The Heartland Festival Room is the place where music and literature mingle in the festival season. In The Afterlife, an 8:45pm session to wrap up the first night of festival goings-on, was a gently rollicking hour of words and melody from an achingly talented group of people.
The basic premise of the session was the reading of stories from Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s collection of beautiful snippets of imagined afterlives – but rather than simply David at the mic the whole time, reading duties were shared with other festival guests: Robert Webb, Neal Stephenson and Courtney Sina Meredith. Between readings, we were treated to the incredible evocative work of Claire Cowan, a member of the Blackbird Ensemble.
To go into the detail of the stories read would ruin part of the joy of absorbing them yourself – but to comment on the nature of the stories, there is beauty, there is sadness, and there is a whole lot of humour. The first story read, the titular Sum, was an especially delightful collection of statistics – the breakdown of how long the average human spends at certain kinds of activities. Personal highlight? ‘77 hours of confusion.’ – sounds about right. That story seemed like the most clear demonstration of Eagleman’s comment during his introductions – ‘I’m a neuroscientist and writer of fiction. Really they’re part of the same thing – just trying to figure out what’s going on around us.’
Through all this – and through all the readings – Claire Cowan sat to one side of the stage, head down and listening, cello unfurling towards the fabric ceiling of the tent. At each cue, she took up her cello and looping pedal (I presume – or other looping device, I was a long way from the stage!) and began weaving the most magical soundscapes as she built clicks upon breath upon layers of different cello melodies and harmonies. It always astonishes me the sound that a solo instrumentalist with looping abilities can produce – each piece was beautiful and complex.
Each reader brought a slightly different cadence to the story they read – Eagleman obviously had the easy familiarity of an author sharing his own work, while Webb brough some comedically trained lightness and Stephenson the slightly somber tone of a novelist of hefty works. Meredith’s poetic inclinations came through in her slightly more lyrical delivery. At the heart of each reading, however, was a real enthusiasm for Eagleman’s work, which was very quickly passed on to those of us in the crowd who weren’t yet familiar with his work.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Published by Random House US
Each of the guests will appear again during the festival: