The London Sinfonietta recently held a concert of three works-in-progress being developed as part of its Blue Touch Paper Programme. Blue Touch gives early-career composers the chance to work on music with the ensemble, which also arranges consultations with established composers, who in the past have included Gerald Barry, Olga Neuwirth, and Michael van der Aa.
Each of the three works was multimedia and each distinct in its respective exploration of what cross-disciplinary allows. In a time of encroaching institutional conservatism and where cuts to arts funding is the rule, it's refreshing to see value being put in experiment for experiment's sake. It's easy to forget that so much of what art gives us lies in its relation to the event of the unexpected.
East London's Village Underground was the venue. Though the 'underground vibe' was congenial for some of the artistic content, in other respects the venue might have been better: during the first work, for example, 100 Combat Troupes by poet K้lina Gotman and composer Steve Potter, much of the incidental action onstage was obscured because the stage was too low.
This fact notwithstanding, 100 Combat Troupes was the evening's most engaging work. Though it defies neat pr้cis, here goes: concerned in general with dreaming, and with the unique utopian power held by dreaming in relation to history and history's 'nightmare' (as Stephen Dedalus puts it), this music theatre work comprises five different dream-scenes, monologues for the most part: a superficial US dude ruminates on the mock-profundity of cereal boxes; a living Barbie doll, a Barbie girl in a Barbie world, rants spitfire niceties which soon turn sour; a man dressed in a bathrobe (the outstanding Adam de la Cour) engages in a grotesque burlesque before falling into a bath; a politically-engaged lady gives a leftist lecture on history; and in the final scene, the figures onstage huddle together and reach some strange mumbling community.
As an entr'acte between scenes, a female angel floats out to the front of the stage, warbling with bathos a song which as the work moves on gets more and more touching. The angel is or is inspired by the Angelus Novus, the Angel of History painted by Paul Klee and written about by Walter Benjamin. 100 Combat Troupes, then, is a soup brimming over with emerging images, meanings, contexts in a true sense hetero-geneous, the meeting place of wandering objects whose starting points are lost in time and whose common terminus is their comedically missing each other.
Witty, weird and well-polished music ties the whole together like a glowing soiled ribbon. In terms of drama and characterisation, and in terms of mixing the beguiling with belly-laughs, the work is a success though I wasn't taken with the history monologue, whose academicism was at the expense of the everyday. It will be worth watching for the finished product.
After this came Half of Me by Elspeth Brooke, Seonaid Goody and Anna Jones. A mixture of puppetry and music, the work revisits the classical myth of Demeter and Persephone: a mother and daughter here two striking, gaunt white puppets out walking together, suddenly become separated; the daughter drifting off into an adventure, discovering the world at large's marvels, the mother experiencing grief in her fruitless search for her daughter.
The two puppets interact with the musicians, trying to play their instruments, and in parts the puppeteers themselves sing. The somewhat quaint means of production it's not often you see puppet shows these days suits well the fairy-tale enchantment of the storyline, and the submerged dread underlying its archaic, mythic subject matter.
Last on the evening came Stephen J. Fowler and Philip Venables's The Revenge of Miguel Cotto. A combination of concert music and avant-garde poetry, it orbits on the subject of violence as it is instituted in the ritual of the boxing match.
I found this work a bit less satisfying than the others. Aside from the odd moment of humour, the overall effect aimed for in the staged clash of word and sound seemed, naturally enough, to be violence. This is found in the dissonance of the harmonic language, in the shouted vocal ejaculations of the two male vocalists who embody the sparring contest, and in the two punchbags on whose leather percussionists bash out a regular ritualistic pulse throughout the work. In some way it reminded me of the early music of Swans a work such as Cop, for example or Scott Walker's more recent Clara, which features a percussionist bashing out a rhythm on a piece of meat though I felt the present work didn't achieve the dark hypnosis of either of these.
Partly it's a matter of taste: musically the use of post-tonal language for dark ends is for me nowadays a bit lacking, though I'm sure many would disagree. Partly too I had a problem with the work's conceit: for me one of boxing's salient features is its being completely over-mediatised in its mode of transmission, the Big Fight Night on Sky Sports or what have you, leaving the violence impotent, neutered, set in friendly neon. That said, the work was sell-received by the audience in the venue.
A structured Q&A session followed, where some of the audience discussed the works-in-progress with the artists, though unfortunately I was unable to attend.
By Liam Cagney