tales from babel

The Clerks present a unique cutting edge combined performance and research project with music by Christopher Fox and tests by scientists from the University of Cambridge, supported by the Wellcome Trust.

  • Having trouble holding a conversation at a party?
  • Can’t manage to concentrate when surrounded by lots of other people talking?
  • Distracted by other threads of conversations?

Most of us would have to say ‘yes’ to all of these; it’s called ‘the cocktail party problem’ and it’s something which neuro-scientists and psychologists have been studying for years. Now vocal ensemble The Clerks, with the help of an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, are hoping to shed light on the problem through ‘Tales from Babel’ – a music and science collaboration that explores how we hear (or don’t hear) text in polyphonic music.

“The idea came to me when we were working on some special works from the Middle Ages,” says Clerks director, Edward Wickham. “There’s a whole repertoire of pieces which involve singers delivering different texts at the same time. And the big question is, what are audiences supposed to make of this jumble of texts?”

The concert programme features two new works by Christopher Fox and Edward Wickham – Tales from Babel and Roger go to yellow three, whose humorous and poignant vignettes build into a quasi-operatic narrative of betrayal, misunderstanding and madrigal-singing. It also includes an eclectic assortment of motets from Medieval England and France, songs by Renaissance masters such as Josquin Des Prez, and new texts by contemporary poets. There will also be an interactive element: audiences will be tested on their ability to hear particular words, and the data from these tests will contribute towards further research in the field.


Christopher Fox Tales from Babel (text by Edward Wickham)
Anon./Josquin des Prez Fortuna desperata
Anon. (14th century) After the Mass
Francois Andrieu (14th century) After the Mass
Christopher Fox Roger go to the yellow three (text by Edward Wickham)

For more information, you can watch the video below.  To try out the listening tests yourself, please click here.

Tickets: £10, Students £4, Under 18s £1
Box Office: Gala Theatre, Millennium Place, Durham
Tel: 03000 266600

Links to media coverage:

‘Experiments in listening: hearing one voice above the many’. The Guardian, 1 October 2013

‘Rivers of babble on: how word became the servant to music’.  The Guardian, 28 June 2013

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