"Nothing will come of nothing."
So says King Lear in Shakespeare's weighty masterpiece of the same name. Little does he know that out of that one word "nothing" will come a whole string of tragic events ultimately leading to the demise of himself, his family, and his kingdom. "Nothing" would seem to be something, after all.
Samantha Shay certainly thinks so. Her abstract audio piece Low Skies Divine emphasizes over and over again that word "nothing" as it interweaves passages from King Lear with personal memories and emotions, set to a mesmerizing score by composer Áslaug Magnúsdóttir. The piece is adapted from Monument (or, King Lear), presented by Source Material in 2019 at Bootleg Theatre in LA and HERE Arts Center in NYC.
The exchange between Lear and his daughter Cordelia, from which the above quotation comes, is quoted early on in Low Skies Divine. When asked what she has to say, Cordelia replies "nothing." Yet out of that nothing comes the entire piece: a storm of sounds, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions filtered through the text of King Lear.
As the speaker of the piece tells us, "time is vertical," with the "future as heavy as the past." Low Skies Divine feels a lot like a ball of time unraveled, twisted in new ways, then scrunched back together. In the process, it unravels the speaker and perhaps the listener as well, exposing intimate doubts, misgivings, plans gone awry, and searching questions. At one point, the speaker seems to get stuck on "I"--possibly asking what "I" really means, who it refers to, and who it encompasses--an appropriate question in light of Lear's: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" At one point, Shay cleverly pairs Cordelia's "nothing" with the hunted Edgar's "Edgar I nothing am," and ends up with "I nothing am."
We're also treated to Shakespeare's Sonnet 65, a meditation on mortality and the power of verse to grant a kind of immortality: "Where, alack, shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?" This is juxtaposed beautifully with Lear's lament over the dead Cordelia: "Oh, thou'lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never." And again, we have "nothing" paired with that "never."
Shay's lovely readings make Low Skies Divine a pleasurable listening experience, while her warm, at times emotionally brimming voice make it intimate. It feels like she's whispering into our ears. In fact, for the best listening experience, I'd recommend using headphones. Otherwise, you may miss the alternating speaker effects of the "storm," and the journey may not feel quite as up-close and personal.
'Low Skies Divine,' an abstract sound-based performance piece inspired by William Shakespeare’s 'King Lear,' created by director Samantha Shay and composer Áslaug Magnúsdóttir and presented by Source Material, runs April 23 to May 9 on Zoom. See below for more info: