Thursday 26 September 2013

An audience. (With Nicola Benedetti.)

While hanging around dangerously near the Royal Albert Hall box office during the Proms, I spontaneously purchased tickets for Nicola Benedetti's recital, which took place last night.

The performance itself was charming throughout and in places spectacular. Nicola B's latest CD is part-classical, part film music (I've hesitated to buy it, to be honest), so the programme reflected that, too: we heard the 'Schindler's List' theme, and something from 'Ladies in Lavender' (no idea) but I felt this sort of thing was comprehensively knocked for six by a dazzling Saint-Saens rondo, for example. A generous performer, NB included some ensemble pieces which allowed some fellow musicians - some of whom, including her sister, she had played with for some years - to shine. So, we heard a lovely early Mahler quartet, and best of all, the entire second half was given over to Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, written in memory of Nikolai Rubenstein. This work (Opus 50, for fans of, er, Opus numbers) was new to me, and I was totally hooked from about a minute in. Sombre, certainly, but always with a memorable hook or burst of jaw-dropping frenzied activity (as NB described it, talking through the piece beforehand, 'we're all scrubbing away!') around the corner, to catch you by surprise and keep you immersed.

Well, keep me immersed, at any rate. And Mrs Specs. I'm not sure I can speak for anyone else.

The Hall was packed. And yet I've never known an audience quite like it. It's as if they didn't really know why they were there. As regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) could attest, I've been to gigs of all types, shapes and sizes and I still wasn't quite prepared for the sheer randomness of this crowd.

Might need to make something clear at the outset - I am absolutely NOT an elitist, snobbish type who only wants cobwebbed experts at classical concerts. (I'm no expert myself, although I may possess a few cobwebs.) For example, people who get annoyed when folk don't know when pieces start or finish. I am NOT one of those. If someone accidentally claps between movements of a symphony or concerto, I am totally fine with that. You haven't ruined my night. In fact, good on you, applause-wielder, for coming along and getting into it. It'll be you and yours who turn up again and again, and keep love for the music going.

In fact, I am being ultra-inclusive, by not making excuses for people. I expect them to treat the music they've come to hear or investigate with respect and attention, whether it's their first concert or their thousandth. You won't catch me saying, 'Oh well, you've only come to three of these so far - of COURSE you'll be wanting to behave like an arse.'

Because that's what happened. Lack of politeness and consideration, on a kind of 'hive mind' scale. I did not expect to see or hear, for example:

  • A group of young women directly behind us who waited for each piece to START before swapping around in their seats, zipping and unzipping their bags, taking out drinks and clunking them against the seats in front, chatting. Maybe their local pub always has a world-class violin player on of an evening, hence their confusion.
  • A couple in front who were so loved up that the woman kept rubbing, disturbingly hard, her partner's bald head. It was like she was buffing up a billiard ball. In fact, I suspect he had a full head of hair when they met, now consigned into oblivion. The problem with such a smoochfest is the constant movement - snuggling together, then apart, then whispering to each other, then taking photos (after being asked not to) then FILMING! Thanks, my view is much better* now I can see it through your iPhone. (*No, it isn't.)
  • The bloke on my immediate right spent part of the concert trying to wrap his programme around his face. He was by himself, for some reason.
  • The woman to Mrs Specs's immediate left was using her programme to fan herself, but with so much literal 'gusto' that Mrs Specs was caught in the slipstream. The same woman also produced some eats for her son just as the lights were going down for the second half. Crisps. (To his credit, he lowered them onto the floor - RUSTLE, SCRUNCH, CRACKLE - for later.)
  • And if you're about to say - you were just unlucky, you obviously just had seats among a bunch of maniacs - well, you make a fair point. But I can still cite the incessant use of flash photography as well as constant movement between selections by audience members all over the Hall as signs of more remote irritations.
Also - the coughing. I know people always moan about this. What surprises me is that it got so bad during this concert that it became obvious: no-one with the slightest inclination to cough tried to stifle or tackle it. They coughed during the quietest moments. They coughed at the exact point between the music fading into silence and the applause starting. During the Mahler, I really felt like we were hearing a quintet with the audience as fifth member, on lungs. No-one attempted a gentle clearing of the throat. It was as if we were sitting in the middle of a raging TB epidemic. I've heard of 'mass consumption', but this is ridiculous, etc. Ho ho ho ho. *HACK*

