SING SIGN by Hanna Tuulikki articulates twin threads of poetic exploration within the architectural and associative structures of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The performance is both a mapping of the communicating body in relation to the city; and a reading of the dialectical relationship between the languages we use to speak to one another. Through the complex interchange of song and choreographed gesture, Tuulikki weaves a wordless dialogue of playful Baroque mediation.
Two performers, one male and one female, stand within the arterial architecture of one of Edinburgh’s vessel-like closes. Framed by the close mouths, the performers face one another and offer a greeting. Then, in choreographed motions, their hands punctuate the air with a sequence of gestures drawn from British Sign Language and other less defined forms of bodily lexigraphy. Opening their mouths they sing, uttering the precise and lyrical lexemes of a wordless language. Their song reverberates around the grey stone walls as a quick breath moves through lungs: that is, in motion, becoming stronger and more complex.
Though wordless, Sing Sign borrows the structure of a hocket, a musical device used since the 13th century in which the melodic line is split between two voices. This then, is communication. As cantillating voices call in bobbing, fluting recognition - as wrists pivot and fingers fluidly conjure silent dialogue - we see the back and forth of transmission and reception danced before us. And yet the performers do not speak only to each other. Their signs and their singing are open, finding resonances within the lines of the city itself. Their score is literally the map of Edinburgh’s streets, with the rhythms of inhabited pavements concatenating the step and the breath. Here, to sing the city is to speak to it, to listen to it, to walk it, to sign it and to sign with it, translating street names into eloquent gesture. Tuulikki’s previous work has located voices (both her own and others’) in rural, windblown landscapes of open skies and ululating birdcall. Stepping into the city she sites her work with just the same attention to both poetry and place.
The music that underpins the language of Sing Sign’s sung hocket has its origins in a European baroque suite of dances. Movement one: Allemande; Movement two: Courante; Movement three: Sarabande; Movement four: Gigue. The four movements, uttered as tumbling and ascending vocal peals, are punctuated by the exaggerated physical poetry of BSL’s shapes and signs. These incarnate gestures, choreographed into a liminal state that is both dance and dialogue, tie the performer’s complex colloquy back into the body of closes and alleyways that perforate the city’s Old Town. Tuulikki has described this hocket as a ‘golden thread of conversation’ and as such it stitches up and down the Royal Mile’s spine as a sinuous golden cord. But the hocket is also mimetic. As its purest level it gives musical structure to the act of conversation itself, embodying as well as representing the interchange of discourse. Tuulikki’s interrogation is implicit: who are we when we speak? Who are we when we sign? What can we ever read of one another if all the languages we speak are partial? Our intercourse is always provisional, and we know this. And yet Tuulikki’s work asks us afresh to consider the wordless voice, the speaking arms, as wordless and articulate poetry.