Singer finds learning world’s lullabies universal
The songs’ lyrics are as basic as they get, but also the most universal. Singer Sophia Brous is weaving together lullabies from some 25 cultures, exploring the deeper meaning in how to communicate with infants through music. “In a funny way, lullabies are the most successful pop songs ever to have existed,” the Melbourne-born musician said. “They perpetuate themselves through generations because they’re infinitely repeatable, memorable and you absorb them.” To create “Lullaby Movement,” Brous learned cradle songs in local languages directly from mothers or others in more than 25 communities, including asylum-seekers in the wave of migration from the war-torn Middle East.
The song cycle, set to a flowing backdrop that goes from soothing ambient sounds to bouncy synthesized bass, is dramatized through a loose story line as Brous plays a sleep-deprived girl seeking security as she stands on a pebble beach. Brous showcased “Lullaby Movement” on Saturday at National Sawdust, a year-old New York music venue with a focus on the avant-garde where the Australian has been named an artist-in-residence. Brous, who has collaborated with artists including David Byrne of Talking Heads fame and indie pop singer Kimbra, was drawn to lullabies after speaking to an 80-year-old former ballerina from Latvia who poured emotion when relating a children’s song.
“The more that I began to consider them like a repertoire, the more fascinated I became,” said Brous, who remembers lullabies from her own parents. Brous spent time with refugees including in the Calais “Jungle” camp in France. While stressing that she has done little to address the crisis, Brous found she could quickly relate to migrant children through lullabies in Arabic, Farsi and other languages. “It is a grounder and a leveler and a connector, and I think sometimes it can be very powerful to let music play that role,” she said.
Are lullabies universal?
“Lullaby Movement” indirectly touches on one of the foundational questions of linguistics: Is language universal at its root? Brous found much in common from lullabies around the world, which so often use fragmented, made-up sounds to soothe children. “‘Roo, roo,’ ‘Zhoo, zhoo,’ or ‘aaah, aaah’-I was just so fascinated by the idea of imparted love and expressive love through words that may not have a literal meaning,” she said. “What has been so interesting is that I’ve never once had a comment of people feeling that they are not understanding it, or feeling a disconnect from the expressive power of the music,” she said about performing the piece. But the structure of lullabies varies widely between cultures. Brous was surprised that lullabies she learned from Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda not only had deep African rhythms, but that mothers were able to dance to them.
Other lullabies, such as those from China and Croatia, struck Brous by the darkness of the imagery, such as references to anthropomorphic animals lost in the wilderness. Brous, whose piece was first commissioned by Urban Theatre Projects in Sydney, plans an international premiere and tour of “Lullaby Movement” in the 2017-18 season. She composed the piece with Leo Abrahams, a guitarist who has played with Brian Eno and Pulp, and David Coulter, a musical saw virtuoso formerly in The Pogues celtic punk band.
Brous will spend the year working on “Lullaby Movement” and other works at National Sawdust, an intimate venue in Brooklyn whose advisory board includes leading names in classical and experimental music such as Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Paola Prestini, the executive and creative director of National Sawdust, said Brous “fits in very clearly” in the mission of the venue with her virtuosity and sense for a musician’s role in society. “She’s an artist who defies boundaries and an artist the whole world should know but doesn’t yet,” Prestini said.
Australian composer Sophia Brous poses after an interview with AFP in New York.