When composer Michael Begg went to see Bertrand's Toys, a production by Russian physical theatre fabulists, blackSKYwhite, he was smitten. At that time, east Lothian-bsased Begg was about to release Consolation, his first album under the name, Human Greed, named after a theatre production he put on in 1999. The theatre Begg had been involved in up to that point was very much focused on text-based narratives in a more or less linear style. Bertrand's Toys and blackSKYwhite changed everything.
“I was blown away,” says Begg. “They came in and did it, and it was the loudest, scariest thing I'd ever seen. It touched me in a deep way, sand completely exploded what I thought was possible in a theatrical space. I made a note then that this was a company I'd very much like to work with.”
Begg tracked down an address for the company, and eventually met blackSKYwhite's director and visionary, Dimitri Aryupin, when the company played in London. A decade on, and Begg is providing the soundtrack to blackSKYwhite's latest voyage into darkness, OMEGA, which premieres in Edinburgh following a couple of try-outs at this year's Glastonbury Festival, where the company are regulars.
Described as 'a hoochie-coochie carnival for the end of time,' OMEGA presents a scarifying set of visions involving a roll-call of freaks, creeps and mythical beasts who appear to have crawled from the darkest of places in the name of an entertainment that becomes a matter of life and death.
“They come out one after another,” says Begg, “in a way that's linked by these two Russian burlesque dancers, but because it's blackSKYwhite, it's never anything less than unsettling. There's never any straightforward narrative, and you're never quite sure what's going on at times, but it all resonates on a great emotional level. There are elements of Russian mythology and old testament bible stories in there.
“As with all blackSKYwhite shows, there's more of an under-pinning narrative than they're sometimes given credit for. It goes much deeper than just terrifying people.”
OMEGA is Begg's second collaboration with blavkSKYwhite, after Aryupin approached him “out of the blue” to work on a show called E.S.M. (the biblically-inclined Eve, Salome, Mary in full).
“Dimitry asked me to do recorded voices,” says Begg, “which were neither male or female, and neither child or adult. He would say he wanted was the voice of a whisper, then to think of holding an apple close to your face, and that the apple is the word.”
When Aryupin approached him again to work on OMEGA, Begg “jumped at it. It's been an unusual one for me. I'm usually happy to just work with my own obsessions, but here I had to put myself on the back-burner, and work with Dimitry's obsessions.”
Begg has released three albums in partnership with Deryk Thomas as Human Greed, and also provides crucial contributions to Fovea Hex, the experimental ensemble based around the astonishing voice of Clodagh Simonds, who once sang backing vocals for Thin Lizzy, as well as appearing on Mike Oldfield's Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn albums. Fovea Hex's 2011 Here is Where We used To sing album, also featured contributions from Brian Eno, as well as Nurse With Wound mainstay, Colin Potter. Begg collaborated with Potter on Fragile Pitches, a live sonic installation using treated natural sounds and performed in St Giles Cathedral as part of the 2009 Edinburgh's Hogmanay programme. Begg also recently supported David Lynch protégée, Chrysta Bell, on the singer's debut Scottish date, and will be playing with her again when she returns this coming Autumn. All of which makes for quite a pedigree for someone more usually consigned to the musical margins.
“Back in the heady days of the 1990s, before I got involved in music, and before I fell out with text and narrative completely,” Begg remembers, “I had a theatre company called Cerebus. It was really hard work doing that, but I always had a sense of what was possible in a theatrical space. It's so infrequently that you can be in a space where you get a buzz like that, and it's the only place I feel comfortable in a crowd,. As you can imagine, Glastonbury was a nightmare.”
Begg's soundtrack for OMEGA, which is available on CD, is a typically dark and moody affair which is punctuated by occasional voices of the show's characters, as well as a musical saw provided by Irish singer and Fovea Hex associate, Laura Sheeran.
Beyond OMEGA, Begg will be working on the forthcoming Human Greed album, WORLD FAIR: Klosterruine Snow Chapelle, while new Fovea Hex material is also scheduled for release. Begg also expresses a desire to do more theatre work, although whether it could ever top his experience with blackSKYwhite is debatable.
“I'd like to do something that's a little closer to home than Moscow,” he says, “but there's a real chemistry between Dimitry and I, which we spoke about in Glastonbury. We're both so used to working with our own obsessions, but to find such kindred spirits in this way is rare, and we both want to work with each other again.”
Regarding OMEGA, Begg is keen to talk up just how physically arresting it is as well as philosophically subversive. So devoted to the show do he and Aryupin sound, in fact that it's as if they have actually entered OMEGA's all-pervasive end of the world dream-state.
“The only way to get it to work on equal terms,” according to Begg, “is to think that this crazy circus made up of thieves and vagabonds from mythological history that is OMEGA existed before us, and to think that Dimitry and I are witnessing and recording what they do. The long-term intention if the will is there is to extend it so that it runs for a whole day, but after August, OMEGA will continue to exist in another time-space, and it will continue to kick up dust.”
OMEGA, Assembly Rooms until August 25th, 2.35-3.45pm. Michael Begg will play a solo concert at Summerhall on August 24th.
The Herald, August 2013