Harried

Last week, I attended a sort of interview which I have to admit I rather enjoyed.  This was partly down to the very fine (and free!) glass of Portuguese red wine on offer – a Brigando – but mostly down to meeting and interacting with my fellow interviewees.  Whatever the outcome of the process and my uncertain desires related thereto, I am already a winner.

One of the only three formal questions I was asked was “What community(ies) did I belong to?”.  I am always puzzled when people are introduced – generally in the current affairs output of the media – as a representative of a particular community.  I barely (and usually poorly) represent the community of one that is myself, let alone any wider grouping of humanity.  Today’s world seems, so often, to actively work to prevent the formation of communities other than the weird caricatures that find the darkest and most extreme elements of their participants and amplify them, like a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of the psyche. You will never – well, hardly ever – find such attempts to appeal to the baser side of human nature on GofaDM given that it rarely interacts directly with normal human experience at all but merely indulges its author’s rampant egomania.

It struck me that, given that I knew no-one in the city when I moved here a little more than five years ago, the communities to which I belong are those I have met when I left the comparatively safe space of my flat and with the exception of work (which lies on the far side of the Irish Sea) and the general errands of life, these have all been broadly cultural in nature.  My communities are the musical, theatrical and related scenes in the city – plus a decent pub or two (and if a decent pub isn’t culture and worth preserving, I don’t know what is!).

This post will use the title (interpreted very broadly) to draw together two musical offerings from very different vertices of whichever highly irregular polygon (or polyhedron) forms the current envelope of my Aoidean¹ life and which I have had the good fortune to enjoy in the last few days.

Generally, I don’t think of myself as a fan of musical theatre – though, as established above, I am not a good representative of my own views or tastes.  So, it was with a degree of trepidation that I went to see Six on Friday – still, it was very well reviewed and at only 75 minutes long my suffering would be mercifully brief.  My worries were entirely unfounded as it provided some of the best and most entertaining minutes I have ever spent in a theatre.  It was a veritable explosion of light, song, dance and music and some actual history: trying to unearth something of the real woman entombed beneath the ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ rhyme. It was wildly entertaining and was incredibly cleverly constructed: each wife partly fashioned through her voice, dance moves and musical style as well as her story.  And the lyrics, oh the lyrics!  There was some truly glorious use (and abuse) of the English language in their construction: phrases and rhymes I wish I had come up with (or had even the slightest chance of coming up with).  I was struck, watching the action, that old Harry 8 did seem to have something for girls called Kate (as you can see, little hope for me as a lyricist).

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The Standing O was never in real doubt!

It was also a joy to see an all female production, with a live band, and where – at least in this fictional setting – real women were able to show they had a life which was not just as adjunct to their common husband and even allowed them to reclaim some sisterhood.   Given the huge part of our historical education (both formal and otherwise), in the space not consumed by the Nazis, that is taken by the Tudors it is sad how little I knew about any of the six after Anne Boleyn: and I have an interest in history.  So, my evening of fun was even educational!  I wonder if there are wider lessons for the teaching of history: out with David Starkey and in with empowered women singing and dancing their way through the 16th century…

If you thought the previous night out was somewhat tangentially linked to the title, buckle up for my tales of Wednesday night! This had been programmed into my diary the instant I found out about it, as the Out-take Ensemble are one of the best things about living in Southampton (even if several of them now commute from Bristol – and beyond – and one of them seems to have “gone native”).  They have introduced me to whole new and strange wings to the palace of music that I had never previously imagined might exist.  They bear a heavy weight of responsibility for my heading to Leith during this year’s Edinburgh Festival to see something from the proper (adult) festival’s contemporary music strand – the first time in my 15ish years of going to the festival that this has happened.  I had a ball watching and listening to Anna Meredith’s Varmints in the Leith Theatre.  It is always a good night when the composer is on stage dressed in a silver cape (though there could be public health issues were J S Bach were to attempt it: I’ve seen his work re-composed but decomposed might be step too far) and the orchestra joined her in unusual metallically-garbed splendour: such a pleasant change from the usual monochrome formality of an orchestra.  Perhaps the wider classical music world should try it?  I will admit that the rather strong aroma of canine excrement that pervaded the streets of Leith as I waited for my bus home was not what the Proclaimers had led me to expect, but was only a very tiny fly and the vast ocean of ointment that was my evening out.

