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!’.
Recently, I’ve found myself returning to the festival as a case study in another writing project, looking again at its reforms and innovations with a focus on the intersections between live music performance and performance art, and the possibility of viewing an event like LCMF as music theatre. ‘Music theatre’ is not a term that the festival’s artistic team would identify with. The festival has managed to straddle the boundaries of the classical music, pop music and fine art worlds with reasonable success, yet its programming has for the most part eschewed work that would willingly call itself ‘music theatre’. While ‘opera’ has featured significantly in previous editions, this has been part of a rather brazen attempt to rehabilitate this term to the exclusion of many of the supposedly integral (literary) components of ‘theatre’, such as narrative, characterisation, drama, etc. Similarly, while performance art by ‘non-musicians’ has become so integral to the programming as to suggest a deliberate provocation (within the context of a ‘music festival’), such work generally cleaves closely to visual art traditions, rather than to the experimental theatre traditions that inform a lot of British live art. Nevertheless, my experience of LCMF 2018 only strengthened my belief that theatricality is an indelible component of live music performance, and that the introduction of music into performance art (and performance art into musical performance) will always involve some surplus of theatricality as a by-product. As I see it, investing in this theatricality, rather than denying it, is probably the most important strategy for maximising the potential longevity and appeal (or ‘accessibility’) of live music.
Toronyi-Lalic acknowledges this in his article, I think, when he singles out two dubious ‘access’ tactics that are ubiquitous to the playbooks of establishment ensembles desperate to pull in new audiences:
Last month, one orchestra claimed to have revolutionised the concert format by introducing talking from the podium. Music too, it seems, has fake news. It seems to me a perfect example of the kind of straw man set up by marketing departments, whose vanquishing can be used to claim an orchestra is being groundbreaking.
It’s an attitude that is based on the presumption that the audience is dumb. If orchestras believed that audiences were normal, curious human beings, like you and me, they would not spoon-feed them or talk down to them. They would not think that music constantly needs propping up with screensaver films and light shows. They would also realise that there is nothing more deadening than explaining the intrinsically non-verbal in gobbets of stumbled speech.
The argument is framed here in the familiar terms of ‘dumbing down’: of being afraid to present the music plainly, ‘as it comes’. It’s a slightly precarious approach to take, as it could easily be turned back on an organisation like LCMF, depending on the arguer’s conception of what is and isn’t intrinsic to ‘music’. Instead, I would suggest that both these tactics risk stifling the intrinsic theatre of the orchestral concert, which must be re-proposed and re-justified with each performance in each new context.
There is never anything normal, generic or conventional about an orchestra: it is always a particular group of particular individuals in a particular room, performing a particular sequence of actions in a constantly shifting relationship to each other, which produce and respond to other shifting phenomena, both visible and invisible. All of this is ignored in the textbook pre-performance speech, which places the subsequent performance firmly within quotation marks, as an example of something else: a single instance of a realisation of a ‘work’ (which is itself an approximation of an idea that once existed in a dead man’s head). The performance of such speech acts usually presumes a meta-position, outside of the ‘world’ of the orchestral action, thus attempting to separate the shared space-time of the speech and that of the ‘music’.
This isn’t just a problem because it risks disrupting the integrity of the performance; as a venture, it is almost always fundamentally doomed. The conductor is a key protagonist of the orchestral theatre. If it is the conductor speaking beforehand from the podium, they cannot presume that the audience will separate this speaking ‘character’ from their conducting ‘character’ within the musical performance. Nevertheless, the speech will often explicitly contradict such a through-line of character. Usually, the conductor will play some version of a ‘composer’ (‘initiator’, ‘creator’, ‘despot’) within the theatrical logic of the orchestral performance. However, pre-performance speeches will often dwell on the vision and agency of the ‘actual’ (absent) composer with exaggerated deference. This sets up a peculiar dynamic of disavowal or deceit in the character of the conductor over the course of the concert, which might sometimes be interesting but is probably never intended and thus never consciously utilised. As such, it functions as an anti-theatrical intervention: an accidental Brechtian alienation effect. (Of course, the situation might be different if the conductor is also the composer and addresses the audience as such. This is more akin to the role of stage patter in the theatre of pop music performance.)
