Monday, 24 December 2012

La Boheme, Royal Opera

All the Messiahs in central London were sold out on Saturday night - well, the one I wanted to go to anyway - so I wandered into the Royal Opera Box Office foyer making speculative queries about standing tickets to that evening's La Boheme. Clearly, this works occasionally. £8 gave me a standing position in the upper slips with a reasonable view (pictured) of the stage and an excellent one of the pit where Sir Mark Elder was in charge.

John Copley's production is one of the wonders of the West End, a show that has lasted more than 25 years (and the mixed blessing of being the backdrop to the BBC's recent reality-type competition show for aspiring conductors, Maestro). I had come primarily to see friends and colleagues in the cast, not least after having read an entertaining blog post about the shenanigans that go on in the background of ensemble scenes in such a well-worn production. Indeed that celebrated second act was a marvel of the orchestrated stage-scrum, with great detail and sub-narratives that always give way to - indeed point towards - the more important foreground story.

Now that I have taken the opportunity to sing in a concert production of La Boheme myself, I appreciate the difficulties of the score, especially one that demands such flexibility, so to see and hear a high-calibre live performance was a joy. And the perfect Christmas apéritif.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Poems On The Underground, New Edition Launch

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth`s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

T. E. Hulme (1883 - 1917)

Hulme's poem The Embankment (or The fantasi of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night) - entirely familiar to anyone weaving their way home down Villiers Street after an evening on the tiles in the West End - is typical of the succinct but pungent poems that have made up the various editions of Poems On The Underground for more than quarter of a century. Judith Cherniak's idea, that verses should be posted on the inside of the carriages of tube trains, jostling proudly alongside advertising, has proved an enduring success, a programme adopted not only in the English capital city but across the world.

Yesterday I attended the launch of the latest edition at Europe House in central London. The editors Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson, joined by poets Paula Meehan and David Constantine, read some of the poems whilst Judith Cherniak's son David led a string quartet in performances of music by Dvorak, Bartok and J.S. Bach. Part of the success of the project is that which made this launch party a success - the brevity of the poems, that which allows travellers to read a complete extract between station stops, also allowed us to hear the poetry alongside the appropriate pleasantries, explanations and votes of thanks that accompany such an event.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Silver Swan, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

The Clod Ensemble is a somewhat unlikely company moniker for a group that, last night, appeared in the centre of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall like a quorum of angels. This event, tailored nicely to the character of the huge space, saw the seven female singers of the ensemble perform music by Paul Clark after motets by John Smith and William Lawes. The latter adaptation was  embellished with a troupe of dancers in the East half of the hall. We the audience stood at the top of the hall's rake, moving down during the first piece and then splitting into above and below groups to watch the second.

The singing from the ensemble was excellent and the music itself is a pleasant, imitative swirl of melody, a synaesthetic light in the sepulchral darkness of the hall. At first though the acoustic multi-facet of the space creates a disjunct between the performers, the music and the space which is entirely in keeping with the separation of experience and meaning in abstraction in general (similar of course to many art works held in the galleries of the museum itself). To experience this constellation of sensation and symbol in the space at such a strange time (after closing, in the dark) was very special. I also loved the stasis of the singers compared to the ant-like scurrying of the dancers, apparently caught in some sort of modern, post-lapsarian brainlessness as the angelic chorus sympathise but suggest the possibility of comfort and even direction.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Greenwich Early Music Festival

This morning I wandered around the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on the third of three days of the International Early Music Festival and Exhibition. An expo for the period instrument community, there were two rooms full of reproduction instruments from before the 19th century. The chapel and a handful of other spaces are host to demonstrations, masterclasses and concerts.

I had no business there, though I fully expected to bump into colleagues and did (one of them also passing through to teach pupils at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire which has been resident in the College since 2005). Most of all I wanted to get some idea of the atmosphere of an early music trade fair.

Naturally, the event is dominated by instruments. From piccolo recorders to an electric gamba (!) and collection of natural trumpets that looked like a model of the Lloyds Building there's almost anything you might think of were you to be shopping for a baroque ensemble's worth of hardware.

For example, here's a table exhibiting the beautifully decorated body shells of lutes (right).

I came across another colleague rushing to buy an oboe she had tried and liked the previous day. This involved her digging through a table covered in shawms and bagpipes. There are also stalls for music, periodicals and accessories from music stands (daft and expensive) to electronic tuning devices. The stairwell to The Painted Room is choc full of keyboards from spinets to harpsichords. Bows are not short on the ground either.

Today's blue riband events were BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show live lunchtime concert broadcast presented by Lucie Skeaping (which I caught on the train home) and the final evening concert given by the European Union Youth Baroque Orchestra. For a rich but modest festival this is still a collection of events on a significant scale.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Dorothy Annan Murals, Fleet Building, Holborn

This morning I noticed something that has been staring me in the face for fifteen years. These tiled murals are on the side of a former BT building, the Fleet Building, between circuses Ludgate and Holborn. The building has been closed for some while clearly awaiting re-development or demolilshing. It occured to me that that would be a pity as the murals are pungently of their time - 1960, in fact, as a signed tile by the artist, Dorothy Annan testifies.

A little scratching around the internet later and I discover that investment banking giant Goldman Sachs own the Fleet Building but have been stymied in plans to re-develop it because of the listing of the murals as Grade 2 by the DCMS after petition by English Heritage. Whilst it's thoroughly satisfying in the current climate for a banking institution to be tripped up by the work of a little-known artist in conjunction with the DCMS no doubt they will get their way in the end. One hopes that the murals will find a new home elsewhere in the process.

UPDATE: This morning (20/11/12) I walked past the Fleet Building and this was what I saw (right). Clearly work has started on dealing with the murals. Whether they are being cleaned, removed or destroyed I cannot tell. I am pleased that I had an opportunity to see them in situ before this rather serious and exclusive-looking hoarding went up.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pilgrim's Progress, ENO

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' own Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Pilgrim's Progress is more oratorio than opera. The Passions of Bach -the St. John Passion been fully staged by the company - are evident in the dialogue and the aesthetic bulwark of Nicholas Lehnhoff's tremendous production of Parsifal also hang in the Coliseum in spectral solidarity. Solidarity is what this ascetic (though not necessarily economical) production of Yoshi Oida is about. Set in an anonymous jail the eponymous Pilgrim seems to have been set in isolation from the other inmates. Seems, as his first words prepare us for the extemporal nature of his experience, of the story: 'So I awoke and behold it was a dream'. He recalls the nature of his experiences, whether in the jail or outside in life, prior to his incarceration and these expand - with the help of jail walls constructed of moving set-trucks - to take in the other inmates, who play out the characters in his recollections, or the tropes of Everyman's experience.

One of Oida's fine decisions is to keep the on stage action steady and minimal. The quality of the production is reliant on its singing. Roland Wood in the title role may offer the finest baritone singing I've heard (in patchy attendance!) since Roderick Williams breathed life into Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin three years ago. The almost mandatory production paraphernalia that both big houses in London employ do make a showing here, in the rags that become a megaphoned-monster, which is highly effective. Sue Wilmington's costume designs are similarly pared down and effective... notwithstanding the riotously gaudy Vanity Fair scene, recalling the orgy of the recent Flying Dutchman (or indeed Turandot) on the same stage. This struck me as excessive, given that the production was working on the credibility elastic of the inmates assuming roles - would they really have been able to conjure such an inventory of colour and costume?

