Recently I spoke with Francesca Simmons, a musician, poet and artist who goes under the name of Madame Česki, and who has created a number of works inspired by the recent Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter at the RWA, Bristol.
Caleb Sivyer: Could you start by telling me something about your background?
Francesca Simmons: So I’m a musician and I play the violin. I trained classically, and studied music at the University of Manchester, and then onto music college in London. Most of my early musical years were spent playing in youth orchestras, but my first violin teacher was pretty maverick. He encouraged my interests in modern music and music from mainland Europe, gypsy music, folk music…we are still in touch – he is now in his late 70s and still an inspiration! Whilst at university I developed an absolute craze for Alan Lomax, and when I moved to London I started to break free from the usual roles a violinist is ‘supposed’ to follow. This was also spurred on by a distinct lack of enjoyment for sitting in a chair, reading dots, and being told how to play a piece of music by someone else, written by someone else, for someone else. So I started doing other stuff – playing in bands, busking and dancing, performance art pieces, this kind of thing. After a few years I ran away to join a circus (Giffords Circus). I was playing in the band for this traditional travelling troupe, based in the Cotswolds. I met many incredible characters during this time.
After this it felt the right time to leave London, as I wanted to add a breadth to my life that I felt was lacking, both artistically and personally. So I moved back home to North Wales, mainly living in a beautiful little town called Llangollen. I participated in a number of interesting projects here, collaborating with sound and visual artists. And it was here I wrote my first album, Palimpsest. I spent many hours walking and being in the mountains around this time. Last year I moved to Bristol, which is where you now find me.
CS: When did you release Palimpsest?
FS: The album came out in January 2016. Since then I’ve been more involved in collaborative projects, such as the Paper Cinema. Our last project was a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey and currently we’re working on a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We’re heading up to Edinburgh in August, playing at the King Dome Pleasance (22-26th August). I am hoping that this Autumn I will finally pull a live Madame Česki show together. It’s been a long time coming!
CS: It seems from what you’ve said already and from your website that many of your interests overlap with some of the dominant themes of Angela Carter’s work: the circus, puppets, the cinema. That’s a happy coincidence!
FS: Yeah, it really is! I remember hearing about the RWA Strange Worlds exhibition back in early autumn last year, and making a mental note to go. For me it was such an extraordinary ‘way in’ to an author – particularly for those who have not read any of Carter’s work. It felt really rare to see that kind of exhibition, with so many visual artists from many different time periods, all brought together under that umbrella. It had a very strong impact on me, perhaps partly because there were so many of these happy coincidences.
“You also arrive at Carter through the back door; you sense what is suggested by the visual works in front of you, but understand that this is only the beginning of the divination. I found the exhibition incredibly, incredibly rich.”
CS: I was surprised when you told me before this interview that you had not encountered Carter’s work until after seeing the Strange Worlds exhibition because your own work resonates so much with hers. Were the two pieces you produced a response just to the exhibition or to Carter’s work as well?
FS: I think probably both. For some reason, I had never encountered Angela Carter within my education or reading world. My literary diet has been mainly filled with Beat poetry, Jack Kerouac, the Brontës…and although I feel embarrassed at not being familiar with her oeuvre before seeing the exhibition, it does have its certain advantages. You’re completely new to all of the themes, the language, and the expression. You also arrive at Carter through the back door; you sense what is suggested by the visual works in front of you, but understand that this is only the beginning of the divination. I found the exhibition incredibly, incredibly rich.
Whilst there I found out about all the spin-off events, such as the writing workshop and the folksong event, and also met Marie Mulvey-Roberts, one of the curators. I decided to sign up for the short writing course almost as soon as I got home.
My poem, ‘Transfigured Day’ was primarily a response to Tessa Farmer’s piece The Forest Assassins. By the time that I started making some of the animations for ‘Fleshly’, I had actually starting reading Angela Carter for the first time – I bought The Magic Toyshop upon leaving the exhibition. I was completely hypnotised by this work. It is suffocating in its ability to draw you in.
