Sunday, 21 February 2010

Untranslatable artistic terminology

I have been trying to get a grip on my experience of seeing Eva Yerbabuena at the Sadler's Wells flamenco festival on Friday. I've discovered that flamenco operates because of, in search of, through and expressing something known as Duende. Duende is a terribly elusive term - I am in the middle of Jason Webster's book on flamenco which takes its title from the term to try and work it out.

Moreover, I've been thinking about other terms that defy translation, possibly in their own language. For example, Einklang. Was ist Einklang, mein Herr? Literally 'one-sound' in English, it's a term that's often used to describe the much sought-after homogeneity of ensemble that (for example) an orchestra tries to achieve.

Yet Einklang is more than this. It also suggests a not a unified sound but a unity of intent for that sound. One-sound, one mind for the appropriation of the sound. A term whose resistance to translation reflects the difficulty of putting it into practice.

Another is Saudade. Saudade is a term that covers the feeling of nostalgia - not only a longing for what has been but what may be to come and also, consequently, lost. More than this is that it refers to the particular quality of sound in South American singing in which the vocalist seems to be smiling through their song, however bittersweet the text.

This is an interesting - but sketchy - thread and I'm keen to learn about more terms such as these. In their turn, the terms hold out an idea which can open up a whole new field of experience, so they're worth pursuing in themselves.

Conversely I'd like to know whether terms exist to describe artistic phenomena with which we already seem aware. Is there, for example a term to describe the astonishing, yet possibly cathartic aggressiveness of certain corners of hip hop music? No doubt this shares something with the greyer, noisier extremes of thrash metal, although hip hop is more about the rhythm than a sensory surfeit of noise.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Eva Yerbabuena at Sadler's Wells

Lluvia is Eva Yerbabuena's nominally solo show as part of the Sadler's Wells flamenco festival. In fact, as I'd imagine is often the case (I did a lot of imagining last night, by the way, so excuse pockets of over-excited ignorance), whilst she is clearly the star of Lluvia, she works with four other dancers, three musicians (two indefatigable guitarists and a percussionist) and a quartet of singers for the full 90-minute stretch.

Lluvia couches various episodes of flamenco in a vague theatrical framework (Lluvia - or 'Rain' - we are told, concerns "melancholy, desamor – lack of love – and their seemingly endless moments in our lives"). I have a natural distrust of trying to impose theatrics on spectacles that are inherently dramatic - staging song cycles & oratorios, films of sporting events, etc. - but I was quickly won over for two reasons.

Firstly, the dance is probably out of its own generic home anyway, being performed here on a stage in front of a couple of thousand rather than in a bar in Seville. Second, the performers played fast and loose with the 'walls' of theatre, not least as this seems to be the nature of flamenco itself. It quickly becomes apparent that the dancing is profoundly serious. There is no suspicion of a performer (dancer or singer) 'playing a character' but consequently the performance moves in a tidal fashion between such moments of personal expression and moments of respite in which everyone seems to ignore not only their involvment in the moment but also the need to cater for an audience. Such moments of informality sit oddly with this fairly seasoned theatre-goer used to a fourth wall being up most of the time. However, the authenticity of the experience is unimpeachable and I was swept along by it without qualification.

What's to like? The dancing is 'sexual but not sexy' (to quote my companion for the evening), and consequently has a narrative that is not only inextricable from its physicality but also impossible to transliterate. I imagine this is what good dancing consists in, generally. The uninitiated probably associates flamenco with stamping a fair bit (guilty) and there are episodes of thrilling, aggressive footwork. There is a complementary world of stylised dancing too though, upper-body gestures or great flexibility which have the same closed vernacular as the singing - they are performed as statements, rather than the flowing dialectic physical drama of classical ballet for example (again from my limited experience). This pride-in-poise recalls the belligerence in the face of fate attitude of the Torero facing down the bull, legs locked.