Famed jazz egghead Keith Jarrett (and I LOVE him) has become notorious for railing at, er, 'ejaculating' audiences, accusing them of coughing through lack of attention span - that is, you're not transfixed enough so you don't try and suppress coughs, fidgeting etc. I still - just about - think this is a bit graceless and off-beam. First: if the audience really ARE bored (and they aren't), then arguably it's KJ's problem and responsibility. Second: it's a slightly awkward stance with KJ in particular, because he wails like a banshee when he plays. "Hey! You in the crowd! Shut your noise up!" *sits at piano* "Wurrrrrgh! Hnnnnnnng! Gnnnarrrgh!"

But I'm now starting to think that KJ has tapped into something that really could be true. Not that we might be too dull to engage with the music. More that some people now go to concerts with the point of view that the evening is in fact, really about them, and not the artist. Why should they behave differently out than they do at home? Why should they not do exactly what they want to, even if does affect others' experience?

Context is everything. My fellow gig-goers at, say, Camden Underworld do this sort of thing all the time (ok, perhaps not polishing the bald heads of their companions to a shiny glow, there's a mirrorball for that), but it's a standing venue, the music is always loud, etc etc. So you move about, and you chat. But extreme metal fans are often fantastically polite - the outlet for their pent-up energy is the noise itself. The rest of the time, enormous Vikings who are so hard they have tattoos on their piercings and essentially give the appearance they could snap me like a twig, in fact spend gigs buying each other drinks, taking quite a lot of care of each other, checking they're not in everyone else's way and basically behaving with twenty times the bonhomie and goodwill we witnessed at the Albert Hall.

And talking of the Albert Hall, I also gloomily realised that I had been spoilt by being part of so many Proms audiences - lauded by performers as among the most attentive, and silent, crowds worldwide. I hope Nicola B and pals were so 'in the moment' - and their performances would suggest so - they weren't affected by one of the least interested and aggressively selfish crowds of all time. Everyone stopped clapping as soon as possible, by the way, and headed off. Whatever encore they had prepared, we threw away.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Cello songs: Jo Quail

Back to Electrowerkz last night - London's most consistently surprising venue. Last time, the bar area had a carriage from a tube train in it. This time we were waved through an entirely separate series of corridors and up the stairs into a larger room (which I'm guessing is where the after-hours club nights take place). After a visit to the merch stand, I put my rucksack up on a nearby ledge to stow away my purchases, only to notice that the handy surface was a mortuary trolley. At least, it really looked like a mortuary trolley. Two of them. At that point I noticed that some of the headlining band's t-shirts seemed to be hanging off a gallows pole. I know there's a lot of goth/dark folk stuff at Electrowerkz, but if they were trying to get across a 'bad artists only play here ONCE' vibe, they were succeeding....

Top of the bill were the enigmatic Rome, who play 'martial folk' music. I'm not especially good with these kinds of genre names - martial folk, as far as I can tell, essentially means mostly acoustic music that still carries a power, drive and discipline (thanks, live, to some brilliant percussion work) that would suit a march - particularly of the funeral variety. It's reductive, though, because if you were really expecting 'martial' music, you wouldn't necessarily expect the range, sensitivity and soul you can get from this band in particular. Not sure they play over here very often - really glad I got to see them and will look out for them again.

I was actually at the gig to see one of the supporting acts, Jo Quail. Regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall that I'm a huge fan of Matt Howden, aka Sieben, who creates spellbinding music by looping only his violin and vocals. I'd seen Jo Quail's name in connection with Matt's work - they had shared stages before and in particular they played a recent gig together in Sheffield. Further investigation on YouTube and the like yielded remarkable results, so I ordered Jo's album, 'From the Sea'. The CD is a marvel, but witnessing a live performance brings home even more so the skill and flair involved in what she does.

