What have the following got in common:
- quirky covers of songs by Radiohead, Frank Zappa and The Dears;
- the theme songs from ITN and Channel 4 News;
- excellent solo performances of contemporary classical performances of pieces by David Lang and Gareth Churchill, performed by Emily Shapiro and Natalie Bleicher;
- Experimental music by Dave Smith and John White;
- music-theatre with newspapers and a music box
- a solo guitar piece written and performed by its writer?
And, perhaps more interestingly how can they make a coherent concert without sounding like everyone-do-their-turn end-of-term-revues at the too-cool-to-miss-school? This is what came to mind after hearing the latest concert, entitled News, by emerging contemporary music collective Wolf Pack.
The first aspect is stage presence, which they had in spades. Not staging organisation, which could have been smoother; but, the sense of serious committment to the work and audience, whether conveyed by the devious mood changes of Rob Neumark-Jones‘s spoken word performances, or the laid back groovy-enough-to-get-away-with-sitting-on-a-beanbag cool of Danilo Borgarth‘s guitar playing.
Another aspect is coherence through theme, rather than coherence through style—what I have called elsewhere semantic mass. By choosing to base all of the performances on a single word—news—similar ideas were triggered by different pieces. Of course, there was commonality of material, too; by the time we reached the third piece with multiple people reading out news stories in some distorted algorithmic way, we were perhaps a little process-weary.
It is interesting how pieces in the concert engaged with the harder news stories. Dave Smith’s Murdoch or Fred West: Which is Best?, dating from around the time of that case, used historical depth—a comment on how, since the early days of the press, newspaper owners have grown fat on the outcomes of rape and murder, whilst those proximately responsible are thrown in jail—to make a point in a non-prurient way. By contrast, Dave Collins and Sam Goodway’s new Can You Tell What it is Yet?, reflecting on the Rolf Harris case, was slight: blockly overlapped readings of newspaper accounts of the case, together with a music box through which a tape with the words “CAN YOU TELL WHAT IT IS YET” was fed, this piece meandered and had a lightness unbecoming the material, and would have benefited from a more distilled working.
A final aspect of what makes concerts like this work is the genuine view that all music is just music. As new composers and performers emerge onto the scene (the oldest was 35 years of age), we are starting to see people who are genuinely and uncomplicatedly engaging with music from all genres.
We see this in many musicians now; Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, Sigur Rós are three performers who come to mind who are of the generation that were not brought up on the idea that pop was trivia for small minds, and rock only suited for priapic barbarians. But, this has been a long journey and a lot of work by people who wanted their artform to be taken seriously. Only 30-40 years ago we were suffering the excessses of lumbering crossovers like Michael Tippett’s New Year and Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. More recently, this has gotten better: the joints don’t creak quite as much in Heiner Goebbel‘s wannabe-a-prog-rock-star pieces, or in the London Sinfonietta doing numbers by Zappa or artistes from the Warp Records label; but it is still a meeting of minds, not a single thought. By contrast, the effortless cross-genre movement in Wolf Pack’s concert hardly needs terms like genre-switching; to these performers, the idea of musical genre itself is absent.
Genre is for old people; but even old dogs (or wolves) can learn some new tricks from this attitude to performance. I look forward to their future performances.