My essay ‘In Search of London’s Music Theatre Scenes’ is included as one of four case studies in a new bilingual collection, edited by Matthias Rebstock and ITI Deutschland, entitled Independent Music Theatre in Europe (or Freies Musiktheater in Europa). The book also includes surveys of the new music theatre scenes in Berlin, German-speaking Switzerland and the Netherlands, with a focus on the interactions between structures, processes and aesthetics.
This chapter is the result of nearly three years of research, and various interviews with artists, producers and curators back in 2018. Obviously it’s a very strange time to see a publication like this come out. The picture that I have tried to paint of London’s ‘music theatre’ landscape since the 2000s is already one of constitutive precarity, but given the gravity of the present crisis, even this picture may become unrecognisable within just a few months. Nevertheless, along with the other studies in the book, I hope it stands as a meaningful if not comprehensive snapshot of the varieties of music theatre produced in and by this very particular place and time.
The book is published by transcript Verlag and can be purchased from their website.
I’m trying to publish a bunch of half-finished reviews before summer begins in earnest, so here’s a long-delayed report from a really excellent evening of experimental music back in April at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen: the first VIRTUALLYREALITY event of 2019. Headliner Joe Snape presented his new audio-visual set Joyrobix, as part of a UK tour with the Slip imprint whose co-founders Laurie Tompkins and Suze Whaites provided support. The evening began with a solo set from VIRTUALLYREALITY artistic director Michael Brailey. While there were certain threads that ran through all three performances (the use of video, and the denaturing of the voice and of pop music), what I found particularly compelling about the programme was its progression from one, to two, to three performers, and the ways in which each item reflected the unique qualities of its distribution of forces — solo, duo, trio — as a musical and dramaturgical dynamic.
There could hardly be a more absolute representation of musical ‘solo-ness’ than Michael Brailey’s contribution, presenting a suite of compositions for his own voice, electronic track and projections. Brailey’s electronic constructions provided an environment for his amplified voice to inhabit. His voice is fragile and potentially vulnerable — moving from falsetto to creaking vocalisations and back — but the tracks provide cover, camouflage, a flock of bodiless voices to float alongside, a sonic landscape that is as chaotic and as unpredictable as his vocal phrases. Continue reading
Back in March, I saw Sleepwalk Collective’s Kourtney Kardashian at HOME, Manchester. This was part of an ‘accidental trilogy’ of pieces by the Spanish-British company, named after the Kardashian sisters, with each show employing a particular performance genre to approach themes of art, celebrity and technology. For this final piece in the trilogy, the company turned to opera; in their programme note, they describe Kourtney Kardashian as ‘an opera of sorts’, or more accurately, ‘a show about opera and all the things that make it up, about voices and singing and excess and luxury and beauty and humanity in all its fragile wonder [emphasis in the original]’. As someone who has spent much of the last decade obsessing over many of the same issues, I was probably too perfect an audience member for this show, desiring a level of depth and nuance that it could never totally satisfy. Nevertheless, the performance stimulated a lot of ideas for me, and even its blind spots were instructive.
Early in Kourtney Kardashian, one of the two main performers, iara Solano Arana, promises us that there will be no singing in this ‘opera’, and there isn’t. Neither is there live music, nor a conventional narrative. If this show is an opera, it is one that has been emptied of all content. It feels vacant: opera’s deep social and ritual blueprints evacuated and preserved as empty containers. The performance begins with the ‘conductor’ — Sammy Metcalfe, stage left with laptops — taking a bow and ‘striking up the orchestra’. From this point on, each carefully measured section is filled to turgidity by a steady flow of electronic ambient and drone music, looping phrases circulating through the air, rising and falling in slow waves. It is the opposite of the grand opera score, almost completely without drama, measuring and homogenising time and space as an undifferentiated volume of thick musical packing fluid. Continue reading
Between 17th and 26th January, performance artist/musician Nwando Ebizie presented a series of events in and around her Distorted Constellations exhibition, at Caustic Coastal in Salford. Co-commissioned by Eclipse and HOME (as part of the 2019 Push Festival), the event series ranged from dance and ASMR storytelling, to scientific lectures and an electronic music workshop. I was able to catch the Opening Ceremony on the 17th, as well as Dr Edward Bracey’s talk ‘Are our Brains Broken? Cognitive Bias and the Neurodiverse Spectrum’ and Ebizie’s dance piece 20 Minutes of Action on the 19th. Distorted Constellations was an unruly manifestation of Ebizie’s own dense constellation of interests and obsessions, forcing these to rub against each other, cross-pollinate and generate strange, paradoxical progeny.