CS: That makes sense, given that Carter often writes about controlling men: puppet-masters, powerful figures and men who try to cast a kind of spell over others, often women. Uncle Phillip in The Magic Toyshop or Doctor Hoffman in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
“I was completely hypnotised by [The Magic Toyshop]. It is suffocating in its ability to draw you in.”
FS: Yes. You suffocate as the reader under these characters, just as much as if you are in the novel itself. I guess I relate to this ability to ‘cast a spell’ over an audience….you see it when you perform. It was heightened for me whilst I worked at the circus – it was like a magic, a way of drawing people into an illusion. You have the power to take people where you want, when you want.
CS: Did the Strange Worlds exhibition have that kind of effect on you too?
FS: Yeah, definitely. The range of artists was incredible, and the impact of them combined was intense. There were so many different types of artist, and medium, and so many different time periods, all represented. When I left the exhibition, it played on my mind quite heavily. For example, I had a vivid dream about one of the paintings – Ana Maria Pacheco’s Hades II. In my dream a performer friend was playing cello, then stood up and threw a dove into the air, in an echo of the painting. Upon awaking, I felt utterly bewitched, both in my conscious and subconscious mind.
CS: You said that your poem ‘Transfigured Day’ was inspired by Tessa Farmer’s piece ‘The Forest Assassins’. What was it about Farmer’s piece that inspired you?
FS: I think for me it was partly the three-dimensional aspect of the work – the way that when you moved around the work it changed shape. When you first enter the main gallery you can see it at the end of the room from a distance, so you see it just as dots. But when you get closer and walk around the installation, it begins to change before you. Even your movement disturbs the air, which sways the pieces. It was fascinating to look closely at it, and see the incredible detail of each piece, all the tiny creatures and insect wings. Combining these objects (animal skulls, insect wings, and so on) reminded me of strange things you might envision in a nightmare, things that you know are natural, but when combined in this way, make you feel very uncomfortable. There was something about the space of it too – it felt very alive to me. I found myself thinking about it afterwards, and a series of questions occupied my mind: “What is it doing now? Is it still in the same shape, or has it changed? Do we need to be around it so that it feels more alive?”
CS: Taking photographs of it also presents certain problems. I spent a while thinking about and experimenting with taking photos from various angles and distances. And there were often people in the background too!
FS: Yeah, and I think you might have to view it whilst moving around it rather than from a static position. To me the work as a whole looked like the shape of an eye, and it gave me that sensation you sometimes have when you walk into a room and – you know, somehow, that something or someone else is there, watching you. Even when I wasn’t in front of it or in the same room, I still felt like it was watching me. Even when I left the gallery, I still felt like it was watching me. It was as if the piece created an extra dimension.
I wrote ‘Transfigured Day’ in response to this piece during one of the writing workshops led by Nick Moore.
“To me [Tessa Farmer’s Forest Assassins] as a whole looked like the shape of an eye, and it gave me that sensation you sometimes have when you walk into a room and – you know, somehow, that something or someone else is there, watching you.”
CS: Did you finish the poem during the writing workshops or did you revise it at home afterwards?
FS: The poem almost wrote itself, and I wrote most of it at home, collecting visual notes during the workshops. I wanted to mirror the shape of Farmer’s piece and then I thought about flipping the poem itself so that you would have to read it with a mirror. When you place a mirror next to the poem you complete it, and so make that connection.
CS: The poem is very much about looking and eyes and hallucination. It has a mesmeric quality to it.
FS: That’s good! That’s what I wanted. With the mirror, I didn’t want it to be a gimmick; it had to work. But I think it taps into the idea of the extra dimension that I think Tessa Farmer suggests in the piece. Moving through a portal; viewing things in an alternative way.
CS: The sensation of reading a poem in a mirror is also quite a strange one. It felt like a hallucination to me. The poem is very concerned with the senses.
FS: Yes, I felt that the entire RWA exhibition and not just Farmer’s piece created a sensory overload. When you walk into the gallery, nothing is what it seems. And this quality is present in Carter’s own fictional worlds.