Classically-trained, her weapon of choice is an electric cello - an extraordinary object in itself which barely moves (it's fixed firmly in place) but looks so arresting that it becomes the 'other character' on stage. Another devotee of looping, Jo builds each instrumental up layer by layer to include melody lines, and often percussive or atonal effects, to reach life-affirming levels of intensity and complexity. As a self-confessed 'how are they doing that?' geek, I would've been quite happy just to watch her play all night. My eyes were darting between her left and right hands, getting my head around the fact that she was controlling God knows how many streams of sound while picking the bass notes out at the same time. All the same - in the end, you kind of give up and give in to the gorgeous sound.

What can be more satisfying than to hear an act you really rate guide an audience (that for the most part is probably not their own) through that 'oh - hang ON' tipping point and into a smitten silence? Brilliantly, we got to hear some relatively meditative tracks from the current record but, in the mix, were two new songs from the next album which totally lifted the roof off (and no doubt sent the mortuary trolleys spinning out the back doors and down the stairs). 'Laurus' in particular - the track in the video I've embedded below - has a beat to rival any bit of techno or electronica (let's call it, er, "tech-llo" - yes, that'll catch on) and seeing just how she does it is enough to draw a 'Snakes alive!' from even the most reserved individual.

See her live if you possibly can. Yes, the music is great, but so is the performance. For a start, it's massively refreshing to see that at the moments of greatest intensity - when the artist seems to get truly lost in the music - Jo has a broad grin on her face. And while there are no vocals in the songs themselves, her chat to the audience between numbers is funny and engaging. About to tap the cello with a slightly odd-looking object (to achieve, no doubt, a particular kind of percussion sound), she told us, 'For those of you that don't know, this is my aunty Heather's hair-brush'. I'm now really pleased that, at future gigs, I will be one of the people who DO know. I will be able to look around me, nodding at bemused concert-goers, as if to say, 'Yep! It's aunty Heather's.'

The Jo Quail website is here - proceed! (I note with interest that Jo has her own logo and typeface. More of this sort of thing.) Check out the events page. Her next concert with Matt Howden (including a collaboration) is in Sheffield in early November. Then at the end of that month, she appears at St Leonard's in Shoreditch supporting Jarboe, along with Bitter Ruin, another band I've been raving about constantly in recent months. It's as if someone was trying to construct my dream bill. Hopefully see you there.

Now don't go before watching this:

Sunday 8 September 2013

Team players: 'Beyond Shame'

Something a little bit out of the ordinary to report on this time. I want to tell you about a play I saw a few nights ago - not my usual gig/exhibition 'comfort zone', so I'm exercising some slightly different writing muscles. Still - I had the best possible reason to be there. Full disclosure: the writer is a friend of mine, Sadaf, and this was her first play. 'Beyond Shame' had been accepted for a read-through performance as part of the Angelic Tales festival at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

The festival is designed to showcase new writers, and stages more or less a play per night for a week. The company behind the initiative, Team Angelica, choose the winning submissions, and start by mentoring the writers - Sadaf was keen to point out how helpful TA's John Gordon was in helping her develop the script. They then spend 1-2 days rehearsing each one until they're 'match-ready' to go before a live audience. To me, Sadaf was already a winner - to be one of the five selected (when the team received 75+ submissions) is a fantastic achievement.

I'd not been to a theatre evening quite like this one before. Because both Team Angelica and the Theatre Royal are heavily involved in the community/education side of drama, we had a great warm-up from the show's director, who primed us to think about certain elements of the play in readiness for a short discussion afterwards. He invited Sadaf up on stage to discuss the title of the play. I liked this inclusiveness - as if we, the audience, were somehow a natural extension of the whole workshop environment. Could something we thought or said spark a reaction, revision - or a brand new idea, even - in the writer's mind?

