The concert on Tuesday featuring a collaboration between Micachu & The Shapes and the London Sinfonietta felt like an experiment on a number of levels. For one thing, as someone fairly familiar with the Southbank as an institution, I couldn’t help feeling that a lot of thought had been put into the way such an event should be presented. It was, after all, a new music concert, and a fairly avant-garde one at that, but one at which a large attendance of Micachu fans and probable classical newcomers could be expected. I was interested to see how the concert format had been tailored to what apparently felt like an appropriate level of informality, nonchalance and a slightly contrived sense of awkwardness, since clearly many of the players would be used to the ‘normal’, comfortable standardisation of onstage etiquette. Timings for the evening were not quite as strict, neither were latecomers corralled as brutally. Oliver Coates cemented his role as the friendly young face of new music with a seemingly unplanned introductory speech, and the final bow was endearingly chaotic.
And yet, I’m pretty sure that this vague sense of contrivedness need only really have been felt by the kind of audience member (…Me…) who might regularly attend more ‘formally’ presented programmes at the same venue. It’s what must be expected from an institution that still feels the need to bill such ‘special’ concerts as part of ‘adventurous’ experimental festivals and series, rather than integrate them into what might be considered ‘regular’ fare. As I said, it seemed to work – the diverse and ultra-trendy-looking audience seemed at ease – and in particular I have to say that the players’ dress code was absolutely spot on. For the collaborative piece, both chamber group and band wore Micachu’s uniform of DIY-designed baggy T-shirts, and the first half of the concert saw the soloists in a similar outfit – plain white tops (in most cases T-shirts) and black trousers. This is, for me, a contender for ideal concert dress, since surely back when formal/evening wear was standardised, it was for its neutrality rather than anything else. Formal clothes no longer connote neutrality but formality – an unnecessary and distracting connotation – and a return to neutrality could well involve white T-shirts and black trousers, or even jeans. Along with the low, coloured lighting and subtly manipulated live visuals, the stage picture was superb and thoroughly immersive without being particularly complicated or distracting.
The right balance of tone perhaps seemed particularly delicate because the concert organisers (including Mica Levi, we were assured) had chosen to programme the main work as the second of two halves, with the first comprising four short contemporary chamber pieces. For all the lengths to which the institution might have gone to accommodate one of the coolest bands in town, they made a very bold and ultimately laudable decision in presenting the concert in this way. (I was concerned to what extent I’d be able to write about what I assumed would be an event falling slightly on the side of the pop gig, but this arrangement contextualised it very much as a contemporary classical concert, and absolutely made the most of this new audience’s captive presence.)
Laurence Crane Three solo pieces for cello
Edmund Finnis Veneer (for viola and reverb)
Graham Fitkin Jim and Pam, and Pam and Jim (for solo flute)
Laurence Crane Riis (for electronic organ, cello and clarinet)
Micachu & the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta Chopped & Screwed
The first-half pieces were brilliantly chosen; all were quite different and in no way shy of modernity, but none were overly ‘difficult’. The cello and flute pieces were the most tonal – in the first case, a pocket-sized portfolio of super-cute sketches, in the second, a quasi-Ravelian study (check out Fitkin’s fit website). The Finnis had the biggest impression on me, since what might have been a somewhat alienating solo display of strange calls was transformed by the slight blur of the reverb effect into something fascinating. The second Crane piece was also utterly perfect for the location, involving a desperately slow kaleidoscope of overlapping chords exhaled from an organ that seemed to physically fill the room with its thick ambient sound – a good precursor to the trippy, hazy second half. As a short ‘support’ slot, these works all seemed very well received, while the interval before the 50-minute continuous second half, giving the audience a chance to reflect, digest and buy alcohol, seemed a very valuable structural decision.
What might have been the most daring ‘experiment’, and the thing that eventually held the whole event together, was the collaborative work itself. Chopped & Screwed is a set of about ten songs, joined together with through-composed segues and transitions, utilising Micachu and her two multi-instrumentalist Shapes plus a chamber group of flute, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello and two double basses. The ensemble were arranged perfectly democratically in a wide semicircle onstage, and this kind of equal balance between band and orchestra – besides from generating a fantastic sense of ensemble and chemistry – clearly reflected a democratic collaboration process, and a work which is more precisely balanced on the line between pop and classical than any other that I’ve yet encountered.
I bring this up because, on the whole, I’ve tried to resist writing about classically-leaning pop music on this site. The reason for this is that, whilst such ventures are currently flourishing, I’m hesitant to put too much emphasis on the classically-aware creative innovations of pop artists as a source of inspiration. There’s a risk in skewing composers’ engagement with pop music towards the particularly ‘classical’ edge of pop. If classical composers chose only to borrow from pop artists who borrow from classical composers, then the source of inspiration would just get smaller and smaller until each was approximating each other’s approximations of themselves (which might be interesting for a while, but wouldn’t prove too fruitful in the long run). Obviously, there is still an important role for concert-ready pop song cycles in getting people into concert halls, acclimatising them to the format, and maybe even introducing them to other pieces on the bill. Projects that have already proven this include Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest with the LSO, the Dirty Projectors’ The Getty Address with Alarm Will Sound, and the Britten Sinfonia’s performances with These New Puritans and Owen Pallett. In these cases though, classical elements are brought to pop structures and tonal languages, a process which might not always assist composers looking to achieve the reverse.
