Emma Geliot's picture

Production Image from Unease

 

Overcoming his fear of the dark turns out to be the least of Richard Bowers' problems when Unease turns into serious disquiet at an attempt to sexify classical music,

Prelude

I'm writing this a couple of hours before attending Unease, Sinfonia Cymru's new collaboration with composer Tom Raybould, video artist John Collingswood, immersive experience producer Alison John, and theatre director Gerald Tyler. I'm told it's a follow-up to the successful UnButtoned events, which have been described asa fascinating insight into the way future classical music concerts will be experienced.

Already I'm getting worried. What do they mean by 'classical'? A sample of UnButtoned can be heard and seen at their website that welds a looped phrase from Bruch's Violin Concerto to some rather facile beats from a drum machine. Unfair to base my view on a short clip I admit, but I'm not quite feeling it yet. Interviews in the video highlight the expansion of the stuffy 'classical music' mode of presentation - and it is stuffy - to incorporate electronic music and video making it a new, immersive experience.

Now I'm starting to cringe a little. I have no problem with the idea of drawing people towards unfamiliar experiences that's what art is for. It's good to be attracting new audiences to the richness of the world of musics that exist outside of the vernacular traditions but I don't see how an arbitrary glueing of bits of the repertoire onto new technology benefits anyone. I mean, Barber's Adagio for Strings? Really?

But I'm prejudging tonight's piece, albeit with some justification as the information online ought to reflect the general intent of the project. Sinfonia Cymru is building an impressive record of collaborations and looks progressive in bringing on fresh talent. It works with The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama through the Professional Pathway Bursaries and encourages the contributions of its young musicians via Curate. Curate developed the UnButtoned events.

On paper, tonight's show sounds pretty interesting. The blurb and publicity photos suggest an exploration of the performers' various anxieties - a bit 'Room 101', perhaps. We see a cellist smothered in veils; a head bound in rubber tubing.Because of their associations, technical difficulty, allusions or history each offering represents an aspect of fear to the individual artist. Expectations have been set up and I'm getting anxious. Well, personally I'm afraid of the dark and somewhat claustrophobic and I'll put money on there being a dark room full of people tonight. I must be brave.

Aftermath

Ok. I'm going to tell it as it is and this is what we got. Climbing the stairs to the top floor of Jacob's Market (the 'secret venue' why? To fool the police?),we were ushered into a room lined with fairy lights along the skirting-boards, presumably to tell us where the walls were (was this a concession to health and safety, or marking the way to Santa's grotto?). This was no derelict warehouse on an industrial estate, thank god. In fact, it was in the comfortably middle-class surroundings of an antique market. So far so good.

A row of performers' chairs were overlooked by a matching row of industrial lights, which were going on and off according to an unknown (to me at least) sequence. A very effective staging, I thought. Behind the chairs hanging from the wall was a row of headphones. I naively thought they were for the performers until a brave punter went over to listen to a pair. I did the same and heard a voice in one ear talking about I assume fear. I say 'assume' because I couldn't quite make out the speech over the background chatter.

After some minutes a violinist appears, walks to his seat and starts playing a repeated figure but only when his light is on. One by one the others take their seats another violinist, a viola player, cellist and so on each playing a complementary figure when their light is on; freezing when it goes off. This was a nice enough strategy producing, however, music of the most irritating kind. This frustratingly insufficient music ended with a clumsy 'two three' cue from somewhere that got them all playing together to a finish. Was that necessary? These are skilled musicians playing a very simple set of melodies I'm sure they can manage. Or was it done for effect?

They departed in reverse order into another room the violinist leaving last, still playing that maddening tune.

After being given some eloquent instructions about what to do with our drinks, we were ushered beyond a curtain into another space. Dark this time (here we go!), but with intermittent flashes from a bright strobe light. We heard some pluckings, scrapings and grindings on the strings so I was starting to get interested. Some Lachenmann perhaps?

Alas it was not to be. This textural canvas transformed all too soon into another set of repeated figures of varying duration. A computer monitor above and behind the audience gave cues to the musicians and the musical activity happened in bursts during the strobing. There was an acousmatic undertow to add some further texture. After a few minutes of this the end came too soon and the waiting was too long. Then off we go again, into another room.

Here we were met by video projections of shocking banality. Some words like 'fear' slid across the walls and later a really bad fire effect showed up. I mean really bad, not just mediocre - perhaps alluding to the charming quaintness of video games but somehow worse.

Then we were treated to a rather sumptuous passage for the strings that was quite as effective as anything you get on tv I say that because I understand Tom is a writer for the screen, and his skill really showed here. The playing here as everywhere was immaculate as you would expect from an ensemble of this calibre. Admittedly, they weren't being stretched, but sometimes the simplest music is the hardest to play well and they maintained a seamless perfection throughout.

But then come the dance beats! I'm at risk here of sounding like an old fogey but there's one thing I can't stand and that's dance music in places where you're not meant to dance. What's the point? I saw some ironic shuffling happening and a bit of foot-tapping here and there. But I suppose that's my fear being expected to dance. Thankfully, we were left well alone to contemplate the deadening experience in collective, motionless solitude. This was a night club in Purgatory, not even Hell. This Room 101 was more like a community centre disco.

The negativity of my impressions compels me back to the positive the chamber group was marvellous. I could sense this from the violinist's first notes and I look forward to hearing more from them. They were completely in charge in a moderately challenging theatrical environment and their playing was flawless. Tom's music was impressive but uneven at least as far as individual taste goes. A bit of formal experiment here, a half-hearted nod to extended techniques there, some film soundtrack, some dance beats. It felt like a professional playing about with genres cynically, not passionately. Why on earth we weren't kept in the same room to experience everything as a sustained emotional flow I'll never know. All this breaking off and shuffling about killed any emotional response dead. It also encouraged people to talk and laugh not what was wanted, I suspect. Leave that promenading stuff to the London Dungeons, I say, where they know how to keep up the pressure.

All in all the show was too professional in a way, and perhaps that's what let it down all slickness and no substance. The slick presentation that overstated everything but said nothing. The slick publicity photos of scenes that never happened in the show (where were the videos now?). There was no attempt at articulating the materials of fear with any conviction, apart from a few clumsy voice recordings saying something about it. There was always an expectation of fear with the herding about and the mystery, but at no point was the theme explored. There was no sense of an auteur. It was a collaboration of pros a horse made by a committee. The string ensemble was warmly applauded at the end, and rightly so.