Preview: The Breath Festival

November 1st, 1714: Dr John Radcliffe, whose donations funded the construction of Oxford’s first hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary, takes his final breath. Fast-forward three hundred years to Saturday November 1st, 2014: to commemorate Radcliffe’s death and to celebrate his life’s work, museums and organisations across Oxford are participating in the Breath Festival, an interdisciplinary exploration of the role that breathing plays in both the arts and medical science. The Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the History of Science will be home to all manner of talks, tours, performances and displays; while this article discusses only some of the festival’s main events, the museums’ website will give a more detailed overview of the events and activities on offer.

The first major event of the day is a series of short talks from 1.30 to 2.30pm in the Lecture Theatre of the Pitt Rivers Museum, during which artists and academics will give various presentations on the broad subject of breath. From 2.45-4pm, in the Lecture Theatre of the Museum of Natural History, two complementary events will demonstrate the close relationship between breathing and therapy. Professional vocalists (and many instrumentalists) are expected to master their breath control in order to optimise their music-making, but rarely is the importance of the reverse realised: music-making can itself aid breath control. Liz Hodgson, who runs the Sound Resource project Singing for Better Breathing, takes this idea as a starting point, encouraging individuals with respiratory problems to sing. At 2.45pm in the Museum of Natural History, she will be welcoming members of the public to join in with some of the activities practised by her Oxford choir, which will perform in BREATHe later in the evening (see below). Following Liz, at 3pm, music therapist Bob Heath and Lucinda Jarrett, co-director of Rossetta Life, will each be presenting on their practices and discussing their importance.

A half-an-hour excerpt from multimedia project Pneûma will be given in the Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall at 4.15pm. A collaboration between visual artist David Ward, musician Sylvia Hallett and movement artist Miranda Tufnell, the performance interacts with both the physical space of the museum and its displays, creating a dialogue with the museum’s mammal skeletons. Its title, from the Greek meaning ‘wind’, ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’, reflects the performance’s exploration of the giving and taking of breath, of life and death. Throughout the day there will also be self-guided tours in both the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers, with suggested routes through some of the museums’ vast selection of artefacts. Guides will be available at the Museum of Natural History information desk, and the tours are free to the public, as are all of the aforementioned events.

In the evening there will be two performances of Orlando Gough’s composition BREATHe (at the North Wall; 6.30pm and 9pm; tickets £14 full price, £10 concessions), developed by artlink in conjunction with Oxford Contemporary Music and Singing for Better Breathing. A result of research conducted with John Stradling, Emeritus Professor at the Churchill Hospital, Gough’s composition is a reflection on breath and the human life cycle. A trio of female vocalists – Rebecca Askew, Anna Dennis and Melanie Pappenheim – ruminate on birth, death, sleep, exercise, sex, disease and community. They are joined by Liz Hodgson’s Oxford-based choir, who depict scenes ranging from a drunken fiftieth birthday party to a woman receiving visitors on her deathbed. As thought-provoking as it is playful, BREATHe is sure to be a suitably breath-taking close to the festival.

J. Wadsworth

To book tickets for Orlando Gough’s BREATHe at the North Wall, please visit More information, including recordings of BREATHe rehearsals, are also available from the OCM website.

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