Wednesday 16 September 2020

Of clocks, time and the hive mind: Martin Bussey's 'Timeless Figure' and 'We Sing/I Sang' at Tête à Tête

We Sing/I Sang - Hannah Gardner, Leo Doulton, CN Lester - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
We Sing/I Sang - Hannah Gardiner, Leo Doulton, CN Lester - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

We Sing/I Sang
, Martin Bussey Timeless Figure; Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at the Cockpit

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 September 2020
A meditation on time, based around 17th century Shropshire clock-maker, and an improvised opera which attempted to assess the reactions of the audience's Hive Mind

Martin Bussey: Timeless Figure - Peter Edge - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Martin Bussey: Timeless Figure
Peter Edge - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

On Tuesday 15 September 2020, we returned to The Cockpit for two further live opera premieres from Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival. Timeless Figure by Martin Bussey, performed by Peter Edge, baritone, Daniel Mawson, clarinet, Joe Lenehan, viola, and Darren Gallacher, marimba, conducted by Martin Bussey with images by Laurel Turton, plus We Sing/I Sang, an improvised opera devised by Leo Doulton with CN Lester, voice, and Hannah Gardiner, viola, musical director Erika Gundesen.

Martin Bussey was the composer of Mary's Hand about Queen Mary I, which was performed at the 2018 festival [see my review]. His new opera also takes an historical figure, the clockmaker JB Joyce (Peter Edge) who founded the eponymous firm of clockmakers (still in existence) in 1680. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the company was responsible for installing many of the display clocks around the world. Bussey, who wrote his own text, used the historical figure of Joyce and the connection to clocks around the work, to create a meditation on clocks and time across the ages.

The result was something of a 45-minute tour de force for baritone Peter Edge, whose engaging performance very much carried the piece. Edge managed to bring personality to what was less of a narrative and more of a thoughtful and complex philosophical consideration. He was finely supported by the musicians, and Bussey's writing structured the work in sections so that we got to appreciate his imaginative writing for marimba, clarinet and viola, with the composer using the instruments singly or severally to create some striking textures. In style the music was fundamentally tonal, but complex with Edge's vocal line being expressive and singer-friendly yet highly wrought.

Accompanying the music was a series of images by Laurel Turton, these formed their own meditation on clocks and time, with a focus very much on clocks installed by JB Joyce and company. Unfortunately, these images were perhaps a bit too absorbing and sometimes took attention from the performance, particularly when there was a disjoint in subject. Turton seemed to have a particular fascinating for historic locations in Chicago, which was a city which did not seem to crop up in Bussey's text, leading you to wonder why.

Bussey's text was quite thoughtful and whilst Edge's diction was perfectly adequate, the rather poetic nature of the words meant that it would have been nice to have them printed/displayed so that we could consider them a little more.

Martin Bussey: Timeless Figure - Daniel Mawson, Darren Gallacher - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

As with other productions in the festival, this was adapted to suit the needs of a socially distanced performance and has to be regarded more as a semi-staging than a fully dramatic presentation. Bussey's new piece seems to lack an essential dramatic narrative which might compel the work and for me it sat somewhere between pure concert work and opera. But that is the beauty of artistic creation, things do not always fall into neatly defined categories and it is a work I would love to encounter again.

Timeless Figure will be broadcast by the festival on 17 September, see the festival website.

Leo Doulton is a director and writer, and his was the concept behind We Sing/I Sang. The work was not only improvised, but interactive as throughout the piece the audience was asked questions (via their phones) and the music reacted to the result. The idea was to assess the reactions of the audience as a hive mind. The subject was, of course, the current pandemic. I have to confess that the computer nerd in me was a bit more interested in the mechanics of how they were choosing the answers than the answers themselves, and also intrigued as to how the music performed by CN Lester and Hannah Gardner was affected by the answers.

We Sing/I Sang - Hannah Gardner, CN Lester - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
We Sing/I Sang - Hannah Gardiner, CN Lester - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Whatever the answers to those questions, the resulting piece was intriguing and engrossing; not unlike a sung lecture, where the lecturer (CN Lester) had access to a remarkable fund of powerful, lyrical and affecting music, sung in a beautifully focussed alto voice, and with striking string figures from Hanna Gardiner. Leo Doulton, wearing a striking parti-coloured mask provided a more visual element, movement which sometimes complemented the music and sometimes counterpointed it.

We Sing/I Sang will be broadcast on 17 September 2020, see the festival website for details.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall: late Bach and middle-period Beethoven  - concert review
  • Orchestral showcase: Simon Rattle conducts Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen on LSO Live - CD review
  • A one-man Paradise Lost and an uproarious contemporary operetta: Tête à Tête brings live opera back to the Cockpit  - opera review
  • The Telling's #HomeTour: soprano & playwright Clare Norburn on the challenges & rewards of creating on-line content & writing new plays  - interview
  • Late Haydn and Brahms on an Autumn evening in the park: Anthony Friend and the Solem Quartet at Battersea Park bandstand - concert review
  • Less is more: Andrew Hamilton's Joy  - CD review
  • Fizzing with energy: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony performed from memory outside at Kings Cross by Aurora Orchestra  - CD review
  • Through late 18th-century ears: Lully's Armide in a radical adaptation from 1778 - cd review
  • The sheer joy of music making: the Maggini Quartet emerges from hibernation to celebrate the delight of playing together  - concert review
  • Children can do so much more than you think: Susan Moore, artistic director of W11 Opera on challenging young performers to produce an opera under lockdown  - interview
  • An eight-hour solo piano masterpiece: Sorabji's Sequentia cyclica receives its premiere performance from Jonathan Powell - CD review
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