Singing Struggle and Agreement – watch back to hear the GFA in song and a panel as part of Slugger’s contribution to #BIAF20

Culture, in its many varied forms, can provide a window through which to view society, and also a mirror to reflect back what we might not have noticed about ourselves. We often connect emotionally with pieces of music. Songs become sporting team anthems. Music can be a passionate cry of celebration or bellow of despair.

One Sunday morning last November, I received an email from a mutual friend saying that a former NIO official had set part of the Belfast Agreement to music. But it hadn’t been sung on the island on which it was negotiated or voted upon. Did I know anyone who might tackle it?

It was clearly kind of quirky, unexpected and potentially thought-provoking event that Peter O’Neill at the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics in March was indeed bound to support. I would build a panel around remembering the talks leading up to the Agreement, and Spark Opera volunteered to take on the music.

Then imminent lockdown made rehearsals impossible and the event was shelved.

But much like on off on off Northern Ireland peace talks, the event has revived and regrouped with the help of Belfast International Arts Festival in partnership with Spark Opera and Slugger O’Toole. We’d big plans for 90-strong socially distanced audiences to enjoy the even more distanced singers in the cavernous St Anne’s Cathedral. That too was stymied. The word ‘struggle’ in the event title began to take on additional layers of meaning.

Yet, festivals – and the arts community in general – are incredibly resilient. So tonight at 7.30pm, you’ll be able to watch and hear the 25 singers (recorded on Saturday spread out across Fisherwick Presbyterian’s pews) perform a variety of songs of struggle, and one of agreement (its Northern Irish and Irish première), and listen to the panel (recorded yesterday).

Clare Salters set the opening preamble of the Belfast Agreement to music, subtitling her piece “p E A C E in 4/4 time”, a musical cryptogram referring to piano (soft) and the first four rising notes of the piece. The Agreement’s opening Declaration of Support is more human and less legal than the chapters that follow. It’s a verbatim piece, so all of the words in the right order, including tricky lists of cross border institutions that have got to be held in tension with each other, musically and in real life.

The musical programme includes five other pieces that shout out against tyranny, oppression, attack, and explore identity and solidarity. Spark Opera’s Hearth Chorus were joined by NI Opera’s Associate Artists and a couple of guests under the baton of Keith McAlister. Present to film the pieces – the sound engineer and me the only audience – it was moving to witness live music on that scale after so many months when buskers seemed to be all that remained.

Woven through the music is a panel discussion. Mark Devenport recalls the months he spent reporting from the car park outside Castle Buildings and the moment when Stephen Grimason arrived with a first full copy of the Agreement. Monica McWilliams tells the story from inside the negotiations, the narrow corridors, and the TV used to watch politicians negotiating on the airwaves outside the window. And there’s a story of David Ervine becoming Tarzan to quickly exit from a CNN interview conducted up a tree. We hear from composer Clare Salters, and Spark Opera’s Kate Guelke gives the music context and also reflects on how a political agreement shaped her life.

The event is free (donations welcomed). You can register online at the Belfast International Arts Festival to get the link to the 7.30pm showing.

Elsewhere in the festival programme, you’ll find some cutting edge online theatre – Macbeth and The University of Wonder & Imagination – alongside a very rich programme of free interviews and talks (including Stuart Maconie, Jenni Murray and Lennie Goodings). You’ll also find music, films, and you can book a slot to visit the RUA Annual Exhibition in the Ulster Museum. Full programme available on the Belfast International Arts Festival website.