Restraint never failed the pit though. Martin Brabbins triumphed with the house orchestra keeping the swollen orchestration held back. The powerfully English sonorities, pastoral-mystic modality and tidal unendlische melodie once again recalls Parsifal but with the conviction and post-war decorousness that sets it apart from Wagner's drama of itinerant faith - or indeed Britten's contemporaneous oratorio on 'the pity of war', the War Requiem, another meditation on the transmigration of souls.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Sweelinck Ensemble, St. Anne's Church, The City

'Built by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in 1680' is the proud subtitle of the programme to another in a long-running series of lunchtime concerts housed, hosted and promoted by the Music Society of St. Anne & St. Agnes Church, Gresham Street, in the City of London. These words, a great kitemark of authenticity for such a building in the square mile, also hint at the acoustic properties of the space. A tall, square box, designed (appropriately for a liturgically Lutheran church) after the Nieuwe Kirk in Haarlem in the Netherlands, music-making in the church rings present but with bloom. It is an ideal venue for chamber music concerts, particularly those favoured by the 'house' musicians, The Sweelinck Ensemble, directed by the Cantor (or Church's director of music) Martin Knizia.

In tandem the group and the church have forged a solid reputation for the performance of J.S. Bach. Primarily, this is through the popular series of Bach Vespers in which a cantata by Bach is performed within the liturgy once a month. However, as the name of the group suggests, their repertoire is rather more varied. This event took in the music of Bach's celebrated predecessors Heinrich Schütz and Dieterich Buxtehude as well as less well known German Baroque composers, and all seasoned with a Purcell Trio Sonata.

In the tradition of chorale preludes at Bach Vespers, so Knizia played Heinrich Scheidemann's Praeambulum in G on the main organ. To follow came the first in a series of cantatas featuring soprano Emily Atkinson (right). Schütz's Paratum cor meum, from the Venetian Symphoniae Sacrae I bears the trappings of that city's Baroque stylings, though the group chose to emphasise its polyphonic interplay ahead of its rhetoric.

The first dedicated instrumental work of the programme came with Dietrich Becker's Sonata I (from Musikalische Frühlings-Früchte), Knizia moving from the chamber organ to the harpsichord. This fine piece manipulates the narrow palette with occasional harmonic chicanery, demanding well-tuned playing from the violinists Benjamin Sansom and Philip Yeeles (neither of whom, commendably, was above bending notes to achieve a living, singing line).

Returning to Schütz's Symphoniae Sacrae I (Exaltavit) Atkinson demonstrated a coloratura to match the rigour of the violins, crowned with crystalline sound in alt, a perfect fit to the aforementioned acoustic. To showcase his soloist, Knizia then programmed an intimiate, unavoidably rhetorical work from the compser's Kleine Geistliche Konzert I, O süßer, o freundlicher, a love song to Christ with only Peter McCarthy's violone for company.

A pair of Buxtehude solo cantatas followed, separated by Purcell's Trio Sonata No. 9 'The Golden'. This work seemed to have a conspicuous bounce to its dancing rhythms compared to the more plangent German works of the programme, Sansom playfully delaying the realisation of the strong beat in his leading statements.

Buxtehude BuxWVs 38 & 39 set similar texts, upping the drama from the former to the latter. The group found some real composure in the second cantata's closing stages, taking time to savour the detached episodes of writing (not to mention Atkinson's crisp German).

The experience of fine but fairly niche music-making in this decorously sited City church was highly favourable. The concert - all their lunchtime concerts, and the monthly Bach Vespers service - is free, with tea provided. A retiring collection goes some way to making up the costs of hosting the event and reimbursing the train tickets of the performers (£5 is suggested as a donation, with Gift Aid envelopes provided). On this occasion an audience of around fifty were in attendance, many subscription holders of the Society but with a smattering of suited local workers.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Tobias and the Angel, Highbury Opera Theatre

The converted church of the Union Chapel in Highbury is a super setting for a theatre work which is essentially a parable. With its glowering Victorian brickwork and polygonally arranged raked seating all but in the round, the drama of the space is natural. Into this space Highbury Opera Theatre have committed their first major undertaking, a production of Jonathan Dove's opera Tobias And The Angel, a piece specifically organised to incorporate local amateurs as well as the professionals needed for its principal roles and orchestral score. Highbury Opera Theatre under their director Scott Stroman have a clear committment to community involvement with substantial numbers of non-professional performers on stage, in the gallery, and several dozen children in the pews beside the pit. No doubt a substantial proportion of the audience were out in support of friends and family ahead of coming to see the piece itself, but no audience is the poorer for the premise, as long as the performance is honest and strong.

Honest and strong. This was certainly the temperament of the show. In the best sense this was an artless evening where storytelling and communication were paramount. Principally here was the modest but clear voice of Tobias himself, Nicholas Allen, a charming Tom Rakewell-like figure in reverse. His guiding Angel, Michael Harper was one of a number of triumphant stage presences of the evening, a compsed trope of lore who knows how to stand on stage with great authority and calm, and showing a functioning tenor to support his lower countertenor voice.

The eponymous duo are supported by a fairly extensive cast. Tobias' parents were Denver Martin Smith and Kathy Taylor Jones, essaying woe in a tone not of shrieking neurosis but of rocking, troubled water. At the other extreme Julian Alexander Smith's frustrated but loving father Raguel and Cathatrine Rogers as his wife Edna are at the mercy of more present drama - possible murder, suicide, and all its attendant paranoia. Punchy singing reaching to the back of the space, especially when Rogers' high soprano spoke across the ensemble, marked high points in the vocal writing and execution for me.

Tobias' journey takes him to Raguel and Edna's daughter - his cousin - who is apparently cursed with the inability preserve the life of any of her previous husbands. Siobhan Gibson's Sara was arguably the most affecting of the evening's protagonists and it was just a pity that a throat infection had seized the baritone Robert Gildon, who preys on her mind from the spectral periphery. If his voice (sung in from the wings as he walked the role) were in fit shape then, on the basis of his acting alone, the drama would have really thrown us about.

However, just as this piece is not a simple vehicle for a conventional opera company, so the drama is not exclusive to the score. There is a great deal of choreography, from an early wild party t and execution o a samller ensemble acting out the hazards of Tobias and the Angel's journey (I love this sort of crisp, economical staging). A well-drilled corps de ballet danced themselves into credibility as a river with a crucial solo (sequin-scaled!) fish. Above all I loved the little band of 'Raguel's Men', grave diggers chuckling their way through burying yet another of the boss' sons-in-law - a show stopping quartet, not least as their's is difficult music negotiated with a keen eye for Stroman's beat and much back slapping. Couldn't get enough of it. The children's chorus did their bit too with significant support from Sarah Wilkinson's embedded direction, all of them putting energy into the light of Dove's familiar augmented modal writing.

Louise Radinger's staging made great use of the space and available lighting - nothing overdone, a nice coup at the end for the pulpit in the centre of the stage - and the band were beyond reproach... and game, with a trio getting up on stage to become the Shofar dance band. There was a special feeling in the hall, with everyone looking past the imperfections and muddled conventions of an evening's theatre to get at the heart of the piece and to take something from performance and performers alike. One hopes that such a positive project continues to draw such support from either side of the footlights.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Die Walküre, Royal Opera

Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Die Walküre © Clive Barda/ROH 2012
I saw this Walküre as part of the first cycle of Ring operas staged by the Royal Opera this autumn. I'll get straight to it. I've never heard such good singing on the stage of the Royal Opera before. Bryn Terfel's Wotan swept aside a lifetime's accumulated prejudices and easy, lazy nit-picking accrued from tinny broadcasts on car radios, CDs being played in a room next door or hagiographic TV shows more in love with his totemic, masculine Welshness. Stripped back in this most demanding of operatic roles, I was pummeled and caressed, confided in and spat at and I can barely remember whether it was his sound or his bearing that was the agent. For Terfel is not just a fine singer but an actor as well, as required by his calling. His gestures happen within the ribbon of the music, never bouncing out of it. It was complete.

