Sunday, 11 March 2018

Schwa - a lark

Sally Bavage writes:
Richard Ormrod, Jacqui Wicks, Peter Spafford
The intimate piano bar atmosphere was well-established and we were nearly ready to start yet another lovely opportunity to hear Schwa showcase for us their highly original mix of poetry adapted and enhanced by music and voice.  A hubbub outside reveals crowds of would-be audience members.  Quickly sourcing more chairs and tables, we are finally able to slide into the first number delivered to a packed room.   A really packed room!

The Pasture by Robert Frost, adapted by the ever-inventive Peter Spafford, washes over us and relaxes us with its gentle references to nature. Its reassuring riff 'I shan't be gone long' segues perfectly into Robert Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad.  Jacqui Wicks' powerful, almost operatic, voice conveys a sense of such longing  for the homeland.  'Goodnight, my friends, I'm off, I'm done' swept us along to a section focusing on the birds referenced in the title of their set.

Who killed Cock Robin was different again, bringing in yet more instrumental talent from Richard Ormrod (more of that later) and a hint of Inti-Illimani's Chilean mournfulness hung in the air as a lament for the dead bird.  The final lines: 'All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing, When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin' were delivered to an audience which was absolutely spellbound by a familiar nursery rhyme delivered in such an unfamiliar and original way.

Blackbirds was also nursery-rhyme related – although purists describe them as English folk poems, correctly in my view.  Was it inspired by a William, either Cobbett or Shakespeare;  who knew?  It made the audience smile before the more sober mood engendered by Christina Rossetti's Dead in the Cold about a 'song-singing thrush' and the final line, 'Raise him a tombstone of snow' seemed very appropriate after the last week of extreme weather.  Bones, by Carl Sandburg, continued with the mournful mood as we explored burial at sea.  'Sling me under the sea, Pack me down in the salt and wet' provided the refrain that was strangely hypnotic. 

We moved into a lighter mood with a trio of songs - Six o'Clock, Roe Deer and Bliss, based on T S Eliot, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and Stevie Smith.  Who said Stevie was a celebrated celibate? 

I like to laugh and be happy

With a beautiful kiss,
I tell you, in all the world
There is no bliss like this.

That gives you an idea of just how versatile, wide-ranging and eclectic the poetry is that Schwa adopt, adapt and translate into entertainment that is both easy on the ear, stimulating for the brain and completely engrossing.

More of the birds in the second half as Edward Thomas' Cock Crow, then The Dipper and Two Peewits – whose name imitates their cry – flutter over our heads. By this time the piano bar ambience has moved to a jazz cellar, with a bit of torch singing, the occasional virtuoso instrumentalism and  many changes of mood. 

 Autumn Birds was inspired by John Clare, whose observations of the natural world are still some of the most evocative.  Perfect inspiration for a poet.   A book of spells – yes, really – set Peter to writing Churn, from an incantation to keep the milk flowing in cows.  The love for this many-layered trio was flowing too; how much more impressed could we be by the range, the inventiveness as well as the respect they show for each other and the cheery rapport that makes what they do appear seamless.  It isn't; it's based on a lot of thought, work and practice.

A delightful reprise of both I Am Alive by Emily Dickinson and Slow Cooker from last year's show are greeted warmly, and serve to illustrate once again both the jawdrop quality of Jacqui's voice and Peter's playful inventiveness.  Richard Ormrod played the bubbling stewpot to perfection, with a slight samba rhythm coming through.

We canter towards the end with Ferry – crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan on a dark night with Edna St Vincent Millay's 'Recuerdo' (only the second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for poetry).   The opening line of 'We were very tired, we were very merry' could have summed up the audience who had enjoyed an emotional roller-coaster through the changing moods generated by Schwa.

The encore, Happiness, is based on a Chinese poem from the eighteenth century describing 33 moments of happiness.  The chorus of 'Ah, is this not happiness' was joyfully taken up by the audience as we croon the final moments of complete engagement with a wonderful trio.

You simply cannot sum up what Schwa represent.  Apart from Wiki's 'Schwa is a very short neutral vowel sound, and like all other vowels, its precise quality varies depending on the adjacent consonants. In most varieties of English, schwa occurs almost exclusively in unstressed syllables.'   Unstressed, clever and thoughtful adaptations of a wide and eclectic range of poetry sources to music and song, as well as huge talent, camaraderie, brio and sheer joy; that's what they represent.  Next time you see Schwa are on, anywhere, make sure you go.

Richard Ormrod does deserve a special mention for the sheer range of instruments that he plays to enhance the atmosphere of any piece.  Is there anything he can't pluck, strike or blow!?  Drums, guitars and saxophones of various ranges, clarinet, ukelele, accordion, Indian bells, shakers … even the piano. And he sang.  And I'll have forgotten quite a few.

Audience Comments

Audience Comments

Wonderful performance – a joy to be part of it – thanks!

Love it!

Very good and good musicians

Very good exceptional talent

A lovely evening with a great blend of poems and music. A nice warm atmosphere. Very enjoyable.

Fine tunes make firebirds?

Lyrical, beautiful, otherworldly

Haunting and funny and celebratory and exhilarating – thank you! Fantastic to have events like this on our doorstep, and lovely how many different members of the community are here!

A delightful evening with three very talented musicians. Beautiful mix of poetry and music made very accessible. Thank you.

Really great.

A wonderful blend of words, music, songs and instruments and emotions.

Lovely evening – going to go home and read some poetry now! Especially cock robin.

Wonderful innovative percussion. Jacqui’s voice/delivery beautiful. Great venue. Words evocative and thoughtful. Great atmosphere – fine song to leave us with – ‘Happiness’

Lovely singing, playing, writing – as always.

Words aren’t the form for describing an evening with Schwa. I don’t want to break the spell of spaces, shapes colour of feeling.


V. good

Great event. Nice evening.

Excellent lovely mixture of sounds. Original concept using poems as a starting point. Beautiful evocative voices and sounds.

A nice combination of sounds. Friendly. Original.Inventive.

Liked venue. Good to hear new literary stuff and music together. Envious of the person playing so many instruments. Liked bird theme… not ‘Slow Cooker’.

Very enjoyable. Loved the poetry choices.


This was an extremely enjoyable event with very talented performers.

Great! Very inventive, melodic and harmonious. Loved the new songs (and the old). Uplifting.

Wide ranging – material and instruments – clever and captivating.

Extraordinary, as ever.

Even better than last year.

Talented people. Really love it!!!

Excellent musician. Great atmosphere. Very convivial.

Excellent performance. Musically brilliant.

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