Annabel Lee Replies: music, art and poetry with a touch of mauve

Do you remember train travel and hanging around in railway stations? Back in 2018, Ruth and Nic Carlyle were eating cheese scones at Birmingham New Street railway station when they had an idea for a joint music, art and poetry project with David Barton. In this guest blog post, Ruth describes what happened next and the progress towards the Annabel Lee Replies EP release and launch event.

Take a composer, an artist and a singer/writer. Inspire them with nineteenth century poetry and a sprinkling of mauve as the colour of half mourning. Where the poetic inspiration starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’, the results are likely both to tell the tale of the narrator of Poe’s poem and possibly to consider what Annabel Lee herself might have thought about a lover lying beside her tomb long after her death.

Annabel Lee

Nic and I had been thinking for some time that we would like to work together on a joint art project. I had been enjoying singing and informally recording some of the songs composed by David Barton, so a musical commission to be illustrated with Nic’s artwork seemed a good option for a joint project. We approached David initially about a potential commission to compose a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’. This then grew into commissions for setting two of my poems, ‘The Reply of Annabel Lee’ and ‘Now Breathe’, followed by Anne Brontë’s ‘Night’. The last of these was commissioned as an unaccompanied work shortly after the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

‘Annabel Lee’ is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s last poems. Poe believed that poetry is inherently musical and repeated lines of text as though they were themes in a piece of music. In this case, there are several references to ‘the kingdom by the sea’ and David’s music reflects the seascape. My poem ‘The Reply of Annabel Lee’ follows the structure of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’, but as Annabel seeks to release the poet from his desolation the meaning increasingly flows across lines of the poem. There is, however, a Poe-like twist at the very end of ‘The Reply of Annabel Lee’.

Artwork for Annabel Lee Replies

In the early nineteenth century, there was a move towards more ornate tombs, particularly where these were placed in cemeteries rather than churchyards.  Annabel Lee’s body is placed in such a ‘sepulchre by the sea’. During the century, mauve became more affordable for a larger proportion of the population to use as a colour for half mourning, due to the discovery of by William Perkin of a chemical dye, mauveine. So, from the outset we referred to our joint activity as Project Mauve.

The original plan was to have a concert performed by Ruth and David, at which Nic’s artworks would be presented. We also wanted to have a professional studio recording as a legacy of the project. With COVID-19, however, we could not realistically plan for a concert and discovered that we could still use a recording studio as the singer, pianist and engineer are all in different rooms. The recorded aspect of the project therefore grew into an album and a video incorporating Nic’s artworks alongside the two key works, ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘The Reply of Annabel Lee’. When I explored distribution mechanisms, I found that I needed to name a “record label”, so the obvious choice was Project Mauve.

Images from Annabel Lee video

The album ‘Annabel Lee Replies’ contains the four pieces Nic and I commissioned and two previously unpublished settings by David of poems by Robert Browning, ‘Meeting at Night’ and ‘My Star’. Details about streaming and download availability can be found here.

Whilst we cannot have a concert, we have a launch event by Zoom at 7pm on Sunday 1st November, including the video accompanying ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘The Reply of Annabel Lee’. The event is free to attend, but booking is required: more details here.

You can also follow the project on both Twitter and Instagram.

With thanks to Summerfield Studios for the recordings, Albion Visual for photography and videography and The Rector of St Michael on Greenhill for permission to film in the church grounds.

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