When the lights went down, I experienced the same tingle of anticipation I get at a gig where I've heard the band's records but not seen them live. I already knew that S had a way with words (from hard-hitting non-fiction to some genuinely lovely 'stop-you-mid-scroll' lyrical tweets) but this was a PLAY - a whole universe conjured up in her mind, from scratch. And the focus really is on the writing - the staging is minimal and the cast hold the scripts - and what it produces in your imagination.

At the risk of embarrassing S (oh, what the hell - I'LL TAKE THAT RISK), I can honestly report that I was completely blown away. To give a brief plot outline: a teenager has taken his life, and it's established in the very early scenes that we're observing his funeral - along with his ghost, who provides a commentary on events and on occasion - at moments of frustration or high emotion - addresses the attendees directly. They of course do not see or hear him. In flashback, we find out the events and experiences that drive him to suicide.

I want to include as few spoilers as possible - since the play will almost certainly be developed further and performed again - but Sadaf tackles head-on a perfect storm of issues, and not just the ones that make the headlines. Abuse and intolerance (racial and religious) are in the mix, but dovetailed into an equally searching examination of the pressures on adolescents to conform, and struggles with changes to mind and body when becoming an adult.

Sadaf explained in the Q&A that the piece started life as a short story, and I think turning it into a play was the first brave and brilliant decision (of many) she made about it. Brave, because once you're writing a play, you need other people to get it out there, and I love that sense of confidence and faith in the material. Brilliant, because her sense of dramatic tension and ear for dialogue are gifts to the actors.

I was also delighted (given the subject matter) simply by how funny the play is. Gallows humour is present from the outset: we're allowed some respite from the tension, then the chills become all the more powerful. S also sends up - gently and not so gently - the family and community with a superbly crafted pincer attack: Adam, the super-aware main character, who delivers some stinging lines ('you're told what to study, you're told who to marry, then your wife tells you what to eat') and Huma, the epically judgemental Imam's wife who delivers some of the play's most hilariously intolerant remarks without ever becoming a stereotype.

But what really makes me think that S must absolutely do more of this sort of thing, are some crucial signs that suggest to me she is a born dramatist. There is some serious sophistication - and experimentation - going on with the stagecraft and the play does not patronise you - you've got to keep up. We slip between past and present with no joins. One actor doubles up for two crucial roles, creating disarming parallels between them. And there is a really bold move towards the end where not only Adam but Huma as well, 'break out' and address the audience directly. This section includes, I think, some of the best writing in the piece as it simultaneously brings the two most 'opposed' characters closer together, fills out your understanding of why they both behave they way they do and clarifies some of the play's most searching questions. (Questions I'm still thinking about days later.)

Cap doffed, too, to the cast and direction. All the players were superb - they made it easy for us to forget they were reading and I stopped noticing the scripts very early on. Particular mention should go to Hormuzd Todiwala as Adam - a tour-de-force of a part where the actor has to convince as a small kid, stroppy teen, and inhibited, defeated young adult - and Sajeela Kershi as Huma, for keeping her monster all too human. The director, Rikki Beadle-Blair, had nothing but praise for the writing, but mentioned his constant aim to keep the pace up, to do justice to an already tight script. He did a brilliant job, because everything about the production seemed vital and secure - no evidence of nerves or awkward pauses, and not a single actor 'dropped the ball' at any time.

Reflecting afterwards, I realised that the best and most accurate compliment I can pay Sadaf and her production is that I would never have believed it was a debut. The structure - complex but clear, and very precise - it was completely a play and you could not achieve quite the same effects with it in another format. And the dialogue - totally natural, brilliantly varied, satirical and heartfelt. Just keep writing, S, and don't stop.

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You can find out more about the excellent work Rikki Beadle-Blair and Team Angelica do at their website here. And you should definitely consider giving S a follow on Twitter - especially since you'll want to know when her next play is ready!