Berio: O King; Rzewski: Coming Together; Dominic Muldowney: Songs of the Zeitgeist

Mary Carewe, Daniel Evans; London Sinfonietta/Christopher Austin

Kings Place, London, 26 January 2009 3 stars

Mary Carewe

Being part of 'The Art of News' project organized at Kings Place, 'In The News and On The Stage' was the last event of a three-day immersion into hybrid forms of musical engagement.

In fact, within this project, several artists offered their response to the potential for news stories to be fashioned into musical realization.

The genesis of the project itself is particularly interesting: asked to compose a new work for the London Sinfonietta, Dominic Muldowney was inspired by the functional ambivalences of Kings Place, where the orchestra resides. Indeed, the building is home to both an artistic centre and a national newspaper (The Guardian). 'The conception of the whole week is to work with vernacular texts', Muldowney explained during the pre-concert talk referring to his aim of creating music out of news stories. The outcome of his ambitions was his Songs of the Zeitgeist, which had its world premiere on 24 January at Kings Place.

Songs of the Zeitgeist is a multi-layered cycle of pieces. Its structure gave shape to the whole concert, whose first half was articulated as follows: firstly, a dramatic reading of the article by poet Graham Roos; then the recitation of the poem (by Roos himself) based on the article; lastly, a performance of each article-inspired song. As this structure exemplifies, Muldowney's theatrical heritage is evident: his previous collaborations include projects with the Old Vic Theatre and its artistic director Kevin Spacey. His composition, without the spoken sections, was performed one more time at the end of the evening, after Berio's O King and Rzewski's Coming Together.

Daniel EvansThe first song from Muldowney's cycle was inspired by an article from the Evening Standard: 'Why can't UK transports be like the French ones' is the title's wish. Graham elaborates his own reading of the news story, declaiming that 'in Paris the trains are romance'. Jazzy tones and monosyllabic cadenced rhythms accompanied Welsh tenor and Broadway actor Daniel Evans, whose light and resonant voice melded perfectly with the London Sinfonietta chamber orchestra. Then a song about honey-harvest and the bee-colony collapse followed, this signifying an oblique critique of climate change and fast-food culture. Songs about religious fundamentalism and Darwinism (most suited, 2009 being the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species) were part of the cycle as well. A composition about Obama exploited the sound-properties of the President's name: 'it's like a beautiful Italian word to sing', Muldowney states, 'with all its vowels'.

Songs of the Zeitgeist is a cycle that maintains strong musical coherency. This is the effect of several perceptible characteristics. The most prominent are the use of an electronic texture that, as Muldowney put it in his introduction, 'turns a chamber music piece into something more'; and the exploitation of acousmatique sounds (train-whistling, bee-buzzing), which makes the mind go back to the controversial musique concrète form, through which musicians exploited 'real life' sounds in order to defamiliarize them and to insert them into a new context.

I found particularly problematic the choice of the last piece of the cycle, which marked the ending of both the first half and of the whole concert. This was a song about Baby P., the seventeen-month-old boy whose closest relatives harmed him so badly that it lead to his death, without social services and doctors noticing in time. The story rightfully shocked the public. But together with causing indignation and a deserved enquiry on social institutions, the tragic event was exploited by the media and was abused in its commercial potentials. Muldowney and Groos offer their reading of the story. The first note of the piece was itself a severe judgement and a take of position: a grave and prolonged low note which left no ambiguities. Yet the words accompanying the musical realization did not provide an efficacious comment - in fact they simply paraphrased sensationalist newspapers' columns. Acousmatique sounds of a baby crying contributed to make the piece unnecessarily over-emotional. The effect of these choices was probably an involuntary one: in choosing to end the performance with such a piece, it reproduced the same mechanism as those governing tabloid headlines.

That said, I ought to add that I believe that Muldowney's aims were most honest and that his social comment was univocal. Yet something went wrong: in this case the narrative counterpoint didn't effectively sustain or complement the musical one, so that a sense of manipulation pervaded the piece, just as it could have pervaded The Daily Mirror's headlines. Muldowney willingly titled his cycle Songs of the Zeitgeist: surely Baby P's tragedy monopolised the spirit of a certain time.

Dominic MuldowneyThe second part of the concert continued to be a musical reflection on social themes. Berio's O King, a piece for voice and five instruments dedicated to Martin Luther King, was excellently delivered. Soprano Mary Carewe took on the difficult role of articulating stretched vowel sounds amidst the violin's and clarinet's violent blows. The ensuing piece by Frederic Rzewski, Coming Together, represented the apex of the concert. It was the piece that best embodied the aim of the whole 'The Art of News' project. In fact, in this case there was an efficacious fusion between spoken drama and music. Rzewski, often engaged in socio-historical issues in his compositions, was in this case inspired by the letters of an inmate at Attica State Prison, a prison that sadly made the headlines for its riots in 1971; these revolts brought to violent death many of the prisoners who were demanding better living conditions. Tenor Daniel Evans revealed excellent acting qualities, making the spoken text resound with moving effects. The interaction between dramatic and musical representation was drastic in this piece: each musician was called to perform sections of spoken text together with the actor/singer. The technical difficulties were persuasively hidden by an excellent cast of musicians, who not only offered a brilliant performance, but also visibly enjoyed their work.

I have not lingered adequately on the orchestral work. Throughout the whole performance, the London Sinfonietta musicians were impeccable. Their attentiveness towards technical details and their immense depth of sound was remarkable during each instant. In particular, cellist Lionel Handy and pianist John Alley's contribution to the pieces was outstanding.

The pursuit of the night was voluntarily one of social comment through the combination of several art forms. At the same time, a meta-artistic reflection on the interaction between music and different critical categories (such as news stories) was highlighted. On the technical side, the musical expressiveness was prominent compared to the lyrical aspect. But if we think of Muldowney's project as a way to spur further reflection, it certainly succeeded.

By Marina Romani

Photos: Mary Carewe, Daniel Evans, Dominic Muldowney

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Colin CurrieRelated articles:

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World premieres to celebrate the London Sinfonietta's 40th anniversary
Percussionist Colin Currie discusses creating a new work with the Scottish Ensemble
Experimental vocal music from the Sub Rosa label


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