CS: Yes, your poem reminded me of a few of Carter’s works, such as her short-story ‘Reflections’ and her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. I also noticed some lines from Leonard Cohen in your poem…
FS: Yes, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”. These lines come from Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’. There’s also some Emily Brontë in the poem: the phrase “moral teething” comes from Wuthering Heights. I adore those words beyond description! It felt somehow appropriate to doff my literary cap – to involve some of my own literary giants, in a reflection of the many inspiring artists I had encountered at the exhibition.
“I felt that the entire RWA exhibition […] created a sensory overload. When you walk into the gallery, nothing is what it seems. And this quality is present in Carter’s own fictional worlds.”
CS: Can you also talk about your film ‘Fleshly’, which is a very surreal piece? Was it inspired by particular artists or writers?
FS: Well, I find that difficult to answer. I’m sure that I am influenced by many people, but it’s not a very conscious process. I think that part of what I do is influenced by limitations. So, for example, if I’m going to record something, I don’t rely much on technology and I only use instruments that I can play. That makes things quite simple and more personal – the work has a kind of thumbprint of me. ‘Fleshly’ was originally meant to be a vehicle for me to write some new music. But then it didn’t feel quite right without some kind of image. The Strange Worlds exhibition was so full; maybe it was partly that that spurred me on. And Carter’s writing is so vivid in its descriptions. It shares so much with folktales and folksongs, the bold and unsubtle images. So with that in mind, I wasn’t frightened to make something quite crude, just using what I had. I felt it was okay, because it was chiming with where I was at, and with what I was responding to. I mean – if I went to see an exhibition of the Impressionists for example, I would never feel able to respond in such a way.
“Carter’s writing is so vivid in its descriptions. It shares so much with folktales and folksongs, the bold and unsubtle images.”
Instead I used my own objects and images, and the more simple the better. I took photos with my phone and edited on my laptop. Low tech.
CS: You mentioned folksong just now. Did you attend the Angela Carter Folksong event at the RWA?
FS: Yes I did. I loved it! I loved listening to the music in the gallery; it felt really natural to me. It felt that the performers were being very true to what they were doing, and to the spirit of Angela Carter. It was fascinating that many of the performers had known Carter, and shared stories about her.
CS: Where does your name, Madame Česki, come from? How did you choose this name?
FS: Well, my childhood nickname was Chesky. However, when I was working with the circus I mentioned earlier, my French friends would write it differently, for example Ceski. When I received post from friends in France, they would sometimes write Madame Česki. So it stuck.
“I went to the film screening of The Company of Wolves a couple of months ago too, as part of the exhibition. It was so amazing, and so weird! I like how it’s so unashamedly doing what it’s doing. It would be inspiring to see more film adaptations of Carter’s work.”
CS: Do you have any plans to produce more work inspired by Angela Carter?
FS: I’d love to! It would be really great to work with a filmmaker. Whilst I enjoyed making ‘Fleshly’ in a very simple and crude way, it would be brilliant to work alongside someone with far greater skill and insight. I went to the film screening of The Company of Wolves a couple of months ago too, as part of the exhibition. It was so amazing, and so weird! I like how it’s so unashamedly doing what it’s doing. It would be inspiring to see more film adaptations of Carter’s work.
CS: Lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
FS: The Paper Cinema are in our last few days for rehearsals for Macbeth. Super exciting! We will be performing at Edinburgh Festival and then hopefully touring next year. During this Autumn I’m also starting rehearsals for my Madame Česki live show, and have another project with my folk-improv trio Zephon. We have funding to explore the library of EFDSS (English Folk Dance and Song Society). So, watch this space…
CS: Thank you for talking with me Francesca.
Francesca Simmons (Madame Česki) is a musician, poet and artist from North Wales, who has described her music as ‘freak folk chamber music songs’. Her debut album Palimpsest was released in 2016 and is available to buy at Bandcamp or on iTunes. The album features a number of instruments, such as strings, dulcitone, harpsichord and musical saw. Francesca has performed with a number of other musicians, including Gruff Rhys, Collectress, Marques Toliver, Fiona Bevan and Orphans & Vandals. She has also collaborated with Paper Cinema on a number of productions, including an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey and most recently a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. To find out more about her work, check out her official website by clicking here.