Trying to eye a performance objectively under these circumstances is a difficult proposition. All the parameters are out of whack. Luckily there were others on stage (and off) who were in the same league. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Seglinde was as good a vocal performance as Terfel's. Singing in her prime, phrase climaxes are glorious vistas of sound rather than great blitzkriegs. I also liked Simon O'Neill's nickel-plated Siegmund whose vocal seemed appropriate for his character's sense of purpose, if not the bear-like masculinity of others' portrayals.

Susan Bullock was hindered from the off by a safety cable malfunction on her entry. It's notable as Brünnhilde's arrival is an energetic affair and anything putting the breaks on will affect the impetus behind the singing too. By the all-important third act though (masterfully and minimally staged in Keith Warner's revival of his production) she was well in control with easy top notes. John Tomlinson's Hunding and Sarah Connolly's Fricka were both highly polished, professional characterisations. A special impression was made by the team of Valkyries in a feral staging of the third act with Sarah Castle's Siegrune with a contralto projection every bit as powerful as her 'sisters' in alt and Elisabeth Meister's precision in that higher reach, as a baying, horse-skull wielding Helwmige reaching but not rasping right through to the back seats.

I have since heard that the orchestra has taken a curtain call from the stage following the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. This is probably right, as the score is a mountain range not only to scale but to render with beauty. Alas, I felt that it was surprisingly untidy for this fine orchestra. The physical violence of the opening forte-pianos just could not be sustained. Perhaps there was a lack of pacing. However my disaffection was redeemed by some truly exquisite woodwind playing in the third act.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Pastel Dreams of Les Demoiselles

Finally I have got around to watching one of the key works in Michel Legrand's output (OK, it's Remy's film, but I'm Legrand-fixated). Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is the follow up to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg but no sequel. From a musical viewpoint, one of the principal differences is that it is not through-sung; there is spoken dialogue. What it does retain is character, that sense of parochial lightness - and the sharpness of the drama when that goes awry.

Principally though Les Demoiselles is a fantasy ballet. From the first improbably shot taking from various perspectives on the Rochefort-Martrou suspension bridge to any number of ensemble set pieces on the streets of the town itself, co-ordinated costuming and choreography are the beating heart of the film. It's no surprise then - though a stunning coup - when the godfather of the Golden Age Hollywood musical Gene Kelly turns up (as a composer, i.e. as Legrand. Told you it's about him).

The sisters of the title are musicians and tell us as much in a charming, bouncy numbet hat starts the film and reappears later. The distinctly European DNA of the enterprise becomes clear when the girls try the only dedicated, diegetic song and dance routine of the film (above). A version of Monroe & Russell's red-sequinned showpiece in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it looks studied. Indeed Remy might even have filmed it as such to better realise the breeziness of the rest of his conception.

The essence of the film is distilled in a set piece, known as the concerto ballet, when Kelly and Françoise Dorléac finally come together to acknowledge the love that all but exploded into flower near the film's start. The sequence forgoes the natural causality of the story, making the same assumptions as the audience, and gets right down to the dancing in a gleaming, Elysian temple that is the music shop to the proto-Rachmaninov gushing of Legrand's ersatz piano concerto.

The bittersweet character - the poignancy of love - that the sequence carries became all too real immediately after the film was completed, as Dorléac was killed in a car accident.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Britain

Tate are calling it The Victorian Avant-Garde. That certainly puts me on my guard, given that the pre-Raphaelite movement has always struck me, as a precursor to the Aesthetic Movement, as being concerned with art above political or aesthetic confrontation.

Well, I struggled to find the avant-garde in this exhibition, partly, I suppose, as there was little context alongside the exhibited are in which to couch it (the Picasso/English Masters exhibition earlier his year had it built into the title, for example). The iconoclasm seems to exist merely in the use of ecclesiastical arched frames, culminating in William Holman's famous The Light Of The World (1852, right).

Biblical figures and scenes are co-opted in the pre-Raphaelite movement but as interesting narratives rather than proselytising art. The emphasis is on story and style rather than message or philosophy. There's a lot of pathos rather than moralising in pictures of Christ in childhood, for example and a later Ford Madox Brown picture of Christ's silhouette caught falling on crossed beams of wood in his father's workshop is deleteriously camp, completely self-absorbed.

Madox Brown's fine picture Work (1852-65), a moralising road-building scene set in Hampstead, is an exception, although it does suffer from the excess of detail that these pictures can be burdened with. Edmund Millais sublimates this most effectively and the ever-popular Ophelia (another arched frame!) benefits from the almost forensic approach to rendering nature. It is the parity nature is accorded with the mysticism of the Biblical narratives that makes the pre-Raphaelite movement interesting, presenting nature as hyper-reality as the industry of Victoriana takes over from the now-taking roots of the psychological enlightenment of early Romanticism.

Such burgeoning of reality has to break though. The later rooms show the stylistic abstractions of William Morris, the figurative visions of Burne-Jones and the poor, over-perfumed pre-impressionist art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It's no surprise that the narrative psychedelics of Burne-Jones' tapestries should have appealed to Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who has loaned two tapestries of his own collection for the exhibition.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Music in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is predicated on its function - the creation and ordering of sound in film making. Peter Strickland's new film is at once sumptuous and disturbing, almost abstract in its focused collage of images and sound, and all the time hinting at something below the surface.

Naturally the making and application of sound is extremely important. Strickland has blogged and interviewed about the process at some length. I would recommend an account of the process for Film 4 and an interview in MOJO about his musical influences.

One might also want to read Strickland's blog, which seems to act as a scrapbook for his interests. I went to it as I am interested in two pieces of 'classical' music imported into the film.

*possible spoiler alert*

First of all there is Luigi Nono's Musiche per Manzù (1969), a slowly shifting, metallic composition with stretched-out vocals on tape. The piece was originally intended for a film itself - a document about new doors for a church in Rotterdam damaged in the war.

In his blog, Strickland flags up a short document on the Studio di Fonologia, a Milanese version of experimental workshops, like Karlheinz Stockhausen's Cologne laboratory or IRCAM in Paris, where Nono worked. Founded in the mid 1950s by Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio (yesterday I tweeted a "pun" about the film being a biopic of singer Cathy Berberian but, of course, that comes back to bite me as the soprano was famous for her collaboration with both Berio and Maderna) the Studio di Fonologia was distinct from explicitly cinematic studios like Cinecittà, concentrating on sound and music for it's own sake.

Given the abstracted nature of much of the music and sound in the film (though, as Strickland has pointed out, all the sound has some diegetic origin, even if the sound and its source doesn't always coincide on-screen), probably the most startling moment in the film is a breakaway to something apparently conventional. A documentary film about the Surrey countryside takes over (as if Strickland has just interpolated it wholesale). It's like Toby Jones' psychosensually-besieged Gilderoy suddenly has a moment of 'clarity', not only recalling the England he claims to have left behind but also the sort of innocent work that is the exact opposite of his present project. The music that accompanies the film is the appropriately halcyon Lark Ascending by Vaughan-Williams, (in this recording by Hugh Bean conducted by Sir Adrian Boult).

What I found remarkable about experiencing this music at this point in this film was how alien, how wrought it felt. The Lark Ascending is a fine piece, much loved for its alchemic ability to conjure a bucolic vision of a former Albion. But that alchemy is in its compositional art and having adjusted to the immediacy and imaginative associations of the Berberian Sound Studio soundscape it struck me as just as overripe as the saturated colours of the film which it accompanies, when in this context.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Mittwoch aus Licht, Birmingham Opera Company

For the past three months I have been preparing for and participating in a short run of performances of Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht with the Birmingham Opera Company. For all our insider knowledge of the staging, and the information we were offered in order to help us make sense of it, this is still a bewildering art-work in which to find oneself and I thought I'd try to record the experience in order to get a grip on it.