Alongside the dancing is a world of musical complexity that I'd never registered before. It is quite impossible to talk about the metre of the rhythms, flying weightlessly across the insistent pulse of the percussion and clapping singers. My only previous experience of this has been the comparatively simplistic hemiola-redefining baroque music of South America and Mexico. Tethered to the virtuosic guitar playing - not only the run-picking but also the foundationless layered chords - this makes for a deeply satisfying musical event on its own. What I couldn't fail to notice here was the relationship between the manner in which such music is performed and the devotional Islamic music of Qawwali; sung in a baroque, extemporised belt fashion the vocal lines are highly melismatic, effect-peppered and fly over a tabla (yes, La Yerbabuena's troupe percussionist was using a tabla). Indeed as I write this I'm listening to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Indeed, similarly to my understanding of Qawwali, Lluvia solicited increaing outbursts from the audience, responding to or encouraging the musicians. It was impossible not to be strongly affected by this show and its attendant performances, a terrific evening in the theatre.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Gambler at the Royal Opera

No, still no idea what it was all about. I promised myself I'd let the narrative of Prokofiev's The Gambler percolate through to my brain during the night. It hasn't. That's not to say I wasn't entertained last night at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is clearly indicative of the company operating at a new high. The opera isn't great but at no stage was it possible to say that there wasn't a clear commitment to the work from any constituent part of its production.

Richard Jones productions have a tendency to almost consume the piece which they are meant to be supporting. Yet for all that this production is instantly recognisable as Jones' work - pungent colour, humour, set-within-set, action at the extreme front of the stage - I never had the feeling that the work was being co-opted as a vehicle. No, not even when the first act ends with the non-scored introduction of a seal, whose antics are of a part with Prokofiev's explosive wind-up to that act.

Flamboyantly designed in the satirical tradition of George Grosz, the look is colourful but dark, slightly frenetic and tilting towards Weimar decadence. Indeed, in this production the piece bears more than a passing resemblance to Berg's Lulu (Berg began writing his opera at the same time as this was getting a first performance delayed by the Russian Revolution). Jones has Paulina throwing nuts at the audience in the Zoo of the first act, just as the acrobat invites the audience into the self-referent 'menagerie' of Lulu. The bestial allegory is maintained and developed throughout The Gambler with pictures, projections and masks of animals, the final tableau not too far a step from the hellish irruption of chaos at the end of The Shining...

... and, incidentally, Kubrick's horror masterpiece is also recalled in the hotel corridors of the terrific, perspective-forcing tapered set

Unfortunately the opera squanders the opportunities for isolating and investigating the individual narratives that would draw the audience in. Rather, the focus is on creating entertaining caricatures in which Prokofiev's mercurial but rudderless score finds its effectiveness. The protagonists are uninteresting and dull - especially in Jones' production whose elan naturally caters for Guignol - although Roberto Saccà sings Alexey wonderfully over the large orchestra. John Tomlinson as the General is the pick of the subsiduary characters, charging about the stage and eventually being led off in an entirely appropriate straight-jacket. Jurgita Adamonyte is a nice bit of casting as his mistress, busty and bothersome, masking some lovely singing. The piece threatens to take on some focus when the General's aunt Babulenka arrives, not least as Susan Bickley occupies the stage with great command and a crisp English diction that even Tomlinson had been grasping at.

Really though, the evening is all about the Act 4 set-piece in which Alexey wins at the roulette tables. Jones has cleverly built the scene up by setting previous scenes outside the casino. The spectacle inside the gambling hall is no let-down, with the entire company thusfar involved in stylised, cyclic choreography - betting, hoping, winning/losing etc. - punctuated by the spinning of the wheel, lit up like a disco ball in a front corner. (photo below from

The whole thing has the same frenzy as the Jungfrau shares sequence, again from Lulu. Here the subordinate cast come into their own: Hubert Francis' panicked croupier, Lukas Jakobski's droll Tall Englishman and Elisabeth Meister's Pale Lady, throwing herself and her voice about the stage in the spirit of Jones' screwball madness (all former or current Jette Parker Young Artists, these. It's good to see the Royal Opera following through on its commitment to the scheme, not just paying it PR appeasing lip-service).

