For our fifth podcast series, writer and broadcaster Laura Barton looks to the theme of Rhythm, exploring the ways in which it is harnessed creatively to stir the senses, how it forms in us, how we carry it and where it can lead us. From the rhythmic pattern that propels you into a poem, the expressiveness of a musical composition to the cadence of speech on stage or sculpting intimate scenes on a film set. Join Laura as she interviews six guests who have each developed their own unique sense of rhythm in their work.
The episodes will be released weekly throughout April and May and are presented by Laura Barton and produced by Geoff Bird. Music for this season was written and performed by Laura James. Photography by Camilla Greenwell. All views expressed in the podcast are the interviewees own and not necessarily those of TOAST.
“We are surrounded by the heartbeat of our mother for nine months. Then comes the rhythm of our own heartbeat, the repetitive lullabies, the rocking to sleep, walking, running, music, dancing, the ticking of clocks, day following night over and over and over … Rhythm runs through everything.”
Kicking off our fifth series, Laura Barton joins Peggy Seeger at home in Oxfordshire where they spoke about where rhythm sits in Peggy’s own relationship with music, growing up a member of America’s famous folk family, the music that carried her to the UK, her partnership with Ewan MacColl, and why music can never be in the background of her life.
Peggy Seeger is a singer of traditional Anglo-American songs and activist songmaker lauded for her feminist and political songs. She plays six instruments: piano, guitar, 5-string banjo, Appalachian dulcimer, autoharp and English concertina and has recorded 23 solo albums and participated directly in more than a hundred others. Peggy’s own memoir, First Time Ever (Faber & Faber) 2017, was shortlisted for the prestigious Penderyn Music Book Prize, and was named ‘Best Music Book of the Year’ by The Guardian. Peggy’s new album, First Farewell will be released this month. The album has been produced by her son Calum MacColl and features co-writes with both him and his brother Neill, plus co-writes with her daughter-in-law Kate St. John, a noted musician and string arranger. A full-length documentary film about her life, called Song of Myself, is currently in production.
“There is an obvious rhythm when we think of ballet, but it is so ingrained in us as dancers that I don't actually consider it day to day. Where I do notice it is in the rhythm of our daily schedule, which follows the same pattern: class (to warm up and prepare for the day), rehearsal to learn and perfect, then performance which has an interesting ebb and flow with the energy of the dancers and the reaction of our audience. No two performances are ever the same.”
Our second podcast guest is founder and artistic director of Ballet Black, Cassa Pancho. After completing a degree in classical ballet, Cassa founded Ballet Black in 2001 to provide role models to Asian and black aspiring dancers, gaining an MBE in 2013 for services to classical ballet. The founder of the revolutionary classical company speaks to Laura Barton about her deep need for rhythm, diversity in the ballet world and the sounds and sensations that led her to enter the world of dance.
Set up 19 years ago by Londoner Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black was founded at a time when no women of colour were performing in UK ballet companies. A year later she opened the BB Junior School in Shepherd’s Bush where she continues to teach. Cassa has served as a judge on the panels of both the Kenneth Macmillan Choreographic and BBC Young Dancer competitions. In 2015, Cassa was appointed a Patron of Central School of Ballet and in May 2016 became a vice president of The London Ballet Circle. Making a fundamental change in the diversity of classical Ballet in Britain, Cassa has received numerous awards and accolades, receiving an MBE in the 2013 New Year Honours List for Services to Classical Ballet and in 2018 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. To date, she has commissioned 41 choreographers, to create over 50 new ballets for the Company. For more information, see Ballet Black.
“I think humans are so bound up in rhythm, from the rhythm of our breath, to the music that calls us to dance. And poetry can be all those things - the breath, and the music, and the dance.”
It was the first days of spring when Laura Barton spoke to our third podcast guest, the Forward Prize winning poet Fiona Benson. Speaking about the itinerant rhythms of growing up in an RAF family, of boarding school and academia, the pleasing rhythms of a settled life in rural Devon and how each has shaped her poetry. Fittingly, for this spring season, Fiona shares her poem Almond Blossom to ease us out of winter into a hopeful and trusting green havoc.
Fiona Benson lives in Devon with her husband and their two daughters. Her first collection of poetry, Bright Travellers, was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. It won the 2015 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the 2015 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. Vertigo & Ghost is her most recent collection published by Jonathan Cape, winning the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2019.
“As we enter the world the first act is Inspiration. This Greek word fuses the intake of breath with the forming of an idea and the passion for life. So begins the rhythm of life.
In, out, in, out. In, suspension, out. The breath forming the waves and rhythms of our life. The full, deep breath with its full suspension before the outward release. The gasp, the rushed panic of intake, the lock of breath, the inability to breathe. Each breath reacting to a change in our heart, thought, body and spirit.
Marking our transformations through life and the rhythm we are living until our final expiration. The last release, the final wave of breath reaching the shore. Followed by the suspension that doesn’t end. The last movement and rhythm of our life.”
Patsy has worked with politicians, business leaders and actors including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Daniel Craig. She’s collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre and is head of voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She is the author of books on speech and presence and her great literary love, William Shakespeare.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.
“Rhythm is the breath of life. It is a blend of the strong and the weak. It is the force that balances the hourglass of our hearts with all of earth’s elements.”
Musician Valerie June was in New York when Laura Barton spoke to her for this fifth episode of our Rhythm Podcast. She spoke of the stillness she has found through guided meditation, the natural rhythms that have steered her new album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, and all of the ways her music carries her history – from singing gospel in Tennessee to recording with the queen of Memphis soul, Carla Thomas.
Valerie was born in Jackson, Tennessee and grew up in nearby Humboldt. She now resides in Brooklyn, New York, but during lockdown last year returned home, spending time with her mother. Astounded by the cacophony of birdsong day and night, Valerie began recording the sounds she heard. This birdsong was mixed with the meditative sounds of a Tibetan singing bowl and flutes for the final track on her album, Starlight Ethereal Silence. Each of her latest songs feel immersive and uplifting with “reflective meditative moments”, which Valerie hopes will bring a feeling of joyful possibility to those who listen. “I see these songs almost like matches for people to strike when they need to reignite that inner light and keep going when things feel dark,” she says. “I hope it helps them to feel empowered, to realise their strength and their beauty and all the gifts they have to give. And I hope it also helps people to recognise the light in everyone around them, so that we can all connect with each other in a kinder and gentler and more loving way.”
Valerie's album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is available to listen and download on Spotify. Valerie also published a book of poetry and illustrations this year titled Maps for the Modern World, which is available now.
Photographs by Samantha Hillman.