Monthly Archives: March 2013

The correct age for Theatre and Opera

Every time I see a play I wonder at the age of the audience, still being young enough myself to consider most of them significantly older. The fact that I’ve made this observation over many years means that it doesn’t appear to portend theatrical doom. Does it say something about me?  Is there an optimum age for an art form? Is there a limit beyond which one will never come to appreciate something?

Two recent experiences brought these thoughts to mind. The first was last Saturday, the second half of which was devoted to John Adams. I’d been aware of him and associated him with the minimalists Reich, Riley and Glass, while never really investigating his music properly. This changed when I saw the recent film I Am Love with Tilda Swinton, featuring a lot of Adams on the soundtrack.  In interviews Swinton stressed the importance of the music in the construction of the film and it is deployed well. Thereafter I was primed to find out more about his music and booked tickets to the UK premiere of a documentary and the European premiere of his new opera.  It was later announced that there would be a pre-show talk between the film and the opera.

That day I was at a ‘technical’ event (described elsewhere) in Holborn. Seeking a virtuous approach, I decided to walk from there to the Barbican, using my phone to give me directions.  Yet again I’m reminded of how quickly the ambience changes across neighbourhoods in that London. A little early, I lazed around in the rather pleasing cafe of the two new Barbican cinemas. Two teachers besides me on the sofa were discussing their difficulties:

The plan is to move key stage 3 to September, and there won’t be any rooms in which to teach them.

The film was introduced by the director Mark Kidel and John Adams himself, who lightly contradicted the former, saying that some images fitted his ideas of the music and some didn’t. Adams said he was feeling rather homesick so he would stay and watch the film. They both sat in the row in front of me, so I could glance over at them in search of their reactions. Lots of people left early to be in time for the pre-opera talk, especially after Adams himself left. This disconcerted the director.  As it turned out, there was plenty of time.  I went in, directed by an usher who kept repeating the same beckoning motion and phrase – “seats over to the right, please”. It was odd to see Adams from much further away, compared with his proximity in the cinema. Peter Sellars was also there and his answers to the questions felt like orations in their own right.  He was smiling a lot and also very intense in his responses.

There were twenty minutes in which to eat and try to find a present for a four-year-old, while I observed the masses milling around, increasingly harried. As usual, the stern warnings about being on time proved to be misleading. The man sitting next to me seemed amazed by my knowledge of where to sit, until I pointed out the numbers shown on each seat arm. Behind me was quite a talkative group:

I said to her, ‘I’m never going to sit through something like Death in Venice again’, and I find myself sitting through Death in Venice again.

Is it shameful not to have seen an opera until my age?  Up until now I’d had a pat opera opinion, along the lines of liking the music and disliking the singing.  It is certainly shameful to hold forth without having experienced the category in question first hand, hence my Barbican trip. Unlike my recent larcenous musical adventure, I could legitimately take it all in. The staging was very simple, just a platform, table and blocks forming chairs, so not too many distractions. The music was dramatic and as before I found that seeing the performers did add something. I like the rhythm of different parts of the orchestra taking prominence at different times. As always, at the interval I listened out for the verdicts of those around me.  The talkative group behind me weren’t impressed:

The lyrics are dreadful, so literal. You need French or German.

They repeat the lines, and we got it the first time.

There’s something slightly absurd about it.

My banana eaten, I didn’t know where to put it because I couldn’t see any bins.  I asked the kindly looking man bearing the Barbican logo and he said I should just put it down, because the cleaners would pick it up. This sounded a little wrong, but he insisted. When things like this happen I remember what the lady said during the architectural tour I went on at the New Year – unlike most other large cultural institutions, the Barbican is not suffering from large funding problems.

The second half was more intense and more popular with my complaining neighbours. The acting was much better than the grotesquely exaggerated hamminess I had feared, as were the movements around the stage. I found I was able to suspend my disbelief such that I didn’t mind the lyrical repetitions, which are after all hardly unknown in song. It was the first time I’d seen surtitles, and that system worked very well. Opera, then – in summary, not to be dismissed.

The following Thursday I wanted to see the NT Live showing of Alan Bennett’s People. It was sold out at my local cinema, so I had to go to the Kensington Odeon instead.  Here, my observations of an elderly audience for theatre were doubly reinforced, although in front of me sat a young couple with a large vat of popcorn, one of them braying with laughter. I’d heard relatively negative or at best whelmed opinions about the play itself, so my expectations were fairly muted. The cinema audience were enjoying it greatly and I was carried along with them. During the interval, an old couple in front of me deployed the bottle of wine they’d brought along specially, using their own oddly patterned glasses. The oenophilic theme extended to the ushers, who were selling those small wine bottles seen on trains, as well as ice cream, from their trays. Someone asked his companion:

Am I right in thinking you’re not enjoying it?

Sad to say, I didn’t hear the answer.

Unlike the Adams opera, I felt the second half of the play was a little flat. Frances de la Tour’s performance is wonderful and she carries what is ultimately a rather unbalanced play. Bennett’s vehemence against the National Trust does not sit well and is too unfocussed to deliver a satisfying drama. As with my previous NT Lives – Frankenstein and One Man, Two Guvnors – I was glad to have seen it, even if I do still seem to be a little young. It’s amusing that the cinema audience claps along, as if the actors on the stage at the South Bank can hear them.

Will someone inform me when I’ve reached the correct age for such entertainments?

