White Haired Boy: an opera about Boris Johnson

White Haired Boy

Friday 28th March – performances 5pm, 7pm & 8.30pm, exhibition from 12pm

310 New Cross Rd, SE14 (nearest station New Cross Gate) – FREE ENTRY

One of the many reasons why I’ve been so inactive over the past few months is that my MA programme is reaching its culmination. One of the core constituents of this programme is a group project, with everyone on the course collaborating to create a piece of ‘political art’ of some kind. This year it just so happened to be an opera. Specifically, an opera about Boris Johnson, modelled on the Chinese ‘model operas’ of the Cultural Revolution. That was the brief.

This is, of course, a dream project for me (although that can be a double-edged sword when it also happens to be an assessed project, with a very limited timeframe, co-led by nineteen other people). At any rate, I thought I’d take the opportunity to try out some ideas on music and politics, and appropriated the role of composer/music supervisor early on. The final performance will be pretty crazy: a bricolage of intentions and agendas from a huge range of international backgrounds, taking place in a shopfront down the road from Goldsmiths College; a pop-up performance happening, in the literal sense that the aesthetic of the space and its set recalls a kind of pop-up book. And it’s directly, unashamedly implicated in capital-P Politics, given Johnson’s current shadowy ubiquity as pretender to the Tory leadership. I hope it can also be received as a timely protest action, given the Mayor’s ongoing campaign to bring water cannons onto the streets of London, as well as his involvement locally in the Convoys Wharf development project (more on this below).

White Haired Boy flyer

White Haired Boy is taking place on Friday 28th March; there are free performances at 5pm, 7pm and 8.30pm, and the space/set will be open with an exhibition from 12pm. Do come along, but come early because the venue is small. More info via Facebook…

There are some notes on my ideas, research and inspiration for the opera’s music below. The more I’ve explored the musical links between London and China, neoliberal and conservative ideologies, protest and reaction, the more avenues have opened up. I’m not sure how much of this I’ll be able to jam into the finished product, but it’s certainly given me a lot to think about…

Organic/Synthetic

As propaganda pieces, the Chinese model operas functioned on the basis of the crudest dichotomies between good and evil, friend and enemy, in order to establish unequivocal model characters, driven by behavioural and moral absolutes, whose example of everyday heroism was meant to be followed. Our opera satirises these state-prescribed performances by imagining a model opera for Boris’s model citizen, over-identifying with his supposed mission and agenda, imagining the horizon of his campaign. In the opera, good and evil/friend and foe are seen from the perspective of a heroic Boris, relative to his vision for the city.

I’ve tried to use music to undermine this questionable dichotomy with another, deeper dichotomy, which is manifest materially in all the sounds that are heard. This is the distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘synthetic’ sounds, an absolutely vital distinction for signification in Western music (though possibly far less important in East Asian music). All the music associated with Boris and ‘his’ London – a city which begins in his imagination and gradually imposes itself on the space – is synthesised, sampled or otherwise several steps removed from the moment of material sound production. In contrast, the music associated with the people of London is exaggeratedly raw and unprocessed, emphasising sound production as unmediated material action, with a focus on junk percussion, everyday noise and shouted chants.

Accompanying this dichotomy is the simple, additional distinction of mediated (amplified) vs. unmediated voice, charged with all the political significance that such a division can carry. Boris, of course, has full access to mediatisation, as does the narrator who narrativises his exploits and aspirations. The Londoners have no such access, hence resorting at times to the ‘human microphone’ of the Occupy protests.

Dreams of China

Both Boris’s ‘synthetic’ music and the ‘organic’ music of the Londoners is informed by the Chinese traditional opera forms which informed the model operas of the ’60s. The highly stylised movement, especially in the acrobatic battle scenes, is co-ordinated by a percussion ensemble that includes a range of differently-sized gongs and drums, approximated in my use of percussion. For the vocal writing and characterisation of Boris, I have looked a little at the stock character of the chou or clown, the calculated buffoon whose antics are designed to win the favour of the crowds. The arias I have written for Boris, however, engage with a ‘musical’ China in a much more complicated way.

All the text that Boris sings comes verbatim from real speeches, quotes and articles, a device that clearly presented itself for its direct satirical potency, as much as for the comfortable fit of Boris’s mannered rhetorical style to the ‘epic’ language of opera libretti. Mirroring this, I’ve all the music for Boris’s arias is also borrowed, albeit from a differnt kind of found source – the soundtracks to campaign videos from the Mayor’s YouTube channel, as well as corporate and promotional videos for the architectural and development groups currently transforming London beyond recognition, from Nine Elms to Elephant and Castle, London City Island to Peckham Rye Station.