For all the fun the opera finishes with pessimism, although its exact meaning - or even nature - is obfuscated like the rest of the opera. What I took away from the evening was a nebulous sense of Prokofiev's orchestral virtuosity (Pappano's supreme pit band packing a luxury punch) but a rather more negative appraisal of his ability to convert Dostoyevsky's neurotic novella into effective drama. It's a wonderful showcase for the homogenised commitment and vision of the company but one feels that they could have picked a better work to put on.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Little Dog Laughed at The Garrick

I'm having a good month of theatre-going, continuing last night with this marvellously clever satire on Hollywood. The Little Dog Laughed has a super, over-the-top central role (played by Tamsin Grieg), an actor's manager who knows how to manipulate the game to her best advantage, irrespective of the toes that get stamped on. This meta-Machiavelli of the movie industry wanders in and out of the play proper, a bittersweet sexual comedy à tres, played by Rupert Friend, Gemma Arterton and Harry Lloyd.

The play is a twisty-turny look at the hypocrisy of Hollywood's attitude to the homosexual actor, played out in a fluid situation which bears more than a passing resemblance to the situation of Michael Cunningham's A Home At The End Of The World. The sex is up front and funny, treated in a post-postmodern fashion, i.e. indecorously and without dwelling on the clear irony of any given liaison. Consequently the play trails the churned earth of contradictions the pain of which is masked with Diane/Grieg's theatrical campery.

Indeed two things stood out for me from last night's performance. Firstly, as critics have reasonably asserted, for all that the cast is very good, when Grieg is not on the stage one is just itching for her to return. Secondly, Gemma Arterton's turn as Emily is quietly spectacular. By the simple but technically highly taxing conceit of having the outwardly flightly Emily perpetually creeping over the edge of tears the play acquires a weight which turns its ironic denoument into tragedy. Arterton's control of this is astonishing, consistently well-managed and twists the knife so hard that I left weighed down by the play's (probably unintentional) cynicism.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Classical music & political fashion

The springboard for this piece by Richard Morrison in today's Times is the V&A's decision to remove its musical instrument collection from display. Naturally he makes unarguable points about how classically-affiliated music (and its instruments) is of little use to government or business as it doesn't reach out to the majority. Of course, both government and business claim to be supportive of classical music as it confers the impression of refinement, sobriety and intellect, the institutional counterbalance to the hard sell of attracting votes/customers.

I was struck by a comment in a comment - if you like - made by a reader of the article. Simon Funnell is the Managing Director of the London Mozart Players and took some teenagers to a concert given in Croydon. One, a sixteen year-old called Lee, said:
I really wish classical music and instruments were a part of mainstream education. We have all heard classical music is supposed to make you more intelligent, so it would make sense.
This is a view worth listening to, but it is a red herring. The line that gets me is the second. The lad thinks that having access to musical instruments is much the same as having access to computers. Computers are useful tools in a classroom as they are interactive, i.e. it takes little practical understanding of how they function to get begin to learn about and use them. Musical instruments require two non-negotiable extras to function in such a manner - a teacher and patience in the face of rewards-stymied effort on the part of the student.

This is probably why I find the whole Popstar To Operastar business fairly infuriating. At a stroke "opera" is reduced to songs and the Faking It nature of the programme suggests that one can make passable representation of such a song on the basis of a couple of weeks cramming. Lee from Croydon may or may not have seen this show but his (positive!) attitude is part of a cultural continuum of ignorance about the background to such acoustic art forms as opera (and by extension, classical music). ITV have bet-hedging arrangements for dealing with this argument - Rolando Villazon's involvement in the show, the persistent on-message disclaimer, solemnly intoned by everyone involved, that hard work over a long period is the true path to achievement in the form...

... but what the form is it's hard to say since it's not explained or even alluded to during the show; and what constitutes achievement is impossible to say given a) the lack of context b) the sealed-off, non acoustic bubble from which it is propagated across the country and c) the fact that despite this culturally discontiguous isolation an audience both in and outside the studio respond to it fanatically.

I don't blame ITV too heavily though, and for the reason that comes back to Morrison's point. It's far too great an expectation for ITV to incorporate a four-century appraisal of opera and its cultural ramifications into episodes of what is unequivocally lite-ent telly. I mean, the casual re-enforcement of worn stereotypes are not designed to shut people out but to encourage the fence-sitting audience that ITV's on their side. The fence-sitting audience exist because they have no institutional backup on which to predicate a dip into the unknown - it's not just an element of (in this example) opera that's alien, it's absolutely everything.