Wednesday night’s wide range of experimental offerings did not disappoint. The evening started with Carolyn Chen’s Adagio – where the audience do not get to hear any music at all, though the performers can hear excerpt(s) from Bruckner’s 7th.  The emotional heft of this is delivered through the facial expressions of the three players who somehow managed to do this without corpsing (a feat not achieved by many in the audience).  Oh to have been a fly-on-the-wall during rehearsals!  This piece must count as performance art as much as (or more than) music and I highly recommend image-searching the “score” (as I just have).

Appropriately, the second piece was Alex Glyde-BatesTropography which begins as a multi-sensory diptych between spliced-together close-ups of an actress playing Jean d’Arc in a silent movie (and who I feel could have done good work with Adagio) and a virtuoso violin player.  Later the piece becomes a triptych as human non-verbal vocalisations are played in: ranging from a singe baby to a whole crowd, perhaps at a sporting event.  The emotion from Jean, the violin and the vocalisations sometimes came together in synaesthetic harmony and at other times their conflict produced feelings of full or partial disc(h)ord.  I find myself wondering if a third sense could have been brought into play but recognise this would be tricky: perhaps a sequence of timed snacks (there was a large tin of Quality Street available) or a cunningly constructed multi-flavoured gob-stopper?

Ben Oliver’s BmB – I will reveal that the ‘m’ stands for ‘means’ and the two B’s refer to the same neologism, one with which I will not sully this blog (there should remain at least one refuge) – would count as a more conventional piece (but only relatively speaking) scored for the whole ensemble and electronics.  It was written in response to the work of Thomas Tallis and, in particular, his 21 year monopoly on the publishing of polyphonic music in England by Harry 8’s daughter, Liz (1).

Embarrassingly, I have forgotten both the name and composer of the next piece for tuba and electronics.  I recall that it was an unusually long, effectively-solo piece for the tuba and involved a lot of aspiration and some notes of startling depth: certainly any risk of shipping striking the venue were significantly reduced though any passing cetaceans might have been tempted to join the audience.

Harry Matthewsactively listening to me brought out – not for the first time in experimental music I’ve seen – the element of “play” in the word “player”.  While there is a score, the players working/competing in pairs can take the piece in many possible directions.  I’m assuming that no two performances will ever be the same but that each is always a conversation between each instrument pairing.  I love that music can bring this element of play into performance but in such a different way to jazz improvisation.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure who the “winner” was in each pair and we did not get to see the final itself (or perhaps they play both home and away legs?).

As a contrarian, I’ve chosen images where the only Harry is on the score…

The final piece was commissioned by the Ensemble from a female Australian composer (once again the name of both the composer and piece – which was something like fade to hum – is lost beyond ready recall in the grey mush between my ears) and scored for keyboard, electric guitar, rocks – so I guess it counts as rock music – and voice: both humming and, briefly, speaking.  The unfolding of the piece clearly depended on the players’ heart rates at times and at others felt conversational.  I wonder if the spoken word elements – which provided added appeal for both dog-lovers and plumbers – were part of the score or were brought by the players from their own lives.

As always with the Out-take Ensemble, the barrage of ideas for what music can or could be just fills the brain with exciting possibilities and ways to think: while, as it transpires, entirely erasing important details about what was actually performed!  I may need to take notes, in at least one more sense than was the case.  I want to hear/see it all again as I now have a feel for the whole shape of each piece, I will experience the elements and details of each piece differently.  This is the annoying thing about so much new and experimental music: there tend to be few (if any) recordings available to indulge my inner Teletubby, “Again! Again!”.  I have found that YouTube is sometimes our friend (if we have managed to retain a few key facts about the piece) though the small screen of my laptop is not the ideal medium from which to digest such big ideas.

For those of you lucky enough to be in London on Tuesday night, rather than languishing, like the author, in the cultural desert of Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport, there is a chance to catch many of the pieces – and some others – at the Harrison near Kings Cross.  This is going to be a rather intimate space in which to fit the ensemble, their instruments, varied electronica and an audience – so it should be worth going just to see if they can manage it!

Two nights out, less than 48 hours apart, both involving a Harry (one physically present and with, I presume, a less problematic romantic history) showing that even after all the long millenia of human music making there is still new and fun territory to explore: long may it continue!

¹  It is possible that I have invented this word, but it follows all the rules of the language in which I am operating and I’m leaving it in!

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