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<<  -- 7 --  Jennifer I Paull    HIGH JINX AND HAUTE COUTURE


Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979 [Joyce Irene Phipps-Grenfell]) was a gifted musician and actress, a very witty writer excelling in the art of the comic monologue and funny song. She could improvise vague flowing French 'chansons' until the Kleenex were long gone.

Joyce, like Cathy, had grown up performing to her own family gatherings. One of her impersonations of a Women's Institute lady doubtless influenced Cathy when she staged her Florence Foster Jenkins parody as a performance to a Ladies' Saturday Afternoon Cultural and Literary Society meeting somewhere in the Mid West (Proust recital). Joyce was later to say that she felt she owed royalties to the real WI speaker who had inspired the famous monologue. Cathy most definitely owed Mrs Foster Jenkins many!

'This was supposed to be a song without words, but somebody put words to it!' On set with Harold Lester and the ghost of Mrs Foster Jenkins in 'Frühingslied' by Mendelssohn (Fanny [1805-1847] or Felix [1809-1847]? - Cathy voted for Fanny.) Photo courtesy of Harold Lester
'This was supposed to be a song without words, but somebody put words to it!' On set with Harold Lester and the ghost of Mrs Foster Jenkins in 'Frühingslied' by Mendelssohn (Fanny [1805-1847] or Felix [1809-1847]? - Cathy voted for Fanny.) Photo courtesy of Harold Lester

Singer almost as well known for her gowns as her voice -- bold headline shown without newspaper identification [Dutch TV Documentary Music is the Air I Breathe]

Cristina Berio, Cathy's daughter, transcribed an Italian radio interview of her mother into English. Cathy is describing the dress she designed for 'Circles' (1960) by Luciano Berio [text reproduced here by kind permission of Cristina Berio].

I had already decided to create my own costume for every new piece Luciano 'tailored' for me, so to speak. I usually designed my own, and for 'Circles' I wanted to have a black dress made of Lurex, a black shimmering fabric with many silver threads in it. It consisted of a bodice, a full round skirt with a pocket (where I could leave my little wooden rattle), and a wide belt into which I used to slide the cymbals at first. Later on, I added a few pockets on the inside, which made it easier for me to find them.

But the interesting detail was the bodice. The front had a boat neck, whilst the back was practically bare. Now, on the original sketch, I designed the back décolletage to plunge all the way to my kidneys because I had noticed that 'La Mandiargue' fascinated Luciano. [However] he didn't mind if another woman dressed that way, but not HIS wife! So, I had to moderate my bareness to the waist, or better still, a little bit higher [...] Even so, it was a shock for the audience because the front of the dress was misleading and you would never have anticipated such a low back when I turned around. Theatrically, that was a lovely little feature!

There is a mystery here. Cristina is unable to say with certainty to what (or whom) her mother was referring as La Mandiargue (sp?). Circles is in no way linked to the poems of André Pieyre de Mandiargue. What could Cathy have meant? By the wildest stretch of the imagination I cannot believe Luciano Berio was interested in Brigitte Bardot's pop song, La Madrague (also the name of her home in St Tropez), and that Cathy was mispronouncing it! Bardot's words make pure Shakespeare of Tit-Willow's lyrics. One thing was certain; Cathy was not allowed to get away with her own wishes for the dress.

No matter how interesting the mandrague or almazraba style of fishing for tuna (invented by the Phoenicians, practised by the Greeks) is to us all (unless one happens to be a tuna fish), and although a special song called the chaloma accompanied by tambourines encourages all this aquatic hard labour, I can find no link to Cathy's Lurex dress by pursuing this cul-de-sac research route. Circles (voice, harp and two percussionists with tons of hardware), is far removed from fishing via tuna, tambourines and wooden sticks (the latter to expedite the poor fish P D Q [sans Bach] from sea to tin). I therefore did the only thing possible. I sent an email to Marie Christine Vila. After having put on her thinking cap and pondered, Marie Christine came up with a brilliant idea a day or two later.

I really can't believe that Cathy was referring to the poet Mandiargue (whose full name was Pieyre de Mandiargue). It could be Mandrake [the Magician], the strip cartoon artiste, and that would fit in well. If I remember correctly, in these strip cartoons the women are all dressed like vamps in rather suggestive clothing. Berio was very drawn to American culture and language and Cathy loved strip cartoons. This is just a suggestion.

We are left with the ambiguity. I am in no doubt whatsoever that Cathy's staging of this theatre piece and the gown's design [see page 8] were as magical as the work itself. She may not have been allowed by her then spouse to be as vamp-like in her gown à la Madrake (?) as she would have wished, but it certainly was a showstopper nevertheless. Of course, it was Cathy herself whose personality captivated the audience and brought the work to life.

Cathy Berberian's capacity for domestic clowning inspired John Cage to compose 'Aria [1958]', a work of considerable importance in the development of contemporary vocal music in the 1960s. Following this, at the time of the conception of Berio's 'Circles', she dared to introduce an element of fantasy, a certain frivolity, even definite sensuality. Hitherto, the 'Contemporary Music Scene' had been austere and dryly serious. -- Marie Christine Vila [translated by this author with full consent]

Although she had studied costume design, Cathy was deliberately creating her clothes to fit the music and the theatrical effect she would have upon the audience whilst performing it. This transcends 'costume' as a category and enters into the 'happening' as a concept.

Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) coined the term 'Happening' in the late 1950s, and led the movement into the bright lights of popular culture that characterized the 1960s. [...] Kaprow developed techniques to prompt a creative response from the audience, encouraging audience members to make their own connections between ideas and events. -- Boing Boing, a directory of wonderful things -- (Silver Medallist, 'WK-WHSCP Award')

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Copyright © 4 July 2006 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland


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