Friday 24 May 2019

The textures of sound: Bastard Assignments at Mountview in Peckham

Bastard Assignments (Photo Max Colson)
Bastard Assignments (Photo Max Colson)
Bastard Assignments at Mountview in Peckham Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new theatre, new material; the composer/performers on devastating form

The composer/performer collective Bastard Assignments (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cope and Caitlin Rowley) has had a residency at Snape Maltings, giving them an opportunity to develop creative practice and create new work. The result was on show at the studio theatre at Mountview (Mountview of Theatre Arts) on Wednesday 22 May 2019 with performances of EDGE by Caitlin Rowley, PREP by the group, FLOWER by Edward Henderson, SUGAR CAGE by Timothy Cape and FEED by Josh Spear.

The theatre itself is new, part of a striking brand-new complex which Mountview has created in the heart of Peckham, with a second theatre opening next month. And the black box of the studio theatre was an apt space in which to experience the inspired lunacy which is Bastard Assignments' world. Notionally composer/performers, the group stretches the definition of what is music and what is performance, presenting collective and solo pieces which sometimes hover on the boundaries of music theatre and sometimes are so left-field as to be unclassifiable. To live in Bastard Assignments' world is to experience music in the very essence of the everyday; we still have vivid memories of Caitlin Rowley's solo piece where she simply unwrapped a box of parcels, creating a striking musical experience out of a simple narrative.

Wednesday's show opened with another solo piece from Rowley, EDGE, in which she presented a vividly articulated, yet wordless narrative which evoked the world of Cathy Berberian's Stripsody. It was a piece which managed to combine amusement and anxiety, yet also without the words left you feeling that you were failing to grasp an essential point.

PREP was a group piece, with all four performers on stage sitting in a semi-circle. Henderson, Spear and Cope all had brass instruments, tenor horn, baritone horn and euophonium whilst Rowley had a violin. But there was a catch, the brass instruments were prepared with saxophone mouthpieces. The piece operated on a number of levels, you could simply sit back and enjoy the astonishing variety and textures of sound created by the performers. Were there only four instruments on stage? Or you could watch the dead-pan dynamics as Rowley and her violin tried (and succeeded) in disrupting the close hegemony of the three brass instruments. Initially the sound from the brass instruments was like three fog horns, but when it settled down there was a wonderfully seductive quality to it too.

FLOWER by Edward Henderson was performed by the ensemble, it started with Henderson at keyboards, Cope playing improvised percussion (they looked mainly like cooking implements), Rowley on voice and Spear on bass clarinet. Initially we were listening to a sampling of David Bowie, to which the live performers added drones. Gradually the mix changed, and the live performers became more dominant and Bowie receded in a way which was subtle and gradual, yet irrevocable. By the end of the piece, Bowie was far away and the drones had developed into repeated patterns, the performers moving instruments Rowley to violin, Spear to piano and eventually Henderson to piano too.

One of the fascinating things about Bastard Assignments is the sense of close absorbtion of the four performers. There is rarely a sense of bravura performing to the audience, instead we feel that we are eavesdropping on a complex and intense dynamic between the four.

Timothy Cape's SUGAR CAGE was a solo piece, performed with a video created on his phone. Initially the video was of himself, edited to create a series of non-naturalistic, hypnotic repeats but it eventually turned into a curious giant amoeba. The live Timothy Cape reacted to the projected one in a variety of physical and verbal ways. It was a virtuoso performance, with Cape demonstrating both physical and vocal dexterity, along with a verbal contribution which was striking and seductive in its use of rhythm and repetition. Whilst the audience largely found the performance funny, I found there was a disturbing element too, was the live Timothy Cape's performance referencing drugs (the constant repetition of the word sugar?), or perhaps communication difficulties. There was no doubt that it was virtuoso, particularly the sequence where he emulated the behavioiur of the video Timothy.

The problem with work which references popular culture is that if you lack the relevant references, then you may not appreciate the piece. Bastard Assignments pieces arise out of their life experience and so inevitably popular culture is there, yet at their best their work can transcend this. So the fact that I probably appreciated SUGAR CAGE in a way which is different to the younger members of the audience matters less than whether the piece said something to me.

The final piece of the evening was FEED by Josh Spear, in which all four performers libsynched to a pre-recorded soundtrack combining material from the film American Werewolves in London along was sound effects. The piece was made up of smaller vignettes, the dramatic lighting often snapping between different performers seen briefly. At first it was simply clever, but Spear had the sound-track on loop and we gradually witnessed the disintegration of the performance as the scene from American Werewolves in London was played back repeatedly. This led to a series of short vignetts, where the same group of sounds were made but each time a different person libsynched to them, making subtle and striking changes.  It was a very clever piece, the ensemble's lipsynching talents are amazing, and a superbly crowd-pleasing finale, yet it was also thoughtful making us consider the idea of performance itself.

The group will be performing in Norway on 12 June, and will be at the Aldeburgh Festival on 15 June 2019.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Delicatessen II - More Choice Morsels of Early English Song (★★★) - CD review
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
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    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Rough for Opera - Speak Red, A Father is Looking for his Daughter, Dreaming Clouds - opera review
  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival  - interview
  • Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place (★★★) - concert review
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