Despite the example offered by a brave iris, still flowering in a Southampton park despite recent frosts and little hope of finding a pollinator, I continue to feel pathetic and have retreated to the comforting space of my bed. By the way, the brave little iris will have a starring role in a series of uplifting, moral tales for children which I am planning to pen at some, unspecified future date. Very much a hero for our troubled times…
I mentioned feeling pathetic, but it is mostly just tiredness that I am experiencing after too many consecutive nights on the town (or multiple towns) in a row and the depleting effect of sending a pint of my red stuff off to a new home and gorging myself on biscuit-y goodness (may not be good, even as part of a balanced diet) afterwards as a reward. Today’s ‘errands’ complete I feel entirely justified in retreating to a space of comfort to harangue the world with my soi-disant thoughts before venturing forth this evening for musical sustenance (may also include the consumption of cake and liquid bread). While my bed is a very comfortable space, I will admit that it is not optimal for laptop use. Still, I believe there is some theory that the creation of great art often benefits from challenging circumstances – let’s see if the same is true for this old tosh!
Building on my current retreat from the world and its cause, this post will pontificate about the feel of different performance spaces I have visited this week and influences thereon – or at least how the feel was perceived by the author with his rather limited emotional range.
On Tuesday evening, I went to Turner Sims to see Imogen Cooper play the piano. For this concert there is a single piano and stool on the stage and a single performer – though, for the start of the second-half she was joined by a lute player and a counter-tenor for a lovely bit of Dowland. The lute is a beautiful instrument and looks relatively tractable with relatively few, well-spaced frets and what looks like plenty of room to manoeuvre a chap’s large and recalcitrant fingers across the neck – but that is by the bye. With the exception of the high-pitched whine of hearing aids and some of the soundscape of a sanitorium, the audience sits in serious-minded silence and just accepts the music rising up from the stage. As is common, but not always the case, for classical music gigs, the performer did not converse with the audience – except via the music. There is the excitement of live music and some feeling of sharing an experience with others – but the latter is quite limited, unless you bump into a friend in the interval to compare notes (as I did). With the exception of a piece by Adès, the programme did not introduce anything too unexpected (though three pieces were, I think, new to me) so there was no susurrus of emotion responding to a moment of excitement, or an encounter with the unexpected, to bring the audience together in any form of gestalt.
Exactly the same space had a completely different feel last night when I returned to see the folk trio Lau. For the first half, most of the stage was concealed behind black sheets with the musicians clustered together in front of this barrier. They were lit unusually – and significantly from below – and played acoustically to a rather gorgeous central microphone. This create a wonderfully intimate atmosphere – almost like we were sharing a campfire with the band – and their conversation between songs helped to build this feeling of intimacy. It also created some wonderful – and slightly sinister- shadow play in the space. Several times, I felt someone was approaching me from behind and also came to realise the terrifying shadows that an accordion can cast: lit from below the bellows look like teeth. Coupled with the red colouring showing when it opens its “mouth” and its ability to breath heavily and make alarming moaning or screaming sounds, I feel that the acordion has been criminally under-used by the makers of horror films.
The second half was totally different, with the sheets down to reveal the stage filled with the equipment for by far the most impressive light show I have ever seen at Turner Sims (the band had clearly brought the equipment with them!). The band switched to electric instruments and a range of effects pedals and more – including ‘Morag’, a half-alive collection of electronics, switches and what looked like a long stick and some tangled fishing line. This gave a completely different feel to the second half of the gig – but a half still enlivened by historic population stats from the Scottish islands. Despite the huge change, the connection with the audience was maintained and sealed with a sing-a-long to close the show (and a chance for us to practice our Scots dialect!). At this gig, the space felt much more intimate than it had on Tuesday (despite being the same space – though with a somewhat different audience) and there was a much stronger feeling of the audience as a single creature, as well as a collection of individuals. I really enjoyed Imogen Cooper, but Lau really brought the space to life as well as the music and brought the audience together with a much stronger feeling of a shared experience.
On Wednesday night, I attend the second Belfast Guitar Night at the Crescent Arts Centre. This is a flexible performance space, but was arranged in cabaret format, i.e. with tables and chairs. It was also a BYOB gig – not something I’ve been to very often (if at all) and I failed to bring anything beyond myself and a book. The gig was very enjoyable with three different guitar based-acts – a guitar and fiddle duo, an electric guitar accompanying a poet and finally a young Dutch guitarist playing her first gig in the UK (having arrived at 3pm that afternoon and flying out at 6am in the morning, it was a brief visit – but she seemed to enjoy herself). My experience of the Belfast audience is of it being incredibly warm and welcoming. As I had arrived early and was sitting at the front (no surprise there), I hadn’t realised quite how packed the space was until I looked behind me in the interval. It was a quite different feeling of intimacy, almost feeling that the musicians were playing just to me – but while surrounded by dozens of other rapt guitar fans. I was impressed by how large an audience Belfast could field on a freezing, damp midweek night for a headliner which I assume few (if any) could have seen before and such a mixed bill of fare. The gig was clearly put on by people with a love of the music who were doing it to share the love and not for any hope of gain – though based on the success of this gig, there should be more. I found myself wondering if there were lessons to be learned here for the Southampton music scene.
Rushing from the airport after my flight home landed on Thursday night, I caught Tankus the Henge supported by Mad King Ludwig and the Mojo Co at the Talking Heads. Two bands which are all but impossible to pigeonhole (and I shall not try) each led by a theatrical front man made for an excellent combination and a very entertaining – if slightly bonkers – evening. With both bands the audience was expected to be an active participant in the gig and was invaded by the front man at times. I have rarely, if ever, seen the Heads so busy and that many people having fun together created an amazingly dynamic feel at a gig. Much as I like a sit down (I’ve yet to attend a gig where you can lie-down – but could easily be tempted), there is an energy to a standing event which is hard to match. It was also great to be at a cultural event without my inner treasurer worrying about the financial viability of both the event and the venue (never work – even at a voluntary level – in the arts if you want to experience culture anxiety-free again!).
For my final gig of the week, and my second of last night, I headed to the Hobbit to see The Sea Slugs: a band which seems to lose a member each time I see them (is it me? Should I stop going before they disappear entirely?). The Hobbit is built into a cliff – from which the sea has now retreated some distance (whether willingly or not, I couldn’t say) – and music is staged in a sort of cellar space. It is the sort of space which, if you had even the slightest thought you might have wandered into a horror movie, you should on now account enter alone – and probably not even with friends (unless they happen to be a fully armed infantry division). As a result, it has the most transgressive vibe of any of the spaces I visited this week and does chime with my love of culture taking place in a dark, sweaty box which you wouldn’t want to see in the harsh light of day. It doesn’t have the greatest sound or lights, but I am rather fond of the space – there is an essential rightness about it somehow. Last night, I’ll admit that with the door permanently open (I assume it can close, thought I have never seen it in this state) my calves were feeling decidedly chilled by the time the gig came to an end – but, again, I think a modicum of discomfort is an important part of any night out. Too much comfort is the enemy of much (or all) that is good: discuss…
I’m not sure what we can learn from my week, other than that a variety of venues and performances spaces are a good thing and that with the right equipment, staging and interaction you can really change the feel of a space. I suspect the audience is also an important factor – but they are harder to control for confounding factors across such a small number of gigs. Even with a larger sample, I’d probably need to perform some rather intrusive research into the audience’s lives to obtain any solid conclusions… In the absence of this important body of research, I shall just have to ask you to cherish (i.e. visit and enjoy) your spaces and add to their feel – or you may find you’ve lost them and its too late!