This production of Mittwoch is a first as the technical demands (principally, logistics and cost) have scuppered any previous attempts at a contiguous staging. In addition to the infamous, unconventional helicopters and the usual paraphernalia of producing conventional operatic staging, there's also the apparatus necessary to suspend a dozen or so orchestral players from the ceiling and the intricacies of wiring every performer for sound, mixed live and projected octophonically in two auditoria. That and hogging all Birmingham's available yellow paint (the colour assigned to the opera).

It's a relief then that a production that might reasonably sustain accusations of profligacy exhibits just as much lo-fi, real-time theatrical graft with which to present Stockhausen's conceit. Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company co-opted the Argyle industrial estate, a plot between a canal and a ring road providing a two-hall factory and a now-familiar temporary home for the company. However this familiarity in no way compromised its appropriation for Mittwoch as its size and anonymity (and faintly dystopian resonance) makes a suitably vast, blank space for this alien piece.

Crucially, labouring underneath all the high-end electronics and ambition were not only traditional singers, instrumentalists and dancers but also a large number of enthusiastic, amateur locals. The community corps of the company were present throughout the production, embedded either with the 'professionals', or the audience or performing in their own right. In this more than any other piece they seem to carry the philosophical-aesthetic kernel of Stockhausen's vision; that the boundaries between the world and the performing space are fluid and that the sound and theatre of the event within should envelop and permeate. True Gesamtkunstwerk. Incidentally, Wagner, whose own music dramas were responsible for this term created his final piece in this mould as a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or 'stage-consecrating festival play', which is just as good a way of describing Mittwoch.

The opera opens with this body of actors in a tableaux of visions, Greeting, picked out in a blackened hall with sharp lighting. These move across the diegesis offered by the factory building, with characters climbing pipes on the walls in nimble parkour routines or a child's face at an interior window, moving into more confusing images; pregnant women moving between impassive men, a naked woman washing in a child's paddling pool, a woman knitting or weaving like a Norn aboard a massive dais on casters. A man with a model of a commercial airliner picked out in the centre is particularly startling (but more of that later). The effect of the whole, underpinned by a slowly shifting synthesized backing is very strong, a nicely calibrated theatrical acclimatiser, warming up the audience's imagination.

The next scene (the first of the opera proper) is in the adjacent hall. World Parliament is an exclusively choral piece performed (by Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra) atop fifty or so yellow step ladders (in place of the Fritz Lang or Ayn Randian like vision of their straddling skyscrapers). Dressed as politicians whose national flags are painted on their faces, the undulating discussion makes sense through the waves of gestures coming from different sections of the choir and the lines of (consistently well-sung) individual solos. Any risk of pomposity, or that the symbolism of the costuming, nationalist make-up or the elevation of the performers may be drying the drama is punctuated by a prosaic interruption from a traffic warden. This is one of a number of a number of boyish interpolations - prescribed by Stockhausen, rather than Vick - which help the audience keep a grip on the reality of the performance amidst the psychedelia. The smearing of the make-up at the conclusion to uni-form their appearance is a nice simple touch in keeping with the rather earthy, sexualised acting.

The subsequent scenes are at the heart of the piece. Orchestral Finalists has a dozen instrumentals suspended from the ceiling, bobbing, cavorting, misbehaving and occasionally playing, whilst the acting company rush in and out, taking on their own bestial characters or in reaction to the instrumentalists. It's a theatrical menagerie, and the most explicit statement in Stockhausen's drama to the evolutionary continuum that formed the centre of his philosophy. This is the vision of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, above), where the split-second transition from apes to space travel is midwived by Johann Strauss - and catalysed by strange electronic transmissions.

Indeed, there is also a spaceman in Orchestral Finalists. Flight in general is becoming important, with origami birds and paper aeroplanes introduced among the musicians 'flying' above the ground. It's into this situation that the commercial airliner from the opening is introduced once again. Strong for being a unique, repeated trope, I suddenly found myself associatively confronted with 9/11, and not least as the tableau concludes as the actor bearing the model meets a mimed London underground train carriage (the scene dissolves into white-rabbit watch-checking). In a possibly anachronistic work of art (the original conception for Licht dates from the early 1970s) with its warm but nebulous messages of mysterious psychological associations and international unity through (sexual) love, this token seems hard, dark and up-to-date. Stockhausen's reputation suffered after he made comments about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of the themes of Licht. Though there isn't an immediate suggestion that this symbol is intended to refer to either his comments or the event itself, it does serve to open that pocket of the imagination. With the possible exception of the final scene, Mittwoch appears to have little story and so little in-built tension with which to propel the drama. The introduction of such a symbol as a commercial airliner (Lufthansa, not United Airlines-liveried, it should be said) is a bold move to stretch the envelope of the experience at hand without manipulating or commenting on Stockhausen's intentions. I suspect it's also a characteristic sleight of hand on the part of Vick, focusing the experience without skewing its meaning. What the director couldn't have foreseen (one assumes!) is that during the first run-through, a fire in an adjacent tyre factory would provide a smoke-cloud backdrop to the images being broadcast from the helicopter cameras, which might recall airborne TV cameras during 9/11, even if only in the fiction of memory.

Whatever the production symbolism, the opera's meditation on flight is most explicit in that Helicopter String Quartet, the next scene. Impeccably - and informally - rendered by the Elysian Quartet, pilots, technicians and the 'Essex boy of Sri Lankan descent' Radio 1 DJ Nihal, the piece itself cannot quite sustain its own profuse ideas. However, it is extraordinary that such violent sound can be organised to provide a potentially tantric experience for the audience and I did find myself mesmerised after the manner of Messiaen or even Steve Reich's Different Trains.

After a break (curry in the car park!) came Michaelion, the final scene, that in which I was participating as part of London Voices. The flight thematics have now dispersed in, once again, a Kubrickian-psychedelic flight into the universe, with Brahmin regeneration at its end. The most conventionally operatic staging, this is a dark, dynamic piece for a choir of soloists and four virtuosic guiding instrumentalists. Characters rush into one end of the hall, stained with nuclear-bright effluent as if caught in an explosion, and attempt communication with some alien music of the spheres. If World Parliament was the Pontificate, then this is the Catholic proletariat looking for guidance, if not salvation. As in the menagerie of Orchestral Finalists, this scene reminded me of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility Of An Island, a dystopian sci-fi work where futuristic humans at different stages of their evolution are reduced to bestial communication. And bestial it is, as the company is visited by a camel, greeted in ecstasy but once again moderated with the bizarre, prosaic episode of having its hooves shined and then being fed alcohol.

It is almost impossible to tell what is being communicated - a fact built in to the dramatic approach of this staging - with the lo-fi approach extending the the use of hand held instruments (literally bells and whistles). Additionally the singers act out stymied interaction with a soloist with a radio set, Vedically transformed from the camel who has keeled over. With no conclusion to these transactions, there is a sense of wonder and sorrow at the close. A laconic trio of instruments, the Basset-Horn Trio, orbit the soloist like planets before the chorus move out into the hall to sing an epilogue in the form of a sextet echoing the closing of a Bach passion. With the company's actors embedded in the audience in yogic poses, it's impossible to know where to ground one's sense. My experience was one of expansion, dizzyness: too remarkable for a modern post-industrial disaster, too dark for spiritual ecstasy.

Perhaps in an attempt to address this, the production ends with drinks in the first hall, an artistic decision to incorporate the Farewell, a chance to meet the performers and discuss the piece. I was grateful for the reality check, which came under yet more solar system symbolism, a large yellow light after the opera's colour, a replica of the sun such as in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) or even Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2003) for Tate Modern (above). I felt as if I was a passive party in some Mayan benediction.