The title of Distorted Constellations is among other things a reference to the neurological disorder ‘visual snow’, which causes a person’s vision to be overlaid by a swarm of moving dots like TV static, along with auras, glowing lines and other phenomena. The artist realised she was affected by this disorder in 2014 (presumably having previously assumed this was the way everyone perceived the world). Visual snow is a very new diagnostic concept, still in the process of being established and differentiated from other disorders such as migraine aura. The medical distillation of visual snow as a specific set of perceptual distortions of ‘normal perception’ was thus almost coterminous with Ebizie’s own separation of her ‘augmented reality’ into its generic elements (which are, presumably, shared with the majority of people) and specific ‘augmentations’ (which are, presumably, shared with those other people who identify as having visual snow). Continue reading
Back in December—and for the first time in several years—I was lucky enough to be in London at a time that coincided with the London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF). The festival’s 2018 edition was subtitled ‘Sounds of the Thick Present’ and themed around a cluster of ideas deriving from this concept — a coinage of philosopher Donna Haraway — which included ‘entanglement’, ‘tentacularity’ and ‘composting time’. Cultivated within this rather gelatinous theoretical context, the festival’s programme was as extraordinary as ever, combining modern composition, performance art, video art, electroacoustic and club music, in a series of long but deftly curated evenings, studded with premieres and ‘event’ performances. Remaining staunchly removed from the international festival circuit, LCMF is entirely free of casual ‘filler’: every item on every programme stakes its claim as a necessary component of a unique themed evening-length performance. In December, these included an exploration of the orchestra entitled ‘I contain multitudes’, and a collaboration with experimental dance label The Death of Rave.
I attended three LCMF events, all of which at Ambika P3: ‘Musarc Winter Konsert — See, We Assemble’ (12th Dec), ‘The New Intimacy IV’ (13th Dec) and ‘Structural Faults’ (14th Dec).
LCMF always provides a desperately needed blast of fresh air, and this is not just a result of the uncompromising ambition of the curation. Since its first edition in 2013, the festival has constituted an invaluable store of ideas concerning the presentation of live music: an encyclopaedia of lessons to be learned. Back in 2014, the festival served as an important case study in my book about London’s ‘alternative classical scene’, which focused on taking (new) music out of the concert hall. Like the other organisations discussed in that book — Nonclassical, Multi-Story, Filthy Lucre, etc. — LCMF was founded in a spirit of intense reformism, fuelled by vehement ideas about how to construct a more fertile performance context for contemporary music. This spirit of reformism (alongside a very healthy dose of anti-establishment insolence) still motivates the festival’s artistic team: their orchestral concert coincided with an opinion piece in The Guardian from artistic director Igor Toronyi-Lalic entitled ‘Orchestras — start living more dangerously!’. Continue reading
Posted in chamber, choral, live art, live review, music theatre, theory
Tagged Ambika P3, An assembly, Apartment House, LCMF, London Contemporary Music Festival, Musarc
Some thoughts on Heiner Goebbels’s Everything that happened and would happen, which I saw in Manchester back in October. The piece was co-commissioned by 14–18 NOW and Artangel, as well as New York’s Park Avenue Armory and the Ruhrtriennale, and the performance was co-presented by Artangel and the Manchester International Festival, in the colossal space of the former Mayfield station. The circumstances of the 14–18 NOW commission proved crucial to my experience of the performance, which explored the collective forging of historical narratives. In the run-up to the annual Armistice Day festivities — which has become without doubt the UK’s ‘livest’, most ritually fecund holy day — Goebbels’s piece felt like a soothing intervention and a reminder of Germany’s refreshingly nuanced approach to the discourse of memorialisation.
The erection of monuments is one of the closest things that Western cultures still have to real, old-fashioned magic. A mysterious object is sculpted with a form that is purposefully arcane or sublime, designed to bring the physical and spiritual realms into close proximity and to mediate in communion with the dead. This object is then invested with power through a ritual, often calling upon the spiritual authority of some religious leader. As a result of this, it is loaded with powerful taboos. It becomes immortal/indestructible: even when society sees it as a negative symbol, it still demands preservation. It has the power to cause real and disproportionate harm to those who treat it with anything less than the utmost respect. It commands fanatical devotion and can summon groups of devotees to do its bidding. The power of the monument transcends time itself: it can rewrite the past and shape the future. Monuments remind us of the enduring magical force that ‘iconic’ or ‘auratic’ sculptural forms and ritual performance can still possess, even in our ‘secular’ society. Monuments constitute many of our most sacred sites, giving evidence that our state religion is really a rather rudimentary form of ancestor worship. Continue reading
Clod Ensemble are an interdisciplinary performance company whose recent work has been shaped by a particular interest in human biology and medicine. Their new production, Placebo, appears to follow this trend, both exploring the medical concept of the placebo effect and employing a structuring device that refers to the scientific method of experimentation. However, the show (which I saw recently at the Lowry, Salford) is also an excellent demonstration of how concepts transplanted from other disciplines can soak up new meanings and swell to new dimensions when introduced into a fluid performance environment. In the case of Placebo, the strange dialectic of realness and fakeness at the heart of the eponymous phenomenon threatens to undermine the whole edifice of ‘expressive’ performance.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around… Placebo injects dancing bodies into an ‘experimental design’ intended to demonstrate the placebo effect to the audience: the fact that certain ‘fake’ treatments can nevertheless produce ‘real’ health and wellbeing benefits. Crucially, these benefits rely on the patient believing in the efficacy of the treatment. An unseen voice, abetted by a ‘lead’ dancer onstage, announces a series of experiments involving the various dancers as ‘test subjects’, who are all ‘seeking treatment’ for different ailments. But the audience is also implicated as a subject in these ‘experiments’. Indeed, many of them are presented as ways to explore the effects of certain parameters—music, costume, but particularly contextual information—on the audience’s response to the dancing. One dancer, we’re told, is dancing in a way that brings her ‘real joy’; another is dancing in a way that causes her ‘real pain’. Rather than presenting these statements as facts though, the voice asks us to assess how such statements might affect our response to the resulting dances, if they were to be believed. This self-deconstructing frame ends up destabilising the efficacy of the placebo effect (or its aesthetic analogue) by demonstrating its contingency. Continue reading
Last week I caught 20 Stories High‘s BLACK at Darlington’s Covered Market, presented as part of the Jabberwocky Market festival. A Liverpool-based company that collaborates frequently with ‘young people from excluded communities’, 20 Stories High have referred to some of their previous work as ‘hip hop theatre’ and I was keen to get a sense of how they mix live/sampled music and rap-inflected styles of address/performance into their productions.