It may be that Lee from Coydon will be able to get his hands on a violin and, perhaps this cycnical pragamatist (read re-training secondary classroom music teacher!) will be vindicated when Lee returns it after a month. But the greater (Morrison's) point is that the lad would then have an experiential dais upon which to look out over cultural possibilities in front of him with confidence rather than cowed by his benightedness, passively-endorsed by the adult institutions that claim the opposite.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

OUT HEAR at Kings Place

Last night I took an opportunity to go and see some avant-garde vocal-led theatre at Kings Place, a bang up-to-date performance space built at the height of the Noughties boom and invariably catering for similarly up to the minute acts. The event - Vocal Crossings II - was performed by OUT HEAR, a collective unique to the evening of various vocal artists performing on their own and, in the second half, corporately. As the evening's curator Mikhail Karikis told us in the programme, ... this event includes practitioners who employ the voice in fine art practice, dance or acting.

The peremptory moments prior to performance in both halves of the concert were given a soundtrack by the club-owning DJ Gabriel Prokofiev. Karikis was first to perform giving two pieces (Intro & Cerebus) showcasing a range of vocal effects in addition to an authentic falsett-baritone mixed vocal range - as well as the first of a number of peculiar outfits. From the outset it was clear that Karikis' performance has a strong narrative spine to it. Whether the nature of the story was something apparent to the audience, or even something he intended to share is moot and I'll come back to it.

Next were Juice, a female trio weaving spare, febrile close harmony and vocal effects. This is where my imagination was arrested for the first time in the evening as the group restricted themselves to a small palette of sounds, developed and explored within the song arrangments (Ojo by performer Kerry Andrew and Go To Sleep). The unforced, aspirant exchanges that lay somewhere between zephyr and snoring in the latter gospel arrangement were unexpectedly erotic.

E.laine (a performer who, as far as I can see, is no relation of was the second soloist of the first half with a dramatically virtuosic performance of the standard Solitude and an improvisation based on sale shopping. Like Karikis, E.laine clearly had a narrative in mind with her performance of the Ellington song - unlike Karikis this was communicated more clearly and consistently, a mixture of despair and frustration at loneliness - and what seemed to be its imposition on the character behind her performance bulging behind the surface of her vocalising.

The vocal monopoly of the programme got a rest with two harpsichord works played by Jane Chapman. Roderick Watkins' After Scarlatti (2009) is a pointless, meandering re-appropriation of the named composer's work and style instantly shown up by the focused, if ultimately trite Continuum (1968) by Ligeti.

Chapman was then joined on stage by Karikis for a duet, Contact, to close the first half. This meant more of the same vocalising as for Cerebus accompanied with the prepared harpsichord, every surface of which Chapman played with a timp hammer (I was pleased to discover that I found this fairly effective, given how horribly contrived it seemed at first). More interesting than the music was the staging of the performance: Karikis' second costume change of the evening rendered him as if with bunny ears, a profile thrown onto the stage in strong silhouette. The conflagration of this and an earlier Kabuki-type arrangement brought to mind the rabbit/burlesque image-sump of film director David Lynch's subconscious. As I suggested before, Karikis' narrative seemed present but obscure (certainly less definable than that of E.laine) and I was not surprised to discover, talking to a performer afterwards, that Karikis bases his performances on a considerable backstory. Invariably I struggle to see the point of this, in much the same way as I struggle to see the point of the acting technique know as Method - whilst there is no doubt it provides the performer with conviction, I tend to find myself shortchanged in the audience (in terms of recognisable content). However, given the indication that Karikis may be using his personal narrative in a Lynchian fashion - not to present content but to open possibilities of interpretation - allowed me to absorb the work without negativity.

The concert's second half was an ensemble work devised by Karikis wound on the armature of a reading of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. The theatre was, this time, irredeemably contrived and the vocalising (with viola played by Scratch The Surface's Conall Gleeson) anonymous. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading of the Declaration by Monica Ross and, though startling, I took away some impression of Maurice Casey's contorted ballet centrepiece.