Variations on a Theme of Agatha Christie by John Kefala Kerr


Variations on a Theme of Agatha Christie is a new sound installation specially commissioned to accompany the ‘Investigating Detectives’ exhibition at The Word. Created by composer, sound artist and writer John Kefala Kerr, the installation invites visitors to listen to sounds and music that draw their inspiration from detective fiction.

“Depictions of sound and music in crime novels create atmosphere, suspense and a sense of place,” says John. “Sometimes they even provide plot-critical clues for literary detectives—as when a piano is used to hide a murder weapon or a ukulele string is used to kill someone.”

As well as working with a varied palette of sounds, John has also taken inspiration from a musical composition that Agatha Christie herself wrote in 1913.

“It is not generally known,” John explains, “that in her youth Agatha Christie composed music. For the installation, I’ve composed music inspired by one of Agatha Christie’s own piano waltzes. The music will be performed on a priceless violin which was itself the subject of a sleuthing exercise, having hit the headlines a few months ago when it was stolen from a London train.”

With a prominent role given to the (recovered) violin, John’s musical score includes a dramatic passage for virtual orchestra which embeds some of the conventional sounds of contemporary and hardboiled detective fiction—a Rebus cityscape, a Poirot railway carriage, the striking of a Marlowe matchstick.

To create his Variations, John enlisted the help of the ukulele ensemble and choir that meet at The Word and lead workshops with youngsters from local primary schools.

With its varied palette of vocal, acoustic and digital instruments and sound effects, John’s installation provides a rich, thought-provoking and subtly ambient complement to the Investigating Detectives exhibition.

We also have an online version where you can experience the sounds digitally.


John Kefala Kerr is a composer, sound artist and writer. A prize-winning graduate of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the University of Sussex, John has had work presented at festivals and venues in the UK, USA, Europe and Japan, including the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York; Wigmore Hall; St John’s Smith Square; South Bank Centre, London; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art; Select 107 FM; Teatro Rossini, Pesaro; Atelier St Ann, Brussels and De Singel, Antwerp.

John’s output includes instrumental, vocal, and multimedia works. These are often conceived in close proximity to everyday events, situations and circumstances. His cycle of four site-specific performances, Beyond Belief, was commissioned in the wake of the Cumbrian foot and mouth crisis and featured a cast of over 100 professional and non-professional performers and sound-makers: including singers, magicians, piano tuners and gardeners.

John is a past recipient of the Dio Award, the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust Contemporary Music Prize and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Composer’s Prize. In 2003 he received the UK Arts Council Encore Award, and in 2006 his work for orchestra and mixed chorus, Panagia, won the gold medal in the symphony orchestra category of the Volos International Composition Competition.

John’s recent work includes Eight Bells, an elegy for violin and soundtrack developed in collaboration with marine scientists at the Dove Marine Laboratory and a ‘sound opera’ (A Sign in Space) commissioned by Durham Cathedral, which received a Journal Culture Award in 2012. His debut novel, Thimio’s House, was published by Perfect Edge Books in December 2013. John’s site-specific sound installation (Book of Bells) was specially developed for the Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition in 2013 and his multimedia opera, Steamsong, for the National Railway Museum, was a double finalist in the Journal Culture Awards in 2014. John’s reworking of Blow the Wind Southerly (2013) for 6 choirs, commissioned by Festival of the North, includes a setting of the Met Office shipping forecast.

John recently completed a year as Composer-in-Residence in Newcastle’s historic Grainger Market.

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