There are similar risks with the superimposition of projection and lighting elements, which attempt to re-introduce ‘theatre’ into a concert without necessarily considering the theatrical aspects that already exist therein. The implicit idea that the simultaneous projection of a video and live performance of an orchestral score could somehow add up to an audio-visual ‘intermedia’ dyad — like a film, but with the presence of the ensemble adding a frisson of liveness — has always seemed bizarre to me. I’m always distracted by what often seems to be the indifference of the musicians, swathed in semi-darkness, and the peripheral drama of the conductor attempting to stay in time with a pre-edited sequence of images. Although the injection of such non-sonic elements might strike some conservative commentators as an unwelcome imposition of the visual (and thus, theatrical) into the purely sonic realm proper to music, in reality it is another anti-theatrical gesture, inviting the audience to extract themselves from the here-and-now of the performance and imagine how these phenomena might be experienced if they were ‘properly’ synchronised within an imaginary, alternative (cinematic) space.
In contrast to these tactics, LCMF’s approach is a refusal, not only of the interventions mentioned above, but of many of the anti-theatrical safeguards that have come to constitute the conventional apparatus of classical performance. Even though the main reference points for the festival’s innovations might come from the visual art world, the resulting events channel many of the aesthetic goals of experimental theatre — site-specific, promenade, immersive, polyphonic, post-dramatic — without the neuroses surrounding meaning and function that characterise that discipline in this country. By situating each item fully within the space of the venue and the time of the programme, rather bracketing them off as historical quotations or thought bubbles within a larger neutral/meta space, the items are free to grow in size, wrap around each other, interpenetrate, leak, run and blur into a larger-scale dramaturgy which is, for me, suggestive of music theatre at its most potent.
Rather than write about the three concerts in the order I saw them, I want to use them to illustrate certain aspects of LCMF’s approach to presentation that are particularly interesting with regard to theatricality. All three events took place in Ambika P3: a massive subterranean concrete space beneath the University of Westminster. Rather than establishing a fixed performance configuration within this venue and arranging seating to focus on a single stage area, performance areas were distributed around the venue. Instruments, sound desks and stands were pre-set (in corners, along walls, or in a cluster in the centre of the large concrete floor), meaning set changes could be effected by encouraging the audience to shift its position, rather than having stage hands reposition equipment within a single fixed space. This allowed abrupt shifts to occur between different ensembles and musical styles. Following applause, a sudden sound or lighting change would draw the audience’s attention to a far corner of the space, and they would reposition themselves en masse: moving chairs and benches, leaning on walls, or sitting on the floor.
On the one hand, this approach reconfigures the venue as an exhibition space. Against a familiar post-industrial backdrop, the instruments, stands, stools and wires take on a sculptural character. This impression is bolstered by the fact that they appear alongside other more incongruous large objects: a forest of ladders, a pile of soil, a cluster of liquid-filled sacks hanging from the ceiling. The audience’s journey through the programme is thus a tour around a series of installations (or one large installation), which are ‘activated’ through musical action. As a result, from first encountering it, this ‘exhibition space’ vibrates with potential energy. Each object contains the promise of its own transformation — its own realisation as an instrument of transfiguration — with reference to a very specific ritual act yet to be performed.