In rehearsals with our Musical Director Kathinka Pasveer I had asked about the text and meaning of the close of the opera proper. It was important to learn that the influence of The Urantia Book, Stockhausen's source text for the characters referred to in the opera had little influence on its content. The more important texts are those intoned by the tenors at the close of Michaelion, Stockhausen's self-penned lines of the principles applied to his 1968 work Aus dem sieben tagen (after he had read the teachings of Sri Aurobindo) - the need for being receptive to and relaying music already abroad. Equally, the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, intended as a guide for the Bardo (the end of one life and the beginning of the next) and a text with which Stockhausen did spend a lot of time, undoubtedly finds its own mystic, serious and alien inflection at the close. The enemy of this is the rationalising Lucifer, fruitlessly trying to impose order throughout with the persistent counting down from thirteen.

At the curtain call it was as if I were applauding everyone, including myself and those not present. I learned nothing - but here at my desk, a day later, I feel freshly sensitive to things both concrete and imaginary.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Last Projectionist at The Electric, Birmingham, etc.

During a brief stay in Birmingham I had the good fortune to attend a screening of the documentary The Last Projectionist (2011) in the cinema the film features. The Electric in Birmingham has gone through a number of incarnations and is now a restored, clean and bright two screen independent - with a management sufficiently proactive to have also produced and directed the film itself. I saw the film in screen two, sitting in a seat that is used in the film I was watching; on leaving the building I took an opportunity to congratulate the producer who had just finished talking to his staff about some sundry matter in the bar.

I found the film itself charming and informative, good-humoured, sanguine but nonetheless passionate. As usual I have written a short piece on IMDb.

The cinema has decided to go the way of the handful of independents - the Phoenix in North London, The Electric in West London and the Rex in Berkhamstead - in creating a higher-end atmosphere front of house, with restored period fittings (such as the original kiosk Automaticket dispenser, right) sitting alongside comfy seating areas and a comprehensive bar. I'm a functional cinema-goer and rarely indulge this part of the experience. My impressions of the cinema are based on the auditorium: comfort, audio-visual quality and sightlines, for example. Screen two benefits from a small stage area in front of the screen, which is similar to the second screen my favourite independent, The Picturehouse Uckfield. Such a space not only gives the screen and so the film room, but also formalises the presentation in an unquantifiable manner. Claustrophobia is not conducive to a good screening experience.

The Last Projectionist was the second of two films I saw during the week at the cinema. At the first, Ted , I was very much aware of the spectres of the fleapit that the cinema was at periods in its development. That's fine for a smutty comedy such as this and my experience was none the worse for it. After all, the sagacious talking heads who bemoan the loss of the cinema experience of old are more interested in the quality of the film itself.

The 'Giant Screen', Millenium Point
Interestingly, one of the men talks about his equivocal relationship with IMAX and we are shown footage of him manipulating the vast reels with a small fork lift. The implication is that this takes place at an IMAX in Birmingham's Millenium Point. However, when I went there a few weeks ago to see The Dark Knight Rises again, I was disappointed to find that the IMAX technology had been removed and that the cinema in place in the IMAX-style building was simply providing a greater capacity of screen (and volume). Some enquiries confirmed that films shown are not IMAX and despite their best efforts some of the civic promotional campaigns still refer to the venue as an IMAX cinema. It does make a difference but I guess that difference has a price tag. Clearly IMAX, for all its benefits of clarity and presence is an expensive proposition.

I did take an opportunity to see a straightforward film (The Bourne Legacy) in the central Odeon which is also featured in The Last Projectionist. Like many long standing post-war cinemas, it caters to large numbers but compromises on the seating and sightlines, with no raking to the seating. Parents brought young children and chatted - it was clearly a low-pressure afternoon out of the house. My favourite cinema experience over this time in Birmingham has been at the Cineworld - a more modern, purpose-built cinema whose sickly anonymity front of house is more than catered for by the screening experience within. It helped that I saw The Imposter which is a wonderful documentary.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

A Voice Of One Delight, Tete A Tete Opera Festival

Photo: Claire Shovelton
This evening I saw an opera being staged as part of the now familiar Tête à Tête Opera Festival, a fortnight-long showcase for new work no less intriguing, confounding and entertaining for its now being rather well established. I had come to see A Voice Of One Delight, a half-hour monodrama for solo mezzo-soprano in a production by McCaldin Arts. Such small-scale lyric dramas are the essential works of the festival, providing a coherent platform not only for composer and performer but for all involved in their production. A Voice Of One Delight was a high-calibre working example of this, a triplo espresso of poetry in music, staging and text, the title and content drawn from both the work and life's-end of the poet Shelley. As a friend of the production (full disclosure!) I would be inclined to see the best in the work. However it's always a pleasure to see one's expectations exceeded and for a multi-disciplinary project to come together with such consistency and quality.

Naturally, the unusually flamboyant coda to the life of one of the 19th century's most celebrated poets carries plenty of charge to fill out the 35 minute drama. The piece was born from a single image, Louis Edouard Fournier's The Burial Of Shelley, showing his open cremation on the beach in La Spezia where his body had been washed ashore following a naval accident. Originally a concert work by Stephen McNeff for the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin, this staged version has been adapted by the performer and the director Joe Austin.

The solo performer plays at least two roles, explicitly Shelley's widow Mary and his likely lover Jane Williams. Other voices, those of Williams' husband Edward, who perished with Shelley, and Byron splash into the narrative like waves. Words from all four and Shelley himself are both sung and spoken, the drama linked through in Stephen McNeff's music, the staging and video projection.

A Voice Of One Delight is not a conventional 'murder mystery'. There is a sense of cataloguing, of investigation with the stage dominated by a desk covered in scraps of paper studied and annotated by the performer. Yet this pursuit of understanding frequently dissipates. Other voices (literally, through live-mixed and pre-recorded sound design by Steve Mayo) distract, or a fragment of poetry or a journal becomes expanded in song. Throughout the opera - and this was key to my appreciation of the event - the more straightforward experience is emotional. The dry, archaeological pursuit of facts is continually dissolved. In A Voice of One Delight clarity is achieved through expression not explanation.

Photo: Claire Shovelton
For example, storage boxes line the back of the set, the archive inviting the investigation but they are more alive as symbols. Looking as if they might equally be a stack of coffins, they are most effective as a screen for Adam Young's video montage. This might be the elusive code of Linear B as a work of Shelley's. Either way, still or animated, it looks rather like the tongues of flame coiled around the beachside pyre. The papers already out and on the desk seem more like ash then letters; reading their contents into a microphone-as-a-dictaphone is instantly subsumed by the echoes of other voices and simply asserts the imperfection of memory.

The fateful voyage in the bay is replicated in a simple coup from designer Simon Kenny: a teal tablecloth (blending with the graphite grey of Clare McCaldin's dress) is pulled up and down to recreate the peaks and eddies of the sea for a toy boat (one is reminded of the Breton fisherman's prayer that JFK sat on his Oval Office desk - 'O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small'). A fan starts up to recreate the storm. If the sturm und drang of the paper being blown off the table weren't enough one has the mental image of the white peaks of the waves themselves.

For all the richness of the symbolism, A Voice Of One Delight relies on its performer to give life and coherence to the words, space and drama. Studio 2 at The Riverside favoured Clare McCaldin's strong recital pedigree and the chamber concert origins of Stephen McNeff's music with a dry-but-not-dead acoustic (not to mention the silent, absorbed audience). A carefully controlled sung line worked well with spoken dialogue (in two languages, English and Italian). Crucially, the staging had been worked out in conjunction with the choreographer Petra Söör. Careful, seamless transition emerges as key to the piece both from one part of the space to another and between characters. Clare McCaldin's gesture and movement is supple and measured with clear distinction in character between episodes. In this she was helped by the dramatically aware accompaniment of Elizabeth Burgess (playing a piano reduction of the score). The music requires as much care in its transition, moving in and out of focus, as the staging.

