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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Review: Reverb Festival at The Roundhouse, London

Text by Ruby Beesley

La Coquille et le clergyman – Imogen Heap and The Holst Singers
Oracles and Step Onto the Ground, Dear Brother! – Ana Silvera and The Estonian Television Girls Choir

Now in its second year after a successful launch in 2010, the Roundhouse’s Reverb Festival aims to dismantle the stuffy, jargon-loaded image of classical music. While commercially the past decade has seen our musicians take a battering, creatively it’s an exciting time for contemporary music with tastes broadening, genres metamorphosing and live performances defying the rough waters experienced by the rest of the industry. And why shouldn’t classical music experience the same resurgence? By debunking the classical and the experimental, Reverb engages wider audiences in the growth of contemporary classical with the primary aim of creating a relaxed, enjoyable and approachable atmosphere with clear and informal introductions from the performers and composers encouraging listeners to better engage with the work.

An alt-classical a cappella accompaniment to the first Surrealist (though widely-contested as such) film, created by a female director back in 1928, doesn’t leap off the page as an approachable introduction to contemporary classical but, performed as it is following an ethereal performance by Ana Silvera and the Estonian Television Girls Choir, this segue into uncharted waters (for myself at least) works surprisingly well.

Initially commissioned by Birds Eye View Film Festival to marry the two vastly under feminised areas of film direction and classical musical composition, the pairing is initially challenging because we have become so accustomed to expecting a performance out of our singers. I find myself focussing on Imogen Heap and the Holst singers rather than on Germaine Dulac’s pioneering film. With a modicum of self-discipline however the inventive and frequently absurd fluctuations of the human voice animate the silent characters on the screen in a manner that alludes to their minds rather than their spoken words. In this sense Heap has transported La Coquille et le clergyman back into the Surrealist canon by ignoring the conventions of dialogue and focusing (as Surrealism should) on the interior and the subconscious. We feel the puzzlement, rage, dismay and infuriating lust of the clergyman as his erotic fantasies spiral out of control. At times the piece is hilarious and Heap and the Holst singers only serve to emphasise this in their vivid exploration of the possibilities of the human voice (and unabashed lack of pretension and foible). The guttural projections, cries of ecstasy and pants of anticipation and climax only emphasise the bizarre nature of Dulac’s work and of self-righteous denial (a timely observation for the beginning of Lent). In doing so they improve the reception of Dulac’s masterpiece immensely.

More typical of a novice’s expectations of contemporary music is Ana Silvera’s Oracles, which loosely narrate (with instrumental and choral accompaniment) the gamut of emotions involved in a fairytale love affair. At times (such as in The Awakening) Silvera resembles a mellowed Tori Amos, improvising and allowing her accompaniments to catch on. With the emergence of an acoustic score resembling African tribal themes the performers seem to relax into their roles and into the story. Within our visually over-emphasised culture (and as someone focused day-in, day-out on aesthetics) to be transported so readily into a story through music is a welcome revelation.

Continuing into next weekend, Reverb has certainly succeeded in demystifying the classical music experience. Winding down the evening with performances of Silvera and Heap’s best-known works, as well as an eye-opening and exceptional rendition of traditional Estonian music (at times almost primitive and otherworldly, contemporary yet also timeless), the festival treads just the right side of approachable, without patronizing its audience, with a fantastic programme of events.


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