Thus, the space provides its own dramaturgy in a way that far exceeds most art exhibitions. The use of lighting changes and dovetailed performances suggest lessons learned from promenade and immersive theatre: the value of coaxing an audience to lead itself through a series of experiences. This allows an audience to encounter phenomena on its own terms, encouraging them to remain open to every dimension of a performance as a potentially meaningful component of an overall aesthetic experience. In this sense, the various performance areas can be understood as sets or collections of props — spatialised ‘scenes’ within an overall narrative ‘landscape’ — which can be made to relate to each other according to dramaturgical logics borrowed from promenade theatre. And perhaps most pertinently, in terms of the performances I actually saw that week, these distributed areas could also be experienced as ‘sites’ or ‘stations’ to be visited as part of an extended ritual, in the manner of certain religious services, processions and pilgrimages.
The Structural Faults programme brought together music that ‘actively exploits the basic building blocks, the bricks and mortar, of sound and chooses to serve it up for the main course’. It included solo and ensemble chamber music, electroacoustic music and performance art, local and world premieres. Each item was performed by a different person or people, in a different location within Ambika P3. Through this diverse programme, an overall dramaturgy was collectively constructed around the ritual transfiguration of the site, as well as the precarity or ephemerality of this transfiguration.
Following their initial descent beneath Marylebone, the audience finds the cavernous space arranged with seats along the walls, bordering the expansive concrete floor. Across one end of the room stands a circle of ladders of different sizes and materials: they suggest at once a process of construction or renovation and the edifice to be renovated — standing stones, stalactites, etc. In the centre of the space, a single cymbal is suspended from a rope hanging from the flies.
The evening begins with the marking out of a performance area: in Yvonne Rainer’s We Shall Run (performed by An assembly) a perimeter of speakers blast out a movement from Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts, while the ensemble jogs around the space in a series of circuits that break apart and recombine, mapping an invisible spirograph across the floor. This initial act of consecration ‘empties out’ the space by pushing the audience to its peripheries, while redrawing it as the intersection of abstract planes: the width and length of the venue’s total area, cut across by the vertiginous and precarious dimension of height, represented by the ladders and the Damoclean cymbal, the threat of imminent collapse.
The demarcated area becomes an arena: the gladiatorial stage for Laura Steenberge’s Perseus Slays The Gorgon Medusa (performed by Apartment House). This piece reconstructs the titular myth in simple, iconic gestures, climaxing with the severing and ultimate fall of a second suspended cymbal (the ‘slaying’ prophesied by the piece’s title, and by the laws of gravity). In the aftermath of this ritual of heroic violence, the resulting empty space becomes the focus of Sofia Jernberg’s vocal improvisation, which she performs from a microphone at the edge of the floor (joining in the circle of spectators). This improvisation continues the ritual sequence of consecration, sacrifice and transformation — her voice playing on the edge of song/noise, human/animal boundaries — but while she occupies the position of priestess, the object of transformation is not her own body (in the manner of a shaman/oracle/medium) but the space itself, animated by her amplified voice.
If the first half of the show enacted the construction of an active, present space — a positive emptiness — to fit the dimensions of the venue, the second half initiated its collapse. The first interval, in which the audience members were able to re-enter the performance area, was characterised by a generalised anxiety regarding where to sit next, which direction to face, how best to position oneself for the next sequence of performances. The stands and lights and microphones positioned on every side of the space all demanded imminent attention. In fact, the next event saturated the entire space: Olivia Block’s Heave To, filling the whole bulk of the venue with sonic wreckage, the acousmatic sounds of storms at sea. Audience members were stranded in the middle of the room, attention pulled in different directions, clinging to the benches they had been dragging around. Block’s piece deranges the evening, disposing the second half towards failure and bathos.
The final three pieces draw the audience towards three sides of the space — three compass points — in turn. Hanne Darboven’s Opus 19a is an obsessive approximation of Baroque passagework: gesturing towards the virtuosic, towards the joys of cryptology or physical exercise, before pushing past into the deeply arbitrary, until the experience of the piece becomes one of watching the eyes of the performer (Otto Willberg) as they creep from right to left, like the minute hand of a clock.
