And while we’re pondering classical music as an entertainment haven for smug, lazy complacency, here’s a change of direction: Richard Haynes at Shunt earlier this month.
The space chosen in Shunt was small, dark and crowded. The four pieces were each performed on a different side of the room; each entailed a costume change; each was an isolated theatre piece in miniature. The show’s continuity was maintained, therefore, by a taped monologue piped across the changes. The monologue recounted a series of descriptions, all in the format “It’s like …”. The subject of the descriptions was unknown, but it seemed to drift somewhere between sexuality and music. It may have been listening itself.
Each of the four costumes evoked a particular gay fetish – a builder, a carnival dancer, a Puckish fairy, a school boy. But the show wasn’t about sexual fetishism as such – although this was one prominent strand – but more, I felt, the wider notion of fetishization (and the private, socially excluded indulgences it entails) and its presence in musical performance, reception and, one must conclude, composition.
David Young’s Breath Control is written as a graphic score of atmospheric colour fields and fades. Haynes played mostly sustained sounds, coaxing a wide range of expression through overtones, trills, sweeping his instrument from side to side, and even playing into an empty oil drum on stage. Richard Barrett’s Interference was the most talked-about and controversial of the four stagings. Haynes performed silhouetted behind a white screen, naked but for a pointed headdress and a bass clarinet. The effect on the audience, particularly once Haynes began that howling, high falsetto, was hilarity. Barrett’s piece is shocking, and Haynes’s presentation appeared to license a release of laughter. Undoubtedly some of the amusement arose from the discomfort of a (mostly gallery-scene) audience unfamiliar with the genuine musical avant garde, but it was all the more impressive how the piece slowly asserted itself as serious art and gripped the audience’s attention. After the Young, the convention seemed to be no applause between pieces, but this rule was now loudly broken.
Haynes now dressed as Puck for another challenging work, Chris Dench’s The Sadness of Detail. This held the audience’s attention throughout. This may have been a part consequence of the more conventional staging, but it may also have been due to the more fluid, lyrical character of Dench’s piece. The final piece, David Lang’s Press Release, most intrigued me beforehand, as it seemed stylistically furthest from the remaining programme. That gap was closed somewhat by Haynes’s performance, which had plenty of bite, and attended closely to Lang’s interlocking rhythmic patterns.
This was a great, provocative show, and it’s always good to see new music performed in an imaginative context that doesn’t compromise on seriousness of intent. It wasn’t completely unproblematic, however. Not all the staging clicked: the Dench felt slightly underdone, and the conceit of the Lang – in which Haynes, dressed as a builder, slowly climbed a ladder with each ascent of the underlying harmony – was a little too obvious for me. The conceptual layering wasn’t completely seamless either, I felt, and once the broad themes had been established (soon after the start of Interference), they didn’t develop much further. But such criticisms feel like carping after a show as original, challenging and immaculately prepared as this.
Excerpts of Haynes playing the same show in Melbourne last year are available on youtube:
The Spill Festival, of which Listen was a part, has a dedicated reviews and commentary blog at spilloverspill.blogspot.com, but unfortunately none of their writers have yet tackled this show. Update: Rachel Lois Clapham has written a lengthy and perceptive piece – I recommend you read it.