Sonic Cinema: Bishi on her Albion Voice live show

Rooted in both ancient and modern musical styles, acclaimed performer Bishi’s Albion Voice live show is an ode to an ever-changing England.

Samuel Wigley

“I’m Indian in skin, but English at heart”, sings performer Bishi on the title track of her new album Albion Voice. Acclaimed by the New York Times as the ‘New British Diva’, Bishi’s ambitious sound reaches deep into England’s mythic past, bearing the influence of medieval folk music and plainsong, and featuring incantations from Chaucer and Milton.

But the ancient and the modern co-exist in Albion Voice, and these folkloric sounds rub up against electronic textures, glacial soundscapes reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins or the art-pop of Laurie Anderson. There are sitars too, and lyrics derived from Indian bard Rabindranath Tagore.

Bishi’s music featured in Julien Temple’s recent film London – The Modern Babylon (2012), and the nation she maps out within the lyrics and textures of Albion Voice bears comparison to Temple’s Babylonian capital – a Sceptred Isle that is forever changing, renewed and re-energised by its migrant populations.

British-born to Bengali parents, Bishi will perform her album in its entirety as part of Sonic Cinema, BFI Southbank’s strand drawing out the links between film and live musical performance. Bishi previously performed at the BFI when her score to the 1923 silent film Salome featured as part of the Bird’s Eye View Festival in 2009.

During the Albion Voice live show, conceived by her creative partner Matthew Hardern, Bishi will perform with kaleidoscopic visuals projected over and around her, awash in a dazzling, ever-shifting display of shapes, lines and colour.

The album has a mixture of western and eastern musical and vocal styles. What’s your own musical background?

I was trained as a pianist and a singer, but in my teens I learned to play the sitar, bass, and ukulele, and I formed a deep passion for vintage synths and electronics.

Where did the idea for Albion Voice come from?

Albion Voice was inspired by a Michael Bracewell book called England Is Mine. In this cultural analysis of all things British, I realised there were very few women and hardly any Asians included in the book. I thought I’d add something to this debate with a lot of love.

There are traces of everything from medieval folk music to avant-garde composer György Ligeti on the album. What were your main musical influences on Albion Voice?

On the contemporary classical side of things, Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas, and Philip Glass’s North Star. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance really influenced my vocal style. Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions, Shirley Collins and The Incredible String Band had an enormous impact on the sound of the album. A dream of mine came true when the Kronos Quartet asked to play on the record.

The album was recorded over three years in London, Wales, upstate New York, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. How did this affect the resulting album?

There are a number of ideas, musical styles and concepts that had to come into orbit on Albion Voice. Making the album over a number of years and locations allowed the record to develop with more maturity and come to greater fruition.

The album begins with you reciting part of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Was that difficult to master?

I’d love to lie and say it was difficult, but it felt very natural to me. In learning Middle English, Chaucer’s language suddenly came alive in the richness of its symbolism. I wish I could speak in it all the time!

How does your collaboration with Matthew Hardern work? Do you give him free reign to come up with the visual accompaniment to your performance?

We have a very empathic artistic partnership. It helps that we have a very strong aesthetic connection, with many of the same references. Usually things start with a brainstorming session and develop thereon. Although I am not an award-winning filmmaker like Matthew, I bring my knowledge of art history and film to the table. We have also collaborated with a number of  talented filmmakers on this project: Miguel Domingo-Redondo, EYESONTHEWALL, Armando De Ath, Birgitta Hosea, Carly Ashdown and Noriko Okaku. This show would never have happened without them.

The performance is featuring as part of the Sonic Cinema strand. What sort of film lovers would enjoy the show?

I’d describe the show as Liz Frazer (of the Cocteau Twins) meets Liz Taylor in space. This show would appeal to people who love Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway and The Wicker Man for its folk qualities; The Fifth Element and Blade Runner for its science fiction sensibilities. For its animation there’s a great influence of Jan Svankmajer and Oskar Fischinger.

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