Such deadpan trolling similarly characterises the other two pieces. Jacopo Belloni’s Slapstick n°1: the preventer sees the performer, attired in a suit of patchwork foam, clambering between the ladders in accelerating circles, as they totter and slide away from each other. Just as his erratic circling enacts a deranged repetition of the Rainer, so the ultimate fate of the ladders is the bathetic inverse of the suspended cymbal, doomed to be slain by the mythic hero. Instead, we watch Belloni leap from ladder to ladder with increasing abandon, in order to clumsily contrive the ‘slapstick’ pratfall that will fulfil the demands of the piece and bring it to an end. We wait politely for the culmination of a punchline that has long since blown its load.
After the fall, the Fell: Actuations, a new commission by Mark Fell, which is the sonic equivalent of the aisle in B&Q where you can find screws and brackets. It is not so much a deconstruction of the components of club music as an inventory of the interstitial elements that hold those components together, but which might not even be recognisable as materials in themselves. Bizarrely, the piece climaxes with a gesture of absolute self-destruction, in which a crowd appears holding protest banners disparaging the piece for being boring or inane, which are then rotated to reveal political slogans. Not only does this effectively undermine any potential sincerity in the deconstructive procedures of the piece, but it casts the slogans themselves in a deeply ambivalent and insincere light. The integrity of the whole evening — and indeed the festival — appears to deflate like a punctured bouncy castle. After witnessing collapse on every side, the audience has only one direction left to turn: the exit.
The New Intimacy IV
As should be apparent, my experiences over the course of the evening described above cohere together in my mind, in a manner that far exceeds the sum of the programme’s various items. The unfettering of each performance’s theatrical potential, within an overall framework that doesn’t deny the specificity of time and place, allows the programme to converse eloquently with its own content.
The festival’s approach to staging has an equally potent effect on the bodies of the performers. In a conventional concert format, the stage is presented as an every-place/no-place, which becomes the locus of temporary worlds, bracketed within the timeframe of each performance. While the performers take on roles and characters during the course of a performance, their primary existence onstage is as generic figures or bodies, entering and exiting these temporary roles with apparent nonchalance. In contrast, by linking particular performers/bodies to particular sites of performance (‘performance-specific sites’), they appear ‘enclosed’ within islands or bubbles of style and affect. Differing expressive languages and logics of musical action are localised in time and space. The world of each performance retains its integrity: the shamans retain their masks.
This was the crucial theatrical context for the superb New Intimacy IV programme: a continuation of themes explored in the 2017 festival, with the additional theoretical impetus of Haraway’s Thick Present. While the programme notes spoke of ‘symbiotic closeness’, I was more absorbed by the simultaneous exposition of public/private or secret/exposed binaries, facilitated by the spatialised ‘private worlds’ described above.
In different ways, both of the evening’s ensemble chamber performances (by Apartment House) were ‘turned inwards’. Michael Pisaro’s Grain Canons suggested a private ritual, arranged in a circle, the performers uninterested in the presence of the audience and only marginally invested in the presence of each other. The ensemble’s staggered transition from instrumental action to the pouring of grain suggested ritual washing: a baptismal immersion. One by one, the players moved (physically) between pitch and noise, from expression to ecstatic abstraction and back, all within a dramaturgy of mutual initiation: the horizontal transmission of practical knowledge. In contrast, Lawrence Dunn’s Set of Four suggested ‘inwardness’ in a less physical sense: the absorption of the cognoscenti, the obsessive stirring of a cauldron of influences and references, from which strangely irresistible melodies rose like steam.
A trio of professional Greek mourners (Nikos Menoudakis, Vangelis Kotsos and Anthoula Kotsou), performing traditional polyphonic lamentation, gave a particularly stark example of the secret/exposed binary. An ancient form of ritual music lifted cleanly from its context, their song was both audible and inaudible, legible and illegible. We sense the absence of a context that would give their musical acts social and spiritual efficacy, and yet visiting the ‘site’ of their performance like tourists or pilgrims, we can intuit the ghostly trace of such a context, conjured up through the authoritative presentation of these acts. Within a space and time specific to their performance, the mourners are both present and not present: public and private.
