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Four days of talks, music, performance and poetry that gently lifts the lid on the subject of death

Friday 27 – Monday 30 January 2012, Southbank Centre

•    BBC Concert Orchestra’s 'Music to Die For' with performances of works by Mahler, Tavener and Barber
•    'The Sandi Toksvig Memorial Lecture' – delivered by Sandi Toksvig
•    Jon Snow chairs panel discussion about assisted dying with guests including Baroness Kennedy QC
•    Petra Jean Phillipson performs songs from her spectral new album 'Notes on Death'
•    'An Instinct for Kindness' – Chris Larner’s powerful play about his wife’s journey to Dignitas
•    'Goodbye Mr. Muffin' – a heart-warming children’s play of the last days of a much loved guinea pig
•    'Angels or My Way?' − Paul Gambaccini spins nation’s favourite funeral music in 'Desert Island Death Discs'
•    A free exhibition of bespoke coffins from Ghana and the UK
•    Talks and debates on subjects inlcuding children’s understanding of death; suicide; and a tour of global death rituals from dancing with the dead in Madagascar to Tibetan sky burials
•    Death ‘Bites’ exploring the art of obituary writing; what happens to our digital data when we die; rock star deaths at 27 with Paul Morley and the political life of dead bodies from Jesus Christ to Gaddafi
•    'Funeral pyre or green burial?' − practical advice from Dead Good Guides and Natural Death Centre
•    'Song of Summer' − Ken Russell’s documentary on the final years of Delius’ life

“There is much about our common humanity that we acknowledge, share and celebrate, so why are we so reluctant to face up to the very thing that, in the end, unites us all? In the way that a fitting memorial can be revelatory, or the presence of humour in a well-observed wake can lighten the load, we hope that our new festival can begin to allow some light onto a subject too often consigned to the shadows.” Jude Kelly, Artistic Director, Southbank Centre

For four days in late January (27 – 30 January 2012) Southbank Centre confronts questions of mortality head-on with a series of free and ticketed talks, concerts, performances and installations. Respectful and irreverent in equal measure – and assisted by an array of philosophers, artists, scientists, undertakers, medical practitioners, psychiatrists, theologians, anthropologists and broadcasters – Death: Southbank Centre’s Festival for the Living will attempt to air our different approaches and attitudes to death.  

Talking about Death

The festival breaks the ultimate taboo to encourage a weekend of talking about death with a fascinating array of talks, debates and workshops. In a daily series of 15-minute ‘Death Bites’  topics aired by acknowledged experts include a short history of London’s cemeteries with Funeral Services Journal editor Brian Parsons; ‘Digital Death’ an investigation into what happens to your data when you die led by PhD student Stacey Pitsillides; writer Tom Bullamore on the art of obituary writing; an investigation into cryonics; Paul Morley on the strange phenomenon of rock star deaths at 27, and the political afterlife of dead bodies, from Jesus Christ to Gaddafi.

The Natural Death Centre, founded to inform and empower the public in all death-related issues, runs salons throughout the weekend on subjects as diverse as funeral pyres and the advantages of a green burial. In Everything You Wanted to Know About Funerals But Were Too Afraid to Ask (Front Room, 28 January) representatives from Dead Good Guides advise on how best to arrange a funeral. Around the World in 20 Death Rituals (Saturday 28) offers a global snapshot of funeral rites – from Tibetan sky burials to dancing with the dead rituals in Madagascar − with a panel of anthropologists, writers and funeral leaders. Also on Saturday 28, broadcaster Jon Snow chairs Assisted Dying – The Human Rights Issue on one of the most controversial issues in the UK today. In Survival – The Close Call, a bomb disposal expert reveals what it’s like to dice with death daily and those who escaped from the Marchioness disaster explain the guilt and joy of survival.

The Art of Dying

Boxed: Fabulous Coffins from Ghana and the UK (19 – 29 January) will see a vibrant collection of bespoke coffins in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall from the famous Pa Joe workshop in Ghana and Crazy Coffins in Nottingham. With a coffin suspended within a kite or shaped as a giant cocoa bean and a Mercedes-shaped urn, this exhibition reveals the growing number of individuals who are choosing to shun convention and celebrate their life and death in the form of a uniquely designed coffin.  
Between 16 and 29 January, a giant chalkboard will be installed in the foyer spaces of the Royal Festival Hall encouraging anyone to share their life-long dreams and pledges in a participatory piece by artist Candy Chang entitled Before I die...  

