On a school trip to That London, a little under thirty years ago, I remember sitting with companions on a bench in what must have been Kensington Gardens, and identifying the Albert Hall for them. It’s not clear to me why I knew it and they didn’t, nor why I was so certain. Now, of course, my Albert Hall nonchalance is perhaps the same as anyone’s who works close by. When I’m being lazy in winter and taking the 52/452 to Notting Hill Gate on the way home, I see the queues and temporary hoardings for various events, sometimes with TV lighting. What I hadn’t done until this week was attend a Prom, even though I remember recording them from Radio 3, coincident with various musical interest upsurges e.g. Wagner in the eighties, after I first saw Apocalypse Now (predictable), Philip Glass in the mid-nineties etc. A couple of years ago the first reaction when I told someone where I was going to work, was how handy it would be for Last Night of the Proms tickets, which struck me as an intriguing set of priorities.
This Wednesday I hadn’t planned anything for the evening, and attached myself to colleagues’ outing to Prom 27. With proximity, we had a small advantage for the on the day queueing, and bought our tickets for the Gallery, noting as we did that the signage for the two queues (the other one for the Arena downstairs) was ill-considered. Most of the viewing spots in between the columns had been taken and people with their cushions and rugs were sitting down against the back wall. I assumed they would surge forwards once the performance began, but many of them stayed there. Given how much I think seeing classical musicians perform adds to the experience of listening, compared with the laptop-based performances I see much more often, this seemed complacent. But what do I know. I wondered about the lozenges hanging from the roof, and specifically whether they were aesthetic or acoustic. The man next to us, who’d come down from Northumberland for his various Proms attendances, said they were acoustic, and that without them the sound would be “awful”. I suppose, unlike the Barbican, they can’t remodel it, to fix that kind of problem.
The first piece was a short one, by Wagner, sounding very un-Wagnerian to me. For the second, the violinist Matthew Trusler, who’d made the choice, appeared to separate applause, contrasting with the egalitarian lack of such for the Wagner. I still find all these rituals fascinating e.g. the handshakes with the first violinist before they begin. I liked the at times vigorous discordance of the Mathias concerto and it afforded great opportunities for Trusler to show off his ability. The second part consisted of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, which was (by definition, I suppose) much more traditional. What I did enjoy was the number of variations for the central motif. My wish to watch as well as listen is probably naive. Other people filled in wordsearches and wandered about during the concert, while a quartet of students managed to sneak into the seats in the circle below us during the interval, and others caught up on their calisthenics.
Two days later I returned to the Peckham Multi-Story Car Park for a Bold Tendencies event. An Overground power failure rather complicated my journey there, and a bad decision meant I took the bus from Clapham Junction, which meant I only just arrived in time. This did at least afford the spectacle of one of those accidental conversations ladies have sometimes in public. This time it wasn’t about an item of clothing or a handbag, but a perfume. Apparently,
If you sniff it, you won’t smell anything. It enhances your natural scent. I found it eight years ago.
It is a more imaginative lingua franca than football, though I wonder whether it represents competition, cooperation, or coopetition. In my haste I disavowed Citymapper for once and approached the car park from the non-preferred side. A car drove past and in my solipsism I assumed it contained music lovers, but of course they may just have been seeking somewhere to park. When I made it to level 8, nearly all the seats were taken, and pessimistically I assumed the free ones were chimeras, pledged to those about to return with drinks. A kindly couple answered my inept query whether a seat was free so I did manage to sit down, just before it started. The piece was De Staat by Louis Andriessen, which I didn’t know anything about, as usual, performed by the Multi-Story Orchestra. What I quickly read on the blurb was that the lyrics were taken from Plato, in particular his tirade against a musical mode for its pernicious effects, which sounded like my kind of gesture. The hit rate of similar events last year was very high, meaning I was confident it would be good. It reminded me a little of John Adams at times, which is good in my opinion, and went through a few cycles of nearing collapse, before clarity re-emerged. The voices and electric guitars fitted in very well with the more traditional instruments. Being much closer than normal I could see the facial signals of the conductor, as well as the whirling hands, as well as the movements of the players that I always find so mesmeric. The nearest oboeist to me stood on her tiptoes just before she started playing each time, a sort of eager tensioning that conveyed commitment. She also coped nonchalantly with the wind’s attack on her score, necessitating peg readjustment and (at one point) using the end of her oboe to keep the pages in place. The best compliment I can pay the performance is that I’ll now be seeking out Andriessen’s work, and I lament that there aren’t more similar performances at the same venue (though I did miss out on some earlier ones this year. Tsk.)
Afterwards, hoping that the rain would abate, I took some photos looking northwards, including Ryoji Ikeda’s spectra, the visibility of which kept changing as the wind drew clouds across it. Someone asked me what it was and I think my explanation was more prolix than was required. This did, though, remind me that I wanted to see it before it finished on the 11th. The next evening, I arrived there around 8.30pm and there were already plenty of people waiting in Victoria Tower Gardens, some with wine glasses and rugs, as prepared as those people in the Proms Gallery had been. The lights were already on, though not all that visible, because dusk hadn’t strictly happened yet, and they were cordoned off. When the cordon was removed and the soundtrack started, people started walking among the lights, many unable to resist the urge to place their hands above the beams. If you headed to the centre, there was a curious perspective looking upwards, with the nearest light’s prominence oddly unexpected from other perspectives. You could see all the dust motes and seeds and insects from afar, glittering briefly in the beams.
This made me wonder about how many tiny avians would die during this illumination. Looking closely at one of the lights, which close up you could see was flickering, probably on account of the gas in the bulb, a fly would arrive onto the top of the lens and then curl up and die within about ten seconds.
As the sky grew darker, the spectacle grew more powerful, and eventually a helicopter appeared. It flew around lazily, flirting with the lights, before flying through the beams, serenaded by cheers from the crowd. By then, the spaces between the lights were pretty full, so it would have been difficult to get back to the centre. After that, I went home and confirmed that I could see the tower of light from my flat, completing a triumvirate of views from the south-east, the installation itself and the north-east.