie Raitt observes in the documentary, she was ‘sensual without being salacious.’
Initially The Staple Singers’ material addressed purely gospel themes. Then one day, while on tour in the South, Pops took the family to see Dr Martin Luther King speak at a local church. He was deeply moved by the encounter.
‘I like this man’s message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.’
The group took to singing Freedom Songs in support of the civil rights movement. Songs such as ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’ and ‘Long Walk to DC’ had conviction, courage, clarity of purpose. They signed to Stax and had huge hits with ‘I’ll Take You There,' ‘Respect Yourself' and many more besides. They created anthems of authority, yearning and pride.
Mavis comes across as a luminous, forthright, humble soul who can laugh in the face of ageing:
‘That’s the best time I’ve had since I got my new knees.’
Her speech is intercut with the rich vocabulary of the church and the civil rights struggle.
‘I’m a living witness….I’ll stop singing when I’ve got nothing left to say.’
It’s this appetite that most impressed me. The appetite to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ Appetite is an elusive quality. One minute you have it and the next it has completely deserted you. Mavis illustrates very powerfully that the key to sustaining appetite over the long term is a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.
In the marketing community we’ve been talking a good deal about Purpose over recent years. Purpose defines a brand’s broader social responsibility and contribution. It galvanises colleagues, partners and stakeholders around a higher order goal. But critically Purpose ensures that appetite endures, that it is persistent, permanent; through thick and thin, good times and bad.
‘I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m determined to go all the way.’
Mavis Staples, Mavis!
Speak Like a Child
‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
When I was younger I well recall being told that The Jam derived their sound from The Who and The Kinks; that Echo and the Bunnymen owed their sonic style to The Doors; that first generation Dexy’s were channelling Sam & Dave. I cared not a jot. These were our bands. They were our team. No sarcastic snipe or world-weary remark from the older generation could tarnish their integrity.
Now I’m the one that can hear every young band’s influences. I can’t ignore the shadow of a Beatles chord progression, the echo of Marvin’s rhythm section, the replication of Morrissey’s wordplay. And so I struggle to enthuse.
The Curse of Middle Age is familiarity, recognition, experience, discernment. Your palate, once refined, can become jaded; your enthusiasm qualified. You can’t see the originality.
And I suspect this Curse of Middle Age is at play in the workplace too.
One of the keys to sustaining interest and value in professional life, particularly in the creative industry, is to shed this corrosive cynicism; to dismiss the instinct to say ‘I’ve heard it, seen it, done it before’; to refrain from rose-tinted nostalgia; to retain a wide-eyed optimism; to be childlike, not childish; to learn to speak like a child.
‘I really like it when you speak like a child.
The way you hate the homely rank and file
The way you’re so proud to be oh so free and so wild.’
Paul Weller/The Style Council/Speak Like a Child