Chopped & Screwed was quite a different beast. Levi and her collaborators had two particular things going for them which proved to be fundamental to a truly unique new creation, and these were: a willingness to shed all stylistic presumptions and start from a focused point of departure, and a great facility – creative and technical – with the materials at their disposal. The result was totally bewitching; I can try and account for its particular success below…
- Firstly, the inspirational starting point for everything, every gesture whether ‘pop’ or ‘classical’, was very specific. This was the ‘chopped and screwed’ remix techniques behind the music of DJ Screw and the Houston hip hop scene of the ’90s. Critically, this was a departure point outside the soundworlds of both band and orchestra; it wasn’t a question of one appending onto the other, but of combined forces exploring an idea together. The classical ensemble weren’t there to be ‘classical’. Moreover, the ‘chopped and screwed’ style is both specific enough to be explored in a single work, whilst broad enough to allow for engagement on many different levels, and its particularly socio-cultural context meant that it could be mined as both a musical and a topical reference point.
- As topics, DJ Screw’s production techniques and socio-musical milieu were perfectly chosen particularly because the way they work is totally removed from any classical clichés. The overwhelming mood of the piece was one of a heavy, hazy psychedelia. There was a fantastic looseness to each song, woozy and fluctuating in tempo, which is completely alien to classical music, whose tempi – while flexible – are driven by musical impetus, rather than dragged and warped by outside forces. Levi and her group could borrow at a very literal, surface level – creating anaphonic suggestions of physical production processes such as rewinding, scratching, skipping and sampling tracks of varying quality – whilst also simultaneously recreating more general moods and ideas. In particular, the fact that classical music has no apparent drug culture means that the kind of psychotropic manipulations commonly expressed in pop and dance music sound wonderfully original when explored with chamber instruments, and call for a fine array of inventive techniques and textures.
- At heart, the piece is actually only a few steps away from Micachu’s ‘home’ style, especially on her mixtapes, whose structures can be seen as clearly analogous to this through-composed work. A further systematic evasion of clichés can be seen in her decision to design home-made instruments, rather than risk falling into the kind of lazy patterns suggested by familiarity. Her crank-powered ‘choppers’ were invaluable to the feel and substance of the work, producing a sound perfectly located between the musical language of avant-garde string plucking and ragged, lo-fi post-punk. What’s more, the sense of metre produced by the turning of rotating pegs across the strings of these zither-like instruments – with its constant smooth flux – intensified the anti-classical blurriness of the piece as a whole.
- The topic was ideal for a project of this nature, and yet its success relied equally on the group’s access to a large vocabulary of sounds and techniques, a result perhaps of the work’s collaborative gestation, as well as Levi’s own institutional composition background at the Guildhall. Extended techniques and live sound manipulation weren’t just ornamental additions here; in many cases they were the very fabric of the textures that accompanied each song. Micachu’s vocal melodies, meanwhile, have always had a boldness to them, along with a chromatic edge, which allows them to traverse quite dissonant accompaniments and still feel connected and integrated.
- What was most striking for me was that there were quite a few sections I could unabashedly describe as genuinely beautiful, and I don’t use that word often, especially in classical concerts. This is important, because in most of the cases in which classical music looks to pop for inspiration – in ‘totalist’ music for example – composers tend to rely on pop topics that are energetic, catchy and hyper-melodic, or otherwise aggressive and gritty. Quite rightly, beauty isn’t particularly important in such instances. Yet in Chopped & Screwed, both perkiness and aggressiveness are pretty much totally absent – even the more upbeat moments are hardly pumpin’. The piece demonstrates that there are far more moods and tones in pop than are currently being explored by composers, and that taking influence from pop music doesn’t necessarily have to mean using a regular beat, hyper-consonant harmonies or an electric guitar. It also suggests that an engagement with pop music can actually generate beauty, not just the kind of ‘post-classical’ twinkly-piano prettiness to which a lot of similarly-minded composers resort, and most of all, this can be accessed through dissonance.
It might seem that Micachu & the Shapes were the perfect band for such a collaboration, but I would argue that such a project could be just as successful for a multitude of artists, considering all the potential subjects available for inspiration. The only provisions are that a) the goal is to create something focused and specific, not ‘arty’ or ‘orchestral’ for its own sake, and b) a drive towards innovation is combined with a creative and technical facility with the materials available, including extended instrumental techniques and the possibilities of dissonance.
Watch a fantastic video about Chopped & Screwed‘s collaboration process and first performance last year at King’s Place HERE
The recording is out now! Buy it ——————–> HERE