Pregnancy and motherhood in music from Sheila Hill at Brighton Festival

Sheila Hill and Billy, 1998 pic by Hugo Glendinning
Sheila Hill and Billy, 1998 pic by Hugo Glendinning

After craving music during pregnancy, writer and theatre-maker Sheila Hill embarked on a quest to make a work about motherhood.

20 years on, it will enjoy its premiere at this year’s Brighton Festival on Saturday, May 11 and Sunday, May 12 in Brighton Dome Concert Hall

Sheila’s diaries, from the first seven years of her son’s life, are the starting point for a musical collaboration with Howard Skempton, jazz trumpeter and co-composer Byron Wallen, heading a band of four musicians, soloist Melanie Pappenheim and a 100-strong chorus of women and children trained by Glyndebourne.

From the vulnerabilities of pregnancy, and the shock of birth, through the adjustment to school and society, and on to early autonomy, Eye to Eye explores the elemental story of mother and child, as writer and director Sheila explains.

“It all started when I was pregnant,” Sheila recalls, “and it was a very strange thing. I just had this incredibly-strong craving for music, like people might have a craving for gherkins. It was very weird. Actually, it started when I went for a scan and heard his heart beat. I heard this tiny galloping horse, this incredibly-insistent knocking, and I was very moved by that, as everyone would be.

“And that got me thinking about making a work with a composer about what I was going through. I just felt I had to work with a composer about a piece about motherhood while I was pregnant. As an artist, you are always going to turn what is happening into projects, but this was very music specific. I have never written a libretto in my life. The projects I have done have involved musicians and I have commissioned music.”

Sheila is still at a loss as to how to explain what was going on.

“I have never really looked into it. Maybe one day I will ask a doctor about it. But I made notes if something struck me that I could work with, something that I wanted to remember, and I did it in a rhyming or rhythmic kind of way because I thought I was going to give it to a composer.”

And so it continued throughout her son’s first few years of life. Once he started speaking, she would write down what he said, and so she continued until he went to school.

“I am not interested in cataloguing our whole lives together and turning them into music, but I just thought this would give it shape. I went to talk to a lady called Penelope Leach who was a child psychologist as well as a guru to pregnant women. Her take on women and babies was a very gentle one. Since then there have been horrific doctrinaire-type people that talk about putting your crying baby in a room and shutting the door.

“But she was the opposite. She was very gentle and organic and kind and sensible, and so I wrote to her and met her and said that I had this material that I didn’t know what to do with.”

And it was Penelope who pointed out the significance of her child’s age at that point: “She told me how seven is the first milestone across all cultures. The age when the part of a child’s brain responsible for memory is fully formed, and so she or he can be given serious responsibility.

And that gave me the shape for Eye to Eye: “It is told through my/the adult’s eyes and also the child’s (my son’s words, my edit), drawn from real-time diaries, with these two voices set to music.”

And what does her son, now aged 20, think?

“I think he is slightly mortified and slightly interested and on the whole embarrassed. But it would be incredibly boring if this was about Sheila Hill. The point is that we all have relationships like this. We all have relationships with our mothers. We all either have or had a mother. Some of us have children and are mothers or are now grandmothers. It represents a whole set of relationships.”

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