I am interested in the affective qualities of this music, chosen or composed in order to capture something of the idealised environment and lifestyle presented in these artists’ impressions and architectural mock-ups, peopled as they are with a stock cast of smiling professional couples, young white families and glamorous businesswomen holding Frappuccinos. The reappropriation of corporate video music was the basis of an internet micro-genre a couple of years ago, called ‘vaporwave’, which wafted closest to the mainstream in the work of James Ferraro, Fatima Al Qadiri and (arguably) Oneohtrix Point Never. These artists process and manipulate these radically artificial and banal musical artifacts, in order to bring out aspects of the strange, the sublime and the grotesque. In his primer on the micro-genre, Adam Harper suggests that these artists can be heard as ‘accelerationists’:

Accelerationism is the notion that the dissolution of civilisation wrought by capitalism should not and cannot be resisted, but rather must be pushed faster and farther towards the insanity and anarchically fluid violence that is its ultimate conclusion, either because this is liberating, because it causes a revolution, or because destruction is the only logical answer…

This potentially accelerationist pop fills and creates the spaces in which the business of capitalism is conducted, be it the motivational seminar on innovation or the propaganda of representation, suffusing them with an artificially purposeful aura… This music belongs in the plaza, literal and metaphorical, real and imaginary – the public space that is the nexus of infinite social, cultural and financial transactions and the scene of their greatest activity and spectacle.

Throughout the work of these artists, there are strong connotations of a kind of imagined East Asia, from the ‘dream sushi’ on Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual, to Al Qadiri’s upcoming Asiatisch, via strange detours into the ultradeadpan pastiche of artists like YEN TECH. Such references go beyond synth timbres that connote non-Western instruments, and the use of traditional Asian modes, to chime with a more general association of synthesised, artificial music with East Asian pop culture. This includes karaoke tracks and the garishly-coloured sounds and visuals of K-Pop and J-Pop, but extends to autotune and vocaloids, kitsch synth backing tracks to traditional instrumental recitals, and a general tendency towards pastiche, following models and re-creating sounds and styles as an aesthetic goal.

The imagined East Asia in this music is also implicated in an association with the future of capitalism, hyper-consumerism amongst virtual environments and simulacra, that generally takes on a dystopian dimension, when contrasted with the more individualistic, more organic imaginaries of capitalism which they threaten to replace. It is not just the hyper-reality of the architectural videos, and their attendant soundtracks, which call back to an ‘East Asian’ aesthetic, but the very fact of Asian investors’ critical involvement in these projects throughout London, with the new Crystal Palace development being funded by Chinese billionaire Ni Zhaoxing, Newham’s Royal Wharf a project of Singaporean group Oxley, and the new Battersea Power Station development relying on a Malaysian consortium. Closest to the performance venue itself, Deptford’s forthcoming Convoys Wharf transformation is being financed by Hong Kong company Hutchison Whampoa. After a fraught relationship with the local council, Boris himself muscled in and took control of the planning application, in order to push the plans through, to the horror of local activists.

What I therefore hope to achieve through the high-concept avenue that vaporwave opens up is to produce ‘model arias’ for Boris’s model opera, which are composed entirely from (audiovisual) models for future places and environments, many of them models endorsed by Chinese investors keen to contribute towards the transformation of a future London. This reverses the globalised flow of influence in the music – an imagined Western China becomes an imagined Eastern London – and creates a kind of sonic context for the otherwise curious notion of Boris as a Chinese character: the White Haired Boy.

Classed Vernaculars

The notion of an imagined China extends into my research for the vocal music of the Londoners as well, which is in turn rooted in British/London ‘vernacular’ styles, and rendered ‘organically’ as opposed to the sampled, synthesised music of Boris and his vision. The main reference point is a fleeting sub-genre of grime, referred to as ‘sinogrime’. This was a term for the trend in grime songs to use futuristic synth motifs that evoked Chinese instruments, modes and textures.

Music writer Dan Hancox called this ‘the sound of Shanghai towerblocks and the millennial promise of a new superpower, refracted through the scuffed windows of the Crossways Estate in Bow’. As in the music referred to above, the link with China is forged through the signifiers of a capitalist futurism, in particular the looming, blinking figure of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, in the imaginaries of grime’s innovators, who grew up in East London:

Grime is situated in the future aesthetically, musically – and perhaps embedded in Sinogrime is a sort of intuition about where the future lies, geo-politically. Canary Wharf is the ‘stainless steel obelisk’ honouring 20th century western hyper-capitalism, a totem to Thatcherism that looms over grime’s spiritual epicentre, the Isle of Dogs and Bow. In looking east beyond its 50 stories to China, Sinogrime producers were engaged in socio-political prophecy, taking grime’s aspirational, acquisitional tendencies and sending them east on a journey beyond Britain’s deflating post-industrial bubble.