I went to see A Voice Of One Delight on consecutive nights, its two well-attended performances at the festival. I was struck that I had an identical experience on the second night to that of the first. Naturally, on a professional level this is testament to the consistency of the performance.

More to the point it gives an indication of what the work is trying to achieve. There is no revelation or catharsis in this work. Instead we are invited into the natural swell of the experience of Shelley's 'Pisian circle' of friends, but with the twin buoys of the poets' metaphors and the bare contemporaneous facts left intact, unexplained. It's a rare sort of work that presents a mystery that opens itself yet retains its mystique.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Recording Performance Digitally

This is an extract from a previous blogpost. It concerns issues surrounding ensemble artists collecting and using digital media and the wider understanding of its availability and use. It also touches on its disposability.

'The New Pact'

The one unmentioned issue here is the sensitive one concerning copyright. By this I mean discussion about both capturing an artist's work and, a wider point, whether a necessarily ephemeral, acoustic art can bear digital recording and dissemination. My view, always contingent on the state of the technology, is similarly twofold: that the ubiquity of devices and platforms for its dissemination makes it difficult to resist; and, consequently, that that ubiquity changes the manner in which people talk to and about one another, increasingly incorporating digital media as part of the vernacular.
Live performance is precious, unique, and should be protected. The law dictates that recorded performances are the property of the artist and this should be respected (in particular, artists should be able to rehearse without having to worry that errors, experimentation or necessarily half-formed performing is being captured). However, the embattled rigour with which performers go about defence of this right labours in the face not only of the overwhelming ease of recording and the common informality of its exchange but also the usefulness for the artists themselves. My professional website is peppered with useful pictures, sound and video clips found freely across the internet which give a much more substantial example of the sort of work that I do. Very little of it actually reproduces my voice itself, in isolation. I can pick and choose what I show. Most of the material is of such little interest to anyone that it might as well not be there at all - like I mentioned, it has likely been uploaded for storage or archive rather than active sharing. I'm not advocating the blanket acceptance of recording. Artists should always be consulted about the capture of their work and image, not only as a legal necessity but also as a courtesy. What artists would do well to recognise is the changing attitude not only of the audience but also of the public. Talent shows, like The Voice, may seem irrelevant artistically or professionally but it does provide clues as to the sea change in both the market and the way art is discussed: the audience for digital media is vast but the content is as disposable as the conversation that surrounds it. The artist remains distinct and intact.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Singing Entrepreneur Forum Day 2

This Saturday I attended The Singing Entrepreneur Forum's second day of conference, under the umbrella of the Tete-A-Tete Opera Festival. The forum had been convened by working singers Darren Abrahams and Arlene Rolph with the intention of opening a discussion about the business of being a singer. The first day (I did not attend) was given over to singers discussing their work and how they define their success. This second day gave the (predominantly singing) audience the opportunity to meet administrative figures of the industry.

In the above photo, Darren is introducing the panel. The discussion chaired by former Royal Opera supremo Genista McIntosh addressed a number of issues: what's really being looked for in an audition; does blacklisting happen following audition; do you need a manager. Perhaps wary of professional indiscretion in a public arena, there wasn't quite the anecdotal exchange that would have informed the audience and humanised the panel most effectively. However they did make it explicit that their role is to employ singers rather than exclude them - a positive distinction.

After lunch Darren and Arlene led an open discussion about four stages of the career path: Training; Starting as a professional; Maintaining the career path; and Diversifying the career. The format allowed us to meet up and speak with one another. Apart from airing our concerns and offering our own opinions and solutions, it also gave us a chance to meet one another, clearly an issue that Darren feels strongly about.

Indeed, one of the great virtues of this experimental, unprecedented conference was discovering that we - a group of self-employed, necessarily (if possibly in-denial) entrepreneurs - need not work in isolation from one another. There is clearly a bit of a patchwork of information about working as a singer - an opera singer, in fact - starting with an industry-benighted approach in the conservatoires. Yet the wealth of individual experience is a huge resource of information and support. Furthermore, the ongoing conversation is necessitated by the need to disperse myths that aggregate because of the disparate nature of singers and singing.

The very fact that such an event is happening is heartening. It recognises the insecurity that even the best among us experience and offers the reassurance that not only are we not alone but that there are practical steps and solutions to issues both imagined and real. Anyone who attended the conference and who might have forgotten are encouraged to download the post-forum questionnaire and provide Darren and Arlene with the feedback which will give future events greater focus.

UPDATE: One of the speakers of day 1, tenor Christopher Gillett, has published his talk on his blog.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Dark Knight At The Opera

In his nicely balanced review of The Dark Knight Rises, The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw labels the film Wagnerian ('a superhero Bayreuth'). I think that this is an apt description of the film. No doubt its length (two and three-quarter hours) and various apocalyptic themes from apocalypse to heroes self-sacrificing and labouring in moral quandary justify this comparison on their own.

In addition, there is a technical but entirely appreciable way in which The Dark Knight Rises may be said to resemble a Wagnerian music drama. Wagner himself said that the most valuable part of his art was that of transition, from moving from one thought, mood or scene to another. Consequently his music doesn't always have clear arrival points. Rather it moves from one moment of tension or imbalance directly to another. Settling is deferred. Like a musical treadmill you can't help being carried forward. Wagner's goal was the propagation of unendliche melodie or never-ending melody, where the tune meanders like a stream of consciousness (Inception, anyone?).

Similarly Christopher Nolan's approach to editing has visuals, music and the dramatic sensibility overlapping. The original score composer, Hans Zimmer has a not-insignificant hand in this by writing self-perpetuating music. Feeding one another, tipping the next sequence of events off, informing the action not only of the moment at hand but of previous action, this tumbling causality keeps the temperature in motion - in fact this very mix of metaphors, climate and dynamism, though apparently oxymoronic, is precisely the character of opera, of any multi-faceted art form.

Nolan's great achievement in The Dark Knight Rises is that he manages this continual, homogenising imbalance consistently across the full span of this long film, a genuinely Wagnerian achievement, if only in stylistic terms. The downside is that it's a bit like a trying to read an extremely long sentence that sounds well-composed as you read it, but as it never finishes, one grasps neither its conclusion nor its basic argument. This, in addition to the widely reported inaudibility of the film means that its point is cut adrift of its patina, and risks leave the audience invigorated but unedified.

The Dark Knight's Pavane

It's the Dark Knight Rises weekend. There'll be plenty to say about it (I've seen it now and have a less-than-awed impression of the film) but just a quick note about the small chink of pre-composed music that crept in between the comprehensive wallpaper of Hans Zimmer's score. In a scene at a masked ball, Wayne dances with Selina to French composer Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte - or Pavane for a Dead Princess, surprisingly elegiac music for a film whose title suggests resurrection. Perhaps this conflict is symptomatic of the turbulence within the film, symptomatic of 'the coming storm' of which Selina speaks as she dances. Here is the orchestrated version as in the one in the film.

UPDATE: I've now taken the opportunity of seeing the film a second time. Understandably blind-sided by this curious but apposite use of Ravel I overlooked the excerpt of a Strauss waltz that precedes it at the ball.