Two incredible pieces by Pascale Criton suggest a similar public glimpse of an inscrutably private world. The result of extensive collaborative composition between performers and composer, there is a touch of stage magic to these pieces — particularly Circle Process, which is performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, without a score. In a show of great patience and tenderness, we watch the performer coax an extraordinary spectrum of sounds from her instrument, using what looks like the lightest of touches. ‘Rubbed the right way’, the relationship between instrument and player resembles that of animal and trainer: it speaks of a secret history of deep intimacy cultivated out of sight.
There is also something clearly (auto-/homo-)erotic about the absorption of Tarozzi’s gaze and the closeness of the instrument to her face as she strokes it into ecstatic life. This dynamic is expanded upon in Florence Peake and Eve Stainton’s performance duet Slug Horizons. It is an exploration of proximity, convergence and homo-ness, through physicality and the narrativity of erotic fantasy: for all its apparent candidness, the surface spectacle of the piece hinted obliquely at a vast depth of intimacy and understanding between the performers that remained inaccessible. I was fascinated by the silently meaningful glances exchanged by the duo, which appeared to provide the emotional scaffolding supporting their activities, preventing the piece from feeling fragile or vulnerable. Although the audience were acknowledged, the performance seemed to exist properly within the private net of an unknowable relationship. It was in the cracks between the superficial displays of closeness — the rubbing of naked bodies and the comingling of desires — that the signs and hints of an unseen intimacy were glimpsed.
All of this made the conclusion of Slug Horizons far sadder. The two performers follow their own sticky trails in different directions: a melancholy conclusion to the increasingly precarious negotiation of shared erotic narrativity that stretches through the piece. This moment introduces a negative thread into the evening’s programme — the possibility of being left ‘on the outside’, the potential loneliness of the onlooker moving between these secret islands of private language. The ‘glue’ of the evening would appear to be Maryanne Amacher’s electronic compositions, which explore acoustic illusions using tones intended to ‘cause your ears to act as a neurophonic instruments’. In this context, they seem to impose a kind of generalised intimacy: the sound filling the space and forcing everyone’s heads to resonate in harmony. In their attempt to transcend the private and public, they feel like deeply impersonal acts of penetration.
Mark Leckey and Steve Hellier’s Singing Nobodaddy Sings Songs afforded what was a bleakly fitting conclusion to the evening. Another LCMF commission as trollish as Fell’s contribution, it gives distorted voice to Leckey’s Nobodaddy sculpture: a monstrous enlargement of an 18th-century figurine of Job, filled with speakers. Surrounding this totem of miserable, misanthropic introspection, the audience is confronted with acute artistic and emotional opacity. We are frustrated, fragmented and ultimately dispersed.
Musarc Winter Konsert — See, We Assemble
The last of the three concerts I attended (albeit the first chronologically) was a guest programme by the experimental choral collective Musarc. Unlike the other two concerts, this event featured a single ensemble, performing (primarily) within a single stage area. However, through the ensemble’s unique approach to curation and presentation, the performance managed to access a similarly fertile terrain of theatricality.
As far as I can tell, Musarc’s core practice is a kind of forced mutation. The choir — a relatively large amateur chorus, conducted by Cathy Heller Jones — constitutes the ‘test organism’. Versed in the traditional repertoire of an unaccompanied choir, the organism is characterised by certain ‘natural’ life processes. Its individual components (organs/cells) are ‘held together’ by harmony and rhythm — by tonality, equal temperament, metre, vocal assonance, a shared language — in a manner that allows it to act as a totality, with autonomy and purpose. This organism is then exposed to various experimental interventions — amputations, irradiations, implants — from guest composers and artists. Example interventions in the LCMF programme (of Purcell, Brahms, Buxtehude and Schoenberg) included the dissection of scores, the grafting of strange new instrumental accompaniments, the injection of physical gestures and spatial configurations, and the hybridisation of different pieces. The efficacy of these interventions as a compositional approach relies upon the ensemble’s total familiarity and facility with the core repertoire, as a ‘natural’ state of being.
