Synths, Samples and the Surgeon’s Slab – In Conversation with CHAINES

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At this year’s festival, we’ll hear the premiere of the new work Autopsy of an Aberration, performed by composer CHAINES and GBSR Duo. We spoke to CHAINES about their inspiration, and how the different parts of the body appear in their work.

What led you towards this idea of an autopsy?

I’m fascinated by the ways in which we politicise bodies, and in particular the various ways in which they differ. What can a person’s body tell us about them? Sometimes, the conclusions we draw are backed up by research, and make scientific sense; if a person suffers an injury to their brain, that might go some way to explaining unusual behaviour, for instance. I’m particularly interested in the more superstitious and esoteric conclusions which have been drawn from atypical bodies – a skin abnormality being a ‘witches’ teat’, or Satanic mark, or stigmata demonstrating holiness and divine favour. I talked with a friend of mine who’s a historian, and she had some great reading recommendations about autopsies in Renaissance Italy and mediaeval/early modern european witch trials, which used bodily ‘abnormalities’ (some of which were definitely impossible – think nails and crucifixes rendered from flesh found inside major organs) to evidence that the individual was either saintly or satanic.

There’s also something about autopsies that also feels inherently ritualistic, even theatrical. Autopsies ask us to reflect on the reality of the body – its inner workings are (typically) hidden from us, and they’re complicated, miraculous, beautiful but also kind of gross. At the same time, we’re also invited to reflect upon that which is spiritual. It’s difficult to reconcile spirituality with such a visceral demonstration of mortality, but it’s a very human problem. I think people have a natural curiosity about death and the body, but it’s difficult to confront. In Renaissance Italy, academic and public demand for viewing autopsies was so high that they had to take place in larger buildings – frequently churches – which feels very apt, somehow.

Talk to us more about the structure of the work, and how it relates to the idea of this imaginary autopsy

Structurally, I’ve written the piece to be reminiscent of a meditation or ritual; we begin with the singing bowls and a reflection on mortality itself. From there, each piece represents the extraction and examination of significant organs, punctuated by a recurring theme on the bowls. There might also be a bit of a surprise in there… Thematically, I imagine that the individual who is being autopsied is one of these saintly or satanic figures with an ‘aberrant’ body. We’re never musically explicit about what is meant to be aberrant about this body – the visuals in the show includes claws, scales and eyes in the hands, but in a way, it’s been more important to reflect on the body in a way that enables the audience to reflect on their own bodies, on the ways in which they are similar to our monstrous subject. 

In what ways doe the music represent the 'monster' and the different parts of its body?

The various sections of the piece have been written to try and mimic the physicality of the body parts in some way. Sometimes, this will be in more literal ways, sometimes in ways which are more subtle. In Lungs, the positions we take on the stage will reflect the general shape of a pair of lungs, partnered with musical material that mirrors inhalation and exhalation. In Eyes, the main melody is initially played by me in parallel 5ths, but is then played in delay and transferred over to myself and George. It’s as if the eyes are at first being considered as a perfect pair, how they operated in life, before being pulled apart and examined separately, then reunited.

Listen to a snippet of ‘Eyes’ from Autopsy of an Aberration

Hear the premiere of CHAINES’ Autopsy of an Aberration at Spitalfields Music Festival this year. Sunday 7th July at 4pm, performed with GBSR Duo at state51 Factory. Tickets are available to book here.