Of course, it comes as no surprise to find Kubrick acolyte Christopher Nolan using the music of Johann Strauss in one of his films - Kubrick is single-handedly responsible for the cultural rehabilitation of Strauss through his use of The Blue Danube waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of a Strauss waltz has no further symbolism in this situation, operating as much as a trope of the society dance as any other familiar symbol in genre film. Though there is, incredibly, no information in the closing credits about the title of the waltz or its performers, unlike the Ravel (performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski) I believe it is the Wine, Women and Song waltz Op. 333. See if you agree:

UPDATE 2: A well-informed friend has confirmed that this is indeed the waltz that Christopher Nolan uses in his film. Of course, this makes a great deal of sense, given that Bruce Wayne's appearance at the ball is partly by virtue of Alfred's instigation. The butler urges his charge to get back out into the world in order to try to start living life once more, the philosophical kernel of the adage of the title of the waltz.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Designing 007, Barbican Centre

This exhibition celebrating 007 in his 50th year on film is quite an undertaking for the Barbican. There being 22 films with a 23rd imminent, there is a huge inventory of design tat that could be put on show. As it is, the show needs a fair bit of space, so they've set it up in three locations - The Curve gallery, a fairly new area underneath the Library and in a cinema space in the basement.

Besides original clothing, gadgets, set design sketches and models there are a number of screens playing pertinent clips from the films and interviews with key designers. These videos, freely available on the exhibition site, are some of the best things in the exhibition. Additionally there are on-set photos and some period footage; that of the French premiere of Goldfinger is very entertaining.

There are some ill-considered things. There's a picture of Lucian Freud on a wallchart showing Ian Fleming's involvement in the films, but apparently no information as to why. I asked one of the staff but she didn't know (Google saith - the artist painted Fleming's wife Anne, right).

In the Villains section there's a cabinet exhibiting the fencing gear from Die Another Day which describes the two sabres used in the fencing club scene as 'foils' (more information on the basic difference via Wikipedia).

Particularly odd and, I'm afraid, irritating was the construction of an exhibit of Solitaire sitting at her tarot-reading desk. Her shoes are virtually concealed but worst of all, the most important card(s) 'The Lovers', a pack of which Bond rigs in order to win Solitaire over, are harshly obfuscated by shadow falling from the candelabra either side. I asked an usher if she could move the candle sticks and she (reasonably) said that she couldn't. Later I spoke to a supervisor who tried moving the candlesticks while no-one was looking but they are adhered to the desk.

I would have liked to have seen more exhibits that are period influences on the style. The show is exclusively 007 and we have to take the word of the curator every time we read the line '... it was very fashionable' or the suchlike.

Finally, while I'm exhausting my whinging, the gift shop tat at the end, though dismissably silly did have one excruciatingly lazy piece - a Martini glass with a picture of an olive on the side of it. The point about Bond is not that he likes Martinis but that he likes them 'shaken, not stirred'. He's not a drinker but a specific drinker. In Casino Royale, book and film he dictates the component parts of a Martini and how it should be prepared before naming it the Vesper. This drink does not have an olive but a twist of lemon peel... as one can see from the badges and tea towels on the next door table.

This give-them-any-old-shit mentality aside, I found myself drawn in almost exclusively by the women's costumes. Pam Bouvier's complicatedly-colourful halterneck gown by Jodie Lynn Tillen is not only worth seeing for real to get its detail. I also felt the teenager in me that clapped eyes on Carey Lowell and suddenly broke out into pubescence. I had a similar reaction to seeing Vesper Lynd's purple gown by Lindy Hemming. Tantalisingly, there's also a Jany Temine gown that will be worn by 'Severine' in the forthcoming movie Skyfall.

Touchingly, I also appreciated the industrial gnashers that were worn by Richard Kiel as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me; there's a note next to them, describing how the actor had to remove them after every take as they were too uncomfortable to wear for long. A sweet anecdote about the most brutal henchman of the series.

There are bits and pieces outside the exhibition proper too, including the Aston Martin DB5 at the entrance + Tussauds-style Connery for the photo-op. But the now-ascendant cynic in me saw these simply as carrots to reel in passing trade. The obviousness and rather imperfect mounting of the exhibition coloured my view of it. The best exhibit is that which is not pointed at at all - the upper atrium of the Barbican Centre itself, used as a location backdrop in A Quantum Of Solace (2008).

Saturday, 7 July 2012

To The Light - Yoko Ono at The Serpentine

I have to confess to not being as excited about this exhibition as I might be at any of the other significant shows in London at any given time. However, my involvement in the forthcoming production of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht for Birmingham Opera fired my interest in this most famous advocate of the Fluxus movement. Stockhausen's aesthetic and compositional approach of the 1960s had much in common with the art group. Indeed it is likely that the composer met and worked with Yoko Ono on visiting New York in the early 1960s. To understand something of the approach of one of these sizeable figures of 20th century avant-garde art is to understand something of the other. Or at least that's the theory.

To The Light is largely a retrospective but it also has new work. In fact, much of the new work mirrors (if not 'updates') the original pieces of the 1960s. For example 'Cut Piece', the famous performance piece in which Yoko would invite an audience to snip of parts of her clothing as she sat impassive on the floor has a contemporary counterpart and both were on show.

There is also the famous piece by which John Lennon first made Yoko's acquaintance. Yes constitutes the word 'Yes' written on the ceiling. Being in such an unusual, inaccessible place and being printed in small lettering means that it is necessary to climb a step ladder and use a magnifying glass in order to read it. I liked the simplicity of a companion piece in the next room in which 'This is the ceiling' and 'This is the floor' are written on the floor and ceiling respectively (without accessibility aids).

At the centre of the exhibition is a maze constructed of perspex walls. It is possible to see right through the edifice - but, surprisingly, this makes it no easier to find one's way to the centre. It reminded me of Yayoi Kusama's mirror maze in Tate Modern's recent retrospective.

There's also a very new project in which visitors are invited to participate. Smile looks to collate photographs of everyone in the world smiling. This is a typically hippie conceit - impossible to realise but no less charming, or powerful for it. Unfortunately this one is hamstrrung by the photos actually on show, in which the British public manage to not look at the camera, do silly hand gestures or simply not smile at all!

The piece that got me though was Painting To Be Stepped On (1961). Like many of Yoko Ono's work it is concentratedly conceptual. A work with political roots, this piece of canvas left on the floor and designed to acquire the footprints of those who follow the instruction of the title has acquired another part - its date. Where, in 1961, Painting To Be Stepped On would have invited discussion about the uniqueness of the imprint of a shoe or about the acquisition of a record of neglect (those imprint being from passers-by), now the piece is also an artefact. It has moved from an object of little material worth inviting discussion to being an object in its own right - even if only as it represents the time of the the conception of the idea.

Painting To Be Stepped On records the unwitting 'beauty' of imprint and purpose in the footprint of someone walking somewhere - despite the piece's title, the instructions are less determinate, less inviting, the idea for the canvas to be left out to acquire footprints. Similarly, Stockhausen's text work of the late 1960s made an effort to strip away the composer as intermediary - even the performer-as-composer - and get the performer to play according to a more naturally realised instinct.

The ephemeral nature of music making means that creating an object that then remains as an artefact to help us get a grip on this is difficult. The point about Stockhausen's work in this area is that there is no score. However, the principals that such pieces fostered are carried over into the contradictory nature of later work such as the Licht operas, pieces at once formally highly prescriptive and yet peppered with instruction for approximation in both timing and pitch.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Willem Dafoe's iPod in The Hunter

Today sees the release of Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter. The film is a vehicle for Willem Dafoe, who plays a mercenary, Martin David, contracted to do a job in the Tasmanian outback.

A familiar sub genre of the right-of-passage movie, the hard-bitten professional David uncovers his deep-buried humanity as the film progresses. This is represented by the music that he plays on his iPod, which is all classical music, helped on its way with a sudden blast of Bruce Springsteen (I'm On Fire). It is particularly of note that the three 'operatic' extracts have pastoral texts, i.e. they are songs about the landscape and its wildlife, which, one might reasonably argue, is the main character of the film.

