A Hard-hitting Commentary on the Experience of Asylum Seekers

Composer Jamie Thompson (Photo: Chad Alexander)

A Hard-hitting Commentary on the Experience of Asylum Seekers

Composer Jamie Thompson's Adjunct Ensemble has just released 'Sovereign Bodies / Ritual Taxonomy' on the Diatribe label, focusing on the ordeal of asylum seekers. Brendan Finan reviews.

Sovereign Bodies / Ritual Taxonomy started life as a five-piece work by the Ireland-based composer Jamie Thompson for the soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh with electronics. From there, it has grown to an ambitious 90-minute electroacoustic work assembled during and after lockdowns and featuring a number of performers all working together under the umbrella of Thompson’s Adjunct Ensemble. The ensemble, which debuted at the Brilliant Corners jazz festival in Belfast in March of last year, is a group of flexible size and membership which for this release features the poet Felicia Olusanya (FeliSpeaks), the turntablist Mariam Rezaei, the drummer Stephen Davis and the jazz-punk trio Taupe (Jamie Stockbridge, Mike Parr-Burman and Adam Stapleford on alto saxophone, guitar, and drums), as well as Ní Fhearraigh. Supporting them under an ‘additional musicians’ credit are other names familiar to the improvisatory music scene: saxophonist Catherine Sikora Mingus, drummers Darren Beckett and Oscar Cassidy, bassist John Pope and multi-instrumentalist Elliot Galvin.

The work is openly political, featuring as its focus the degrading and dehumanising experience of asylum seekers. There are four sections – Soverign Bodies, Ritual Taxonomy, Integrate / Ingratiate, and Essential Experience – and each is further divided into segments that freely run into one another, sharing material. (Borderless, you might say.) Thompson comes from the improvisatory and electronic schools, and his work here is in providing resources to the musicians (individual phonemes for Ní Fhearraigh, say, or graphic scores for Taupe, or plates and guidelines for Rezaei), then assembling the results into a coherent tapestry of sound. 

In this work, Thompson treats classical sound (primarily represented by Ní Fhearraigh’s voice) as cold and distant, a contrast to, among other things, the fiery presence of Olusanya’s poetry, whose delivery sometimes borders on rap. English classical music in particular features like a wicker man statue of colonial power, whether it’s twisted and distorted, like the patriotic song ‘Jerusalem’, which on Integrate / Ingratiate has the character of choral music by Ligeti or Penderecki, or wheezed out by a solitary saxophone, as the opening of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ is at the end of ‘19 Euro’.

The voice of the System
Ní Fhearraigh often plays the villain in the story this work tells – not a single character, and not exactly the voice of Authority; rather the voice of the System, of the current link in an endless chain of intermediaries. In Ritual Taxonomy, she reads descriptions of accent markers (in speakers of Kurdish, ‘z and s are dentalised’) drawn from a pseudoscientific method recently used by the UK Home Office to screen asylum seekers’ countries of origin.

The work is built, deliberately and carefully, on contrasts and a powerful sense of irony: the motto of non-interference and the scars of colonialism; Vaughan-WilliamsThe Lark Ascending and the sound of Spitfires; the political dismantling of non-European languages to individual phonemes and the music’s performing the same action to English. Most bitterly, in the closing tracks of Integrate / Ingratiate, ‘Capitalist Nomad’ and ‘19 Euro’, an unnamed American capitalist describes protecting his money from being taxed by moving from country to country, and Olusanya’s narrator describes protecting her pittance by eating crumbs and the skin off oatmeal.

Defiant and focussed
The musical backdrop against which this takes place is often clamorous, a charging mass of sound with Taupe’s energy often at the core of it, but just as often powerfully defiant and focussed. It even brushes against a reflective sadness from time to time, like the last section of
Sovereign Bodies, ‘They Didn’t Know Our Lives And Deaths Would Make Earth Remember.’

Thompson has a skill for making endings: each section ends in a way that strikes as an excellent summary and culmination of the section. At the close of Sovereign Bodies, the male voice of bureaucracy that we’ve heard throughout the section repeatedly intones the word ‘good.’ Each one lands with the weight of a sod of earth in a grave. Integrate / Ingratiate’s closing ‘19 Euro’ has a repeated musical phrase (the opening melody of ‘Nimrod’) finally peter out on an unresolved leading note – a trick I’ve heard a million times played for laughs (think of the opening credits to The Muppets), but which here is fragility and loss.

Sovereign Bodies / Ritual Taxonomy uses irony, wit and juxtaposition to sharpen the knives of its moral outrage. Its clearest target, through musical allusion and references to organisations like the Home Office, is the ruthless English system for asylum seekers, but poetry (‘19 Euro’ especially) turn its gaze to Ireland, and broadens the lens to the connection between refugees and Western colonial projects. 

The album’s final track ‘We Have Seen / Some Might Say’ is a chaotic rollercoaster for Taupe interrupted by the most deadweight bureaucratic statement (delivered flawlessly and dryly by Ní Fhearraigh), one so monumentally lacking in compassion or humanity that the music itself follows suit, and the final three minutes take a musical left turn both astonishing and staggeringly effective. In an album full of contrasts, it’s this last one that hits hardest.

Sovereign Bodies / Ritual Taxonomy by the Adjunct Ensemble was released on 5 May via Diatribe Records. To purchase the album, visit https://bit.ly/3pWfJFR.

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Published on 18 May 2023

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit www.brendanfinan.net.

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