To describe the show simply, BLACK is a dramatic monologue delivered by protagonist Nikky (Abby Melia) that gives the audience an insight into a young white woman’s inner journey from hostile prejudice towards her new black, immigrant neighbours, to intense compassion and solidarity in the face of the racism that they experience from her community. As such, it addresses potentially relatable issues that can be addressed in a post-show discussion, in the manner of political, educational theatre.
While it achieved all this with convincing nuance, I was mainly affected by the way that this monologue was nested within a (slightly) larger theatrical frame. Melia shared the stage with Craig Shanda (aka CHUNKY), who was slouched behind an array of decks, effects units and laptop for the majority of the performance in an upstage corner. His constant presence prevented the stage from being completely dominated by Melia and her narrative: from carrying us all away into ‘her’ world of intense psychological realism. Shanda remained quiet and unassuming for the majority of the show, but the monologue was punctuated by interludes (most of them musical) that marked leaps in time, each of them at his initiation. As a result, the stage remained separated according to two quite distinct performance modes or languages. More specifically, it was marked by two different styles of address, since both performers spoke to the audience directly in different ways, while barely acknowledging each other’s presence. Continue reading
Louis d’Heudieres — Laughter Studies 6b (2017)
Rowland Hill — Tha-at’s right (2018)
Charlie Usher — An assembly (2018)
The experimental music group An assembly kicked off their Autumn tour last night at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, with a three-piece programme including two new commissions. I thought I’d use this occasion to start what I hope will be a series of reviews that will allow me to focus on certain parameters of musical liveness and explore particular ways of experiencing live performance, rather than attempt to stake any claim to the position of ‘legitimate’ critic or reviewer.
We all bring our own priorities to any performance environment, in terms of what we’re listening and looking for, what we’re finding or what we find lacking. These priorities become more and more self-justifying and self-perpetuating as they appear to produce sense and/or value from the phenomena being experienced. At the concert yesterday, I was finding disjuncture and discrepancy, patterns of identity and difference, and ambivalent dynamics of simultaneity, synchronicity and recognition.
In Louis d’Heudieres’s Laughter Studies 6b, disjuncture is immediately established between the four young men standing downstage, and the seated instrumentalists behind them. The four men all have beards. They also all wear headphones. The instrumentalists have scores in front of them. Their attention, like ours, is on the standing men who are facing us, but whose attention is in turn focused elsewhere: the invisible soundworld that (we assume) they are tapped into.
One by one, they start describing the sounds that they are hearing. One by one, they begin imitating these sounds. Thus, the initial presented disjuncture is layered with further invisible disjunctures: four different sound channels, four different unseen-unheard worlds drawing the four bearded men out of the room and into the headphones. Continue reading
Apologies for the inactivity here at the biting point this year. I’ve been busy with a few other projects: some pop-related essays on my other blog, The Night Mail, and some IRL music projects. I have, however, been continuing my work on music theatre from last year, by developing a new Tumblr called States of Exception.
I describe this new blog as ‘a travelogue of musical worlds, onscreen and online’. It’s a curated collection of online videos from across the landscape of genres that I have grouped under the banner of ‘music theatre’: musical film and theatre, experimental music, performance art, dance, visual art, musical memes, concert film, music video, etc etc. The title of the site is taken from my essay ‘What is Music Theatre Actually?’ and the collection is intended to complement the theoretical approach that I develop therein.
There’s already a huge archive up there to explore, and I’m currently adding a new video every day. It’s a very subjective project, expanding with my own interests and priorities, but my ultimate aim is to sketch a map of mediatised music theatre that is both surprising and fun.
I’ve also included a ‘Submit’ button, so if you have any suggestions for videos that would enrich the collection, please make a suggestion!