To begin with, we find David in his hotel, listening to Antonín Dvořák's Song To The Moon, from the composer's most famous opera Rusalka:

In the song, the eponymous protagonist Rusalka, who is a water sprite living in the wood, asks the moon to tell a human Prince of her love for him.

After David has taken the contract we get the second extract of music. Ombra mai fu, from the opera Serse, or Xerxes, is the most famous aria from Handel's entire operatic output. Again the chief character sings, this time directly to a tree about the shade it provides him.

Finally - of the three solo vocal excerpts - is the exotic Chant d'Auvergne, Bailero, by Joseph Canteloube. This is not from an opera but part of a set of folksong arrangements. Bailero is the best known and is in the form of a dialogue with a shepherd across a valley.

Later, after The Boss has forced its way into the party via a needle left on a record, David appropriates the sound system on which it was playing to broadcast the opening of Vivaldi's Gloria. This is a popular, bouncy piece of music, if rather bland, a sort of MOR classic of classical music. As in the film though, kids love it.

Finally, this scene is followed straight away by Vivaldi. After the churchy words of the Gloria we are back in pastoral territory with a movement (Largo) from the composer's The Four Seasons suite for orchestra and solo violin. Appropriately enough it's from Winter - and that plink-plink effect you can hear in the orchestra? Well that's supposed to be water dripping from icicles as they thaw. A bit like the thawing heart of a trained killer, see?

Please note that the performers in these clips are not necessarily the performers in the excerpts used in the film.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Spiritual Spacemen

Struggling with the whole concept of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht, a review of a new Bowie biography in this weekend's Observer has really captured my imagination. The book concerns the 6 July 1972 Top Of The Pops broadcast in which David Bowie appeared in his spaceman-from-Mars alter ego, Ziggy Stardust to perform Starman. It looked like this:

Space travel seems to have been a powerful metaphor during counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. Star Trek's glossy fiction came off the air in 1969, the year that, photographed in grainy fact, man first set foot on the moon. Fiction gave way to fact.

This change in perspective (looking out into space becomes looking down from space) is mirrored in a pair of spacebound films meditating on man's relationship with one another, made either side of the landing. 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, takes off into space like a mind-expanding trip. By contrast, 1972's Silent Running soberly pines for a lost earth, as Bruce Dern's desperate astronaut refuses to destroy the last scraps of vegetation aboard his dystopian raft of a ship.

You can even watch the whole film via YouTube here.

Silent Running was released in the same year, 1972, that Bowie released Starman. The ambiguity of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona and how the singer used it to investigate a new tranche of cultural consciousness may seem different from Bruce Dern's rather more politicised, if visionary astronaut. Yet both characters are clearly making use of the new consciousness and acceptance of space travel to re-examine the nature of their place in society.

Indeed, Bowie famously abandoned his Ziggy alter-ego the following year but went on to make a film about the vulnerability of a visiting alien in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976. Roeg had already made a film, Walkabout (1971), using excerpts from Stockhausen's Hymnen in the soundtrack.

Twenty years on, the vulnerable alien highlighting the moral inadequacies of earth was reworked by electronic-dance outfit Orbital in a celebrated video starring Tilda Swinton to accompany their 1996 single The Box, released at the same time as the actual composition of Mittwoch (1995-1997).

This is all intriguing, pertinent stuff. Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht is part of an operatic cycle involving the usual human drama of personal and political conflict but set within intergalactic context. Though the piece was completed more than a quarter of a century later, Stockhausen actually conceived of the opera's composition in the early 1970s (the story in which he was handed a copy of the theosophical text The Urantia Book, the Scientology-like opus on which the opera cycle became based, can be read in this New York Times piece).

For all this toe-dipping in to the material reality of the cosmos in the early 1970s, the usual questions concerning existence and purpose remained. One can see how a text that combines the familiar thematic narratives of Christianity with an account of a now more fixed intergalacticism might have an appeal to a lapsed Catholic composer pioneering electronic music.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono, Stockhausen and Light

Tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Serpentine Gallery. To The Light is part of the series of events that constitute the London 2012 Festival. As it happens, the exhibition's inclusion in that portfolio of events was not the reason I had been thinking about Yoko Ono's work in the same synapse-span as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose opera Mittwoch aus Licht is being performed in Birmingham under the same umbrella. Neither had I twigged that Yoko Ono's exhibition bears the same name, Light, as Stockhausen's cycle of operas.

Instead, as a musician involved in the performances of Stockhausen's opera, I was trying to think about how one approaches the piece. For me personally - this is a blog and as such reflects my own opinion alone - the greatest challenge in performing this music by one of the previous century's most celebrated modernists is not to do with reproducing the notes of the printed music, difficult though it is. Rather, the challenge is one of understanding the aesthetic of the work: what it means and how the music tries to achieve that. That Yoko Ono is both a contemporary of a similar aesthetic stable and, in passing, a former collaborator of Stockhausen makes her history and work of particular interest.

My route to a better understanding of Mittwoch's position has been to try to learn something about Stockhausen's approach to composition and, consequently, his philosophy - the two are integrated. I have also tried to find out about the circumstances of the conception of Licht. All roads lead to a significant week in May 1968, when, during a personal crisis, Stockhausen turned to texts on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. The immediate compositional consequence was Aus dem sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). The relevance of this work is both in the philosophy of the Brahmin which permeates the Vedic-Christian concepts at play in Licht as well as the symbolic parallel of seven days (Licht is comprised of seven operas, one for each day of the week). This and the use of material from The Urantia Book which Stockhausen acquired in 1971 and which triggered the impulse to write the cycle, demand further investigation but probably in a separate blog post.

Above all, Aus dem sieben Tagen is a composition that is rendered entirely in text instructions. In pursuit of getting the performers to act purely on impulse, the score doesn't prescribe an object in notation. This approach is similar to that of the Event Scores of the Fluxus movement, of which Yoko Ono is probably the most famous practitioner. A post-Dada (or neo-Dada) import from Germany, Fluxus initially coincided with the chance compositional aesthetic of John Cage - a figure whom Stockhausen seems to have had a sketchy, equivocal relationship - before really establishing itself as a literary, visual and performance art movement, convened in New York in the early 1960s. Stockhausen joined the movement for various performances during this period, where he would have met Yoko Ono.

The basic idea concerned emancipating art from the formal straight-jacket of performance convention, space and prescription - i.e. notation. Interestingly, one of the more notable events in the history of the Fluxus movement saw the picketing of a performance of a work by Stockhausen, Originale, in September 1964. This performance, in fact:

Remarkably, hardline Fluxus members saw Stockhausen's intermittently careful scoring of the otherwise random events of Originale as contrary to the basic philosophy of Fluxus. One can identify certain technical consistencies extending from such a piece right through to Mittwoch; our music (Michaelion, the fourth scene of the opera) oscillates between being meticulously scored to being marked 'IRR', or irregular, demanding aleatoricism. Where the Fluxus with which Yoko Ono is associated is totally open to the circumstances of location and the involvement of others, the composition of a work like Mittwoch would seem to have an overarching formality.

Ultimately, both Mittwoch and the work of Yoko Ono (especially in the Smile project with which the Serpentine exhibition is concerned) have the same thematic umbrella, that of peace. The opera's narrative is one of conciliation and Yoko Ono's association and work with peace movements both formal and informal is well known, probably the chief reason for her high profile. Of course this was a powerful idea for change in the mid 1960s. The challenge is whether, for all the perennial value of wishing for universal peace and harmony, the counter-cultural message and artistic medium have any similar currency today. I'm sure a visit to the Serpentine exhibition may offer some answers to that.