In the opera, Boris divides the people of London into two crudely-drawn camps, those who are in favour of his vision and those who are against it. Although based on the notion of ‘pleasure’ – the Londoners who are optimistic and happy to embrace all change vs. the Londoners who are pessimists, who want to ruin other people’s fun and whine and moan –  these are a kind of class boundary that Boris draws. The ‘pessimist’ Londoners, or ‘Killjoys’, are represented in the opera by an elision of protest chant and grime: a musical form pioneered by the young, black, working-class demographic who would go on to protest in the student demonstrations of 2010, against the abolition of the EMA, as well as being involved in the riots of 2011, of course.

Sinogrime is the musical flashpoint for the confrontation between Boris and the Killjoys (although another reference has also been Damon Albarn’s opera Monkey: Journey to the West, with its plundered Chinese sounds rendered in a British pop experimentalism leaning heavily towards digital sounds). Elsewhere, I have made reference to another grime track that has become emblematic of dissent, drawing particularly on its ambivalent message and the discrepancies between its self-presentation and its life in the world. This is Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’, the ‘unofficial song of the student protests’, banned from clubs in 2004, played in Parliament Square in 2010. In a performance about the limits of urban space, Hancox’s words on the song resonate clearly:

Grime in its first flush of youth was thrilling because it was claustrophobic, a hectic cacophony of beats and synth stabs, channelling the high-rise tension of the tower blocks, the limited horizons, and possibilities. But just like real claustrophobia, it demands freedom – and space.

If the riots are used as an emblem of the (often literally) black-and-white class divide portrayed in the opera, on the other side from the Killjoys are the ‘real Londoners’, who came to the city’s aid in the ‘broom army’ clean-up operations. Grist to the ideological mill of the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Green Toryism’, the actions of these largely white, middle-class young people were portrayed as those of the ‘real’ moral community of London. In an article entitled ‘Big Society, Little Hope: False Folk Culture in 2011’, Joe Kennedy links the rhetoric surrounding the broom army – ‘a tale of middle-class public-spiritedness which could truly show up the avarice of the lumpenproletariat for what it was’ – with a faux folk culture of ‘organic food, slow cooking, and artisanal thrift’. The musical accompaniment to this culture comes by way of folk acts like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, and Ed Sheeran, blandly signifying an empty localism, thoroughly depoliticised.

All this reaches us now by way of the Olympics opening ceremony and its foundational pair of idyllic Albion and industrial revolution. This is the ideological background for the desperate attempt to return to manufacturing in the UK, Made in Britain labels, an export economy – the ‘organicism’ previously mentioned deeply problematised by the UK’s submergence in the global market and its centuries-long reliance on cheap (or free) labour abroad. The organic/synthetic dichotomy is again broken down in cultural artifacts like the T-Mobile ad, mentioned in Kennedy’s article, in which a folksy flash mob of middle-class musicians spontaneously come together to sell consumer electronics.

Rendering the music for this recently constructed class of urban villager, I’ve tried to work with twee folk arrangements of the Olympics anthem ‘Jerusalem’, with its emphasis on weaponry (broom army) and manufacture (building Jerusalem). In drawing on all these styles, the simple dichotomy between organic and synthetic, East and West, are as problematised as they are in real life, wherein national icon Boris Johnson engineers flows of Chinese finance to build sci-fi colonies of glass and steel, that are nevertheless marketed for their authentic lifestyle potential, as places to socialise, relax and feel alive.

White Haired Boy, Friday 28th March, 5pm, 7pm, 8.30pm – 310 New Cross Rd, SE14

Also: demonstration at final planning hearing for Convoys Wharf development, Monday 31st March, 4pm – City Hall

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This entry was posted in activism, collaboration, composition notes, live art, opera. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to White Haired Boy: an opera about Boris Johnson

  1. Michael Dutton says:

    That was a really interesting, complex and sophisticated blog response to the project given to you. To be honest this was a truly difficult intellectual task you were given as a question. So well done! With the project —from White Haired Girl to White Haired Boy— we were interested in different modes of the political and the translatability of an aesthetic. One performance form, the White Haired Girl, was produced out of an almost textbook Schmittian F/E framing of the political that infected the aesthetic, with the entire State apparatus geared to channeling the flow of affective emotions toward a cathartic political conclusion. The ‘art forms’ of the Cultural Revolution identified as ‘models’ were, in this respect, a miniaturisation and condensation of that political form. Indeed, they were, in effect, the political theory of this moment being put on display and on stage.
    In many respects regimes of market veridiction do the reverse. In the main and for the most part, markets dissipate and channel the flow of affective elements of the political tied to intensity away from such cathartic moments tying them instead via the commodity form.
    So the challenge of this work was to produce something both at an aesthetic and political level that could speak to London. That the crowds were so enthusiastic means that the work you put into this was not wasted. On the contrary, it was very much appreciated. So well done again….. and a fantastic rundown in the blog of the thinking behind your script and music.

  2. Pingback: White Haired Boy | Matt Huxley

  3. Pingback: the biting point in 2014 |

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