My experience watching the Musarc Winter Konsert was thus akin to a laboratory observation. Individually commissioned pieces were more or less interesting to different degrees, but the particularities of these items were successfully absorbed into the overall dramaturgy of the event (not in terms of a single total artwork, but in terms of an excessively ‘thick’ texture of visual, sonic and social phenomena). Two further aspects of the concert’s presentation are important here. First, the programme was structured according to a continuous, symmetrical design, with the pieces’ original texts removed and replaced with a new experimental libretto by poet Edwina Attlee and Musarc’s creative director Joseph Kohlmaier. More than anything else, this had the effect of stitching the pieces together, ‘human centipede’-style. As a long-form socio-aesthetic framework containing individual ritual ‘numbers’, I was made to think of popular ritual structures like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and the nativity play, as well as the school concert or talent show, and the music festival or clubnight.
Even more significant was the presentation of the ensemble: the ‘body’ of the organism under scrutiny. Unlike most classical ensembles — which attempt to present their component bodies as an undifferentiated group of generic figures, through homogenising dress and formal comportment — Musarc allows the (relative) heterogeneity of its amateur performers to register as a dimension of the performance at every stage. Thus, the ‘organism’ that we observe reacting and responding to the various interventions is not merely an example of a more general species — i.e., ‘the choir’ — but a unique and specific assemblage of unique and specific components. We are able to monitor not only the mutation and evolution of the corpus, but the behaviour of individual cells or organs: the short woman with the red lipstick, the bald man in the shirt, the sheepish-looking guy at the back.
The introduction of the ensemble in this way was greatly facilitated by Claudia Molitor and Joseph Kohlmaier’s Die Gedanken sind Frei, which bookended the programme, involving the individual members of the choir shifting a large pile of soil across the venue with shovels and brooms while sustaining held or repeated pitches as they move. The form of collective endeavour that this performance required contrasted productively with the forms of collective endeavour that characterise choral singing. We were introduced to the various members of the choir as individual bodies with their own physical attributes, approaching a clear manual task according to their own capabilities. There was a unity of intention here (overlaid with the enforced unity of vocal action), but the way that each individual negotiated the task at hand was fascinatingly unique. In contrast, in choral singing, there is a sort of loosely imposed unity of physicality — standing still in rows, facing the front, usually wearing the same clothes — that supposedly provides the context for carefully managed vocal diversity: harmony, polyphony, etc. The distributions of unity and diversity, similarity and disparity, are different in these two cases, but by commencing and concluding the evening with Die Gedanken sind Frei, the supposedly ‘conventional’ collective identity of the chorus was disrupted for the remainder of the concert (a dynamic that was subsequently developed in Jenny Moore’s Which Side Are You On).
Unusually for an amateur choir, Musarc are based at The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, at London Metropolitan University, and are thus closely linked to the worlds of visual art and critical theory. This seems to allow the ensemble to approach musical performance from an unusual direction. Rather than proposing innovations from within the conventions of choral performance or even new/experimental music, the ensemble uses choral singing as a stand-in for collective action in general (in the manner of synchronised movement for a dance troupe, but with very different affordances). The amateur performance of traditional choral repertoire permits a sophisticated and virtuosic simultaneity of gesture and utterance, opening up a huge and nuanced space within which different shades of unity and divergence can interact with the presentation of real bodies in different groupings in real spaces. By ‘forgetting’ the conventions of classical performance in order to stake out and play freely within such a space, projects like Musarc have the potential to open up a new frontier of theatrical expression at the heart of everyday music-making.