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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Matchy-Matchy is so Last Season: A Review of Wolf Pack 9: News, at the Rag Factory, London, 26th September

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

What have the following got in common:

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.

We Don’t Take Comedy Seriously Enough

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Despite the rise and rise of complex, richly engaged comedy, people in other artforms still don’t have any respect for it. For the last few years I’ve been interested—in a rather inchoate way—in how comedy and contemporary classical music might interact, in particular whether the forms and structures of comedy provide an interesting and novel analogy for the structuring of a piece of music, or whether music-theatre can learn from comedy performance practices. I’d be interested, for example, if the tension inherent in a Stewart Lee performance, and the sophisticated use of reference and callbacks, could provide an emotional flavour that could be delivered in a musical way, or whether the emotional trajectory of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling performances could give us an idea of how to hold an audience for an extended period of time.

Very few people take this seriously. When someone raised a point like this with Larry Goves at a tutorial last summer, the response was incomprehending. What could the mere stimulus-response of joke-laugh have to do with a sophisticated artform such as composing a string quartet? Similarly, at a meeting the other day, the idea that a contemporary music group might put on a joint event with a comedy group was treated rather distastefully—”I don’t know if we want to be associated with that sort of thing”, whereas collaborations with poetry and art groups were greeted with enthusiasm.

I don’t want to suggest that all comedy is deep and profound—there is a big place for “summat as meks yer ears laff”. But, when some people in contemporary comedy are making a rich and distinctive contribution to new ways of taking an audience on an emotional trajectory, it is a pity that this is ignored by other artforms.

Review: Gotterfunken, Rosa Ensemble, Huddersfield Bates Mill, November 2011

Friday, March 16th, 2012

We began with an apology. A man dressed in Lycra stood up from the audience, and established himself as Dutch with a single word: “Hey”. The apology was of local concern—an explanation that, due to Government changes in the Netherlands, we are unlikely to see Dutch arts groups touring for a while. The connotation was broad—an apology for the failure of the European project. And yet…there was a glimpse of optimism. Perhaps, rather than being the responsibility of insitutions, European fellowship could be reconstructed from casual meetings across the continent.

And so we began proper. We began with an animation—a live animation, drawn on a piece of paper and projected on a screen. And then an explanation. Two people spent three months cycling 9000 miles around Europe, meeting people, singing, drinking vodka, and smoking one cigarette a day. This was their story, delivered through video, animation, songs and anecdotes.

It’s said that storytellers should show not tell. They did both. It worked. Sometimes we want to hear the story direct—like the person on the other side of the (unnamed) national border who screamed at them “Go back to where you came from! Whereever it is, it’s better than here!”. Sometimes we want something more impressionistic, a blur of maps, photographs and recorded sound.

We ended with a blurring of roles. Musicians, actors, stagehands stood up to give their opinion: just an attempt to recreate careless teenagehood, or a celebration of European unity? Then a recapitulation of a song to finish.