• Iain Bell
  • Comfort Starving (2021)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • T; pf
  • T
  • 28 min
  • Iain Bell

Programme Note

Following the 2020 premiere of my piece The Man With Night Sweats, I immediately wanted to experiment further with the form; namely that blurry space where a song-cycle ends and a monodrama begins. Wishing to deepen my exploration of LGBTQ+ themes, I chose to shine a light on eating disorders within the gay community. Having had experience of this as a teenager, I decided to pen the libretto myself; something I hadn’t done since my 2005 song cycle Daughters of Britannia. As such, it is something of a confessional, but all references to the character within these programme notes will not be made to me, but rather to the character/protagonist/tenor etc.

I purposely chose to focus throughout on physical and psychological sensations and symptoms as a reminder of the ‘internal’ turmoil of what can appear an ‘external’ condition. As such, the work starts with both the pianist and tenor evoking a loud, stuttering heartbeat, with its quickening thud. In this movement, the first of the primal, animalistic references to the pain afflicting the body are made; the gnawing, clawing, howling, moaning etc., matched by percussive clusters struck on the piano at scattered octaves, with frenzied leaps in the left hand. This movement reaches its climax as the abdominal cramps reach their most seething, before the singer falls dizzily into his victorious yet starved stupor. 

During this stupor, the torments of his eight-year-old self are recalled; bullies on the playground victimising his effeminacy, taunting him about a world of which he has no knowledge, weaponising his perceived eight-year-old sexuality and ostracising him such that his only friend, shelter and defence is the dinner-lady during her lunchtime patrol. The movement is strophic, part-lullaby/part-nursery-rhyme, with each iteration darkening in tone and harmonic complexity as the gravity of the child’s abuse is made clearer.  

In a moment of similar intimacy, the performer stands before a mirror, this time - still, appraising himself. In this instance, the needling neuroses are replaced by a hunger-induced exhaustion, ushered in by the comparatively slow tempo at the start and the spareness of the pianistic texture. The uneasiness of the harmony is a reflection of the deathly imagery with which he paints his own body; the lyricism of the vocal lines belying the ugliness these very images.

As the anger for his state-of-being is turned upon those who have mocked him throughout his life, we learn that his intense need to control his body is borne out of a defiance of those who have hurt him. The inverted pedal in the piano’s right hand is reminiscent of a bell chime, signalling the intensity and even sanctity of this twisted credo. There is a return to the melismatic vocal language perviously heard, once again highlighting the altered emotional state of the character, set against menacing arpeggiated waves in the piano’s left hand.

In the final movement, the protagonist recalls the death of a friend of the family, Adam, from anorexia. Adam had foreseen his last few living-days in a dream - not long before his final admittance into hospital. This movement tracks the parallels between that dream and the reality of Adam’s final days, hospitalised, with his mother by his side. Remembering this with heart-breaking anguish, the protagonist, no longer bolstered by a defiant inner-calling to starve, calls upon the late-Adam to help him. The piano part again echoes the coloristic demands of the vocal line, from representing the beep of life support machine, to the gentle, sustained chords of the opening strophe, to passages spanning the instrument’s entire range as the movement, and piece, reaches its climax at Adam’s death. After which, the protagonist and piano part are at their most vulnerable.

Fast-forwarding six years, the protagonist remembers his moment of perepiteia - when everything changed forever. A casual comment about his weight made by a well-meaning school friend on a coach on the way to an amusement park causes him to re-appraise his entire relationship with his body, and its possible link to the homophobic jeers to which he had grown accustomed. The turmoil of his inner thoughts is juxtaposed with a piano part as giddy as the rides at the park with its streams of parallel sevenths.

The following movement expands upon the ideas of obsession and compulsion, immediately portrayed in the needling nature of the opening piano motif. An audience to the private ritual of his weekly bathroom weigh-in, this circular piano figuration also evokes the turning of the key in the lock, the water of the running taps and the manic springing of the scales. The obsessive textual neuroses (ie. the hyper-real descriptions of the toffee penny and the bodily sensations it elicits) are vocally portrayed by the melismatic virtuosity of the vocal line; the coloratura reflecting his altered state of being. 

– Iain Bell