Music to Die For

Music and death have always ridden hand in hand. Music as memorium. Music as balm. Music as an intrinsic part of ritual. Alongside performances of extracts from the ancient Latin Requiem Mass and requiems by Faure, Verdi, Mozart and the notoriously death-obsessed Mahler, Music to Die For sees performances by the BBC Concert Orchestra of John Tavener’s Song For Athene which touched millions when it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, Barber’s Adagio which lent a powerful intensity to the memorial service for President Kennedy and Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre.  On Sunday 29 Ken Russell introduces his documentary Songs of Summer, which offers an insight into the final years of Delius’ life. This is followed by a round table discussion with guests including Julian Lloyd Webber.

Opening the Festival on Friday with a free lunchtime performance by the Elysian Singers will perform a range of pieces including music by contemporary composers John Tavener and James MacMillan in Choral in Memoriam. That evening another free performance in the Front Room will see New Orleans  trumpeter and vocalist Abram Wilson and his quartet debut original music inspired by the life of the Harlem-born, classical music prodigy, Philippa Schyulye, who died tragically young in 1967.  Elsewhere in the Festival Petra Jean Phillipson performs songs from her much anticipated second album Notes on Death (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 30), and folk-noir band from the Isle of Skye Dead Man’s Waltz perform in the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 29 January.

On Friday evening in The Clore Ballroom Paul Gambaccini will have traditionalists spinning in their graves as he plays the nation’s favourite funeral tunes with Desert Island Death Discs. With live guests and recorded music − ranging from AC:DC’s Highway to Hell to Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life − Paul Gambaccini hosts an entertaining evening that reveals the moving and sometimes bizarre accompaniments to our final moments.

The Final Performance

Writer and performer Chris Larner tells the emotionally wrenching story of his ex-wife and MS sufferer Allyson’s assisted suicide, her journey to Dignitas and the very last moments of her life in the bold play An Instinct for Kindness.  The award-winning Goodbye Mr Muffin (Friday and Saturday, Blue Room) gently introduces the idea of death to children aged six and over through the charming and uplifting story about the last days of a much-loved guinea pig. On Sunday 29 in The Clore Ballroom the Feral Theatre Company commemorates an extinct species in Remembering the Javanese Tiger, a free performance that mixes puppetry and gamelan music to powerful effect.  

On Saturday 28 January The Sandi Toksvig Memorial Lecture will be delivered in the Queen Elizabeth Hall by comedienne, writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig. In an evening of comedy, solemnity and musical interludes Sandi Toksvig puts the life back into death with an evening that mixes merriment and the macabre. On Sunday evening in the St Paul’s Pavilion in the Royal Festival Hall comedian Markus Birdman laughs in the face of suffering a stroke at the age of 40 in a Stroke of Luck.

Finding the Words

Poetry is the artform many are often drawn to in times of grief and specifically at funerals. On Saturday 28 Poet Simon Barraclough leads a workshop on writing poetry in response to grief. Following a three- hour session, which explores ways of expressing what is often described as an ‘unspeakable’ sense of loss, there will be a reading of poems written during the workshop as well as favourite poems on death from the Saison Poetry Library Collection. On Saturday and Sunday staff of The Saison Poetry Library will be available to help people find poems addressing specific feelings of loss from the unrivalled collection of 20th and 21st Century poetry.  Throughout the three days the UK’s finest “poetry chefs” will be on hand to write made-to-order poems on the subject of death from the Poetry Takeaway kiosk.

Notes to Editors
Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, occupying a 21-acre site that sits in the midst of London’s most vibrant cultural quarter on the South Bank of the Thames. The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain.  Southbank Centre is home to the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery as well as The Saison Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection.

Death: The Southbank Centre's Festival for the Living (27-30th Jan 2012)

Death Festival 2012
09 November 2011

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