What is an oscillator?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is mocking whom and I felt myself to be in that position on Thursday night, in that Shoreditch.  Mocktacular Central, if you will.  Or Mock City.  The Mock Hub.

The fun started in the queue for the Pioneers of Electronic Music night, promoted by Nonclassical at XOYO. I’d arrived about ten minutes early and there was a rather confused – if well intentioned – offer to let people in early, so long as they only went into the ground floor bar. This seemed rather pointless to me, particularly when the various negotiations and clarifications took so long that any advantage so gained would have been minimal. There were a few mutterings, from people who were used to a more emollient treatment.

There’s good coverage of the music performed throughout the evening here. Kontakte was great.  The harshness of the synth sounds on tape was a surprise and a good one.  I’d been a little wary of Stockhausen in the past, because I thought he was probably too academic.  It was good to be proven wrong. The Ondes Martenot I remember from the science fiction film seasons on BBC2 in the seventies and it sounded wonderfully expressive. The player had brought it over from France and his loudly supportive compatriots were standing next to me. He was indeed wearing a black polo neck, usefully supporting certain stereotypes. Ray Scott was also a revelation to me, recreated via Doepfer sequencer and various analogue synths. The next act was Dirty Electronics and I confess that at first I thought they were frauds. People were energetically moving their hands up and down, movements that seemed to be producing sound, though I couldn’t see any mechanism.  Only after a few minutes did I spot the very thin strands of plastic that they were manipulating, attached to DIY instruments on the floor of the stage. These instruments comprised the Lady Bracknell, an excellent name.

There was a space next to me after the Ondes Martenot crew left and someone asked if he could stand there. He started asking me oddly basic questions about keyboards, synthesizers etc. I had to clear up his conflation of drum pads and drum machines and explain the difference between analogue and digital synthesis. One of the Nonclassical people mentioned oscillators at one point I think and when my inquisitive neighbour returned, he asked:

Do you have an oscillator?

which was a question that I found difficult to answer, wondering whether he was winding me up, so odd did it sound.  After one of the performances, he talked about the band and said:

I see them as like human oscillators


Every time I think about my studio, the price goes up by £1000.

followed by

What is an oscillator?

in explanation of which I had to deploy various analogies.

Later he made some notes on his phone “because I’m a bit drunk and I’ve had a few spliffs, so I’ll forget all this otherwise”.

If this was all mockery, I’m very impressed. If not, I wonder whether he was a curious trustafarian. He soon started talking to some adjacent ladies instead.

Fraudulent music by mistake

This post will be a little more evasive than normal, for reasons that will reveal themselves.

Inspired by a friend’s tales of walking around yesterday securing photos for his work, and mindful that I’ll never come to navigate around London properly if I rely on Tube-based teleportation, I decided to travel to Bethnal Green and then walk to the Whitechapel Gallery from there, to catch the Gerard Byrne show.  Our friend the Journey Planner suggested Liverpool Street.  However, I find the idea of retracing my steps to be anathematical, so that was out straight away. Turns out it’s only about a fifteen minute walk in time and rather more than that in social terms.

While I hadn’t read much about this show, it was in my tasks list, so it had to be seen. The first room consisted of several large screens, arranged at clashing angles,  such that one had to move around to be able to see all the video output. The first screening was a recreation of a discussion between various surrealists on sexuality – “A man and a woman make love”. All the different camera perspectives were available, at different times, on the different screens, with pauses in-between (the audio track continued throughout). I liked the ritualistic nature of the discussion.  For instance, one of them would pose a question such as:

What do you think of making love in a church?

and some would respond immediately –

I have no opinion on the matter

while others would need to be prompted – “Prevert?”, “Tanguy?” and further opinions would be revealed:

I have had no such experience.  I consider it highly desirable

There was a remarkable range of claimed experience amongst the various agitators.

The second piece was another recreation, this time of an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre about his relations with women. No trickery here, really, and it played out on a single screen, so some people took portable chairs and planted themselves down. I didn’t have time to explore the other two rooms upstairs properly and am hoping to do so on Thursday, when the gallery is open late. One thing I did enjoy was a preposterous “interview” between the Chairman of the Board and the Chairman of the Board, to promote one of those incredibly sluggish-looking American cars.  There’s a video about that, I think, to which I’m looking forward.

The details of what I wanted to see at my next destination were a little unclear, though I knew I had to hurry. In the lift there was an agitated, breathless woman, brandishing a ticket.

I bet she’s going where I’m supposed to be going

I thought, so I followed her, not really knowing exactly where to go. I was holding the printout of what was on offer today and the usher just said “find a seat where you can”, before I could ask her anything, so I did.

This wasn’t the discussion I was expecting. Rather, it was a large concert hall, full of people and an orchestra. Given the solicitude shown for my comfort, it would have felt recklessly ungrateful to leave immediately. So I stayed, enjoying the frisson of a fraudulent presence, not knowing what I was watching. Would the people around me have cast me out, had they known? Had anyone else entered in the same way, perhaps deliberately? Did I concentrate more because I expected to be ejected at any time?

At the interval, having exaggeratedly made room for people leaving before me, I headed outside, considered my options in the Thames-side sun and tried to buy tickets for further events that afternoon, only to find there were none available. Ah well.

On the way back home I failed not to buy any more books, though at least they were only paperbacks this time. Oddly, after several months of exclusively reading on my Kindle, I’ve only read real paper books of late. What does that change portend, I wonder?