Words and fuzzy pictures from _DRIFT, Old Vic Tunnels

The Old Vic Tunnels, tucked under Waterloo station, is one of those venues you have to trust your luck that you’re in the right place when you approach, so anonymous is its outward face. Inside, think Shunt, but without the decor or facilities. Dark, dusty and so dank that instruments have to be wrapped in blankets to keep them dry. It’s a fantastic space. There are four parallel, interlinked tunnels. One holds a modest-sized theatre (with raked seating and all), one includes a bar, and for this, the third night of _DRIFT, the other two held small cells of assorted musicans in alcoves and dark corners.

Toy piano and pianist

There were four parts to the evening’s music. The first, as a sort of prologue as one entered and explored the space, was an antiphonal improvisation between the five musicians and groups spread about the place: a toy pianist, a saxophonist, a percussionist thrashing two oil drums, a guitar/bass/keys/drums quartet who looked like an aspiring indie group, and a guitarist and percussionist who played the huge gears of some industrial relic left in the central tunnel.

Industrial machinery, with musicians hiding.

The sounds were sparse, but connected, and as one moved around it took on a 3-dimensional shape: the acoustics were such that it was possible to hear everything from pretty much anywhere, but the balance constantly changed. It was eerie, atmospheric stuff, but it didn’t come together for me until the second part of the evening, a ‘promenade’, led by improvising sax, from one group to the next in turn. At this stage each group took on a more concrete, pre-composed identity. The aspiring indie group turned out to play an imaginary nostalgia of speakeasy ragtime/Spaghetti Western soundtrack; the toy pianist sang a folksong to the broken accompaniment of a single, repeating toy piano clunk. The guitarist and two percussionists gave us Steve Hillage-esque proggy trance, and the saxophonist finished his tour by joining with a pianist for some fractured, airy jazz. Like an explosion in reverse, the emotional hints and nudges of the improvisation had congealed into four separate identities, trippy, surreal, damaged, half-forgotten.

Empty spaces, minimal light, spare sounds.

We were then ushered into the central theatre space (curtained off until now), where the main musical events took place. Before the interval was Partial Gathering, the laptop and cello duo of Ruadhri Mannion and Corentin Chassard. I joked at the time that this was ‘dubstep Ferneyhough’, which is a silly description but a first pass at summarising the combination of glitchy beats, looping cello scratches and scuttles, and general sonic overload. PG is still a work-in-progress, but Mannion tells me that he’s looking for something in the middle of electronica and avant-classical: not a fusion of the two. This actually worked best, I thought, on one of the tracks without beats, an improvisation in which the (acoustic, lyrical) cello was augmented by electronic buzzes generated (I think?) from the upper partials of that sound, using spectral analysis to present two overlaid and competing musical realities. The sounds didn’t fit at all comfortably, and that disjuncture was the music’s strength.

A 15-piece band came on stage for the second half – string quartet, drums, bass, keys, horns and singers – but when the really four-square strings started up (nothing rhythmically beyond crotchets and minims), with a conductor giving an excessively demonstrative beat, my heart sank to my shoes. Were we about to be embarrassed for an hour by someone’s over-earnest mini-musical? I don’t have a problem with unpolished, but this was just thin. The music plodded along – there were even some quavers here and there – the harmonies veered between pedestrian and outré, the conductor sat down behind the keyboard and then he started to sing.

And my heart flew up like a bungee, narrowly missing my jaw on its way down. This was a voice. A hell of a voice. A voice that – like Nick Cave’s – knew something of hell, and glory and terrible grandeur. This was Johnny Parry: remember that name. He seems impossibly young to have an instrument so rich and complex.

Parry tells a grim gospel of death, love and loss, with subplots in both the redemption and servitude of the sacred and the pleasure and decay of the profane. Earthly/divine juxtaposition of the lyrics isn’t subtle (But you’ll dine all alone / With your food purified / … / But you’ll dine all alone / Through a tube they provide / … / But you’ll dine all alone / With a spear through your side), but it cuts straight to something dark and deeply human. Better still: the music soon caught up. Simply put, Parry (a distant relative of Sir Hubert) writes better for voices and wind than for strings, and when the work was shared around everything improved. The second number was predominantly choral and struck deep into the hitherto missing richness of sound and didn’t let go; from this point on I was completely convinced, so that the Hallmark sentimentality of ‘A Love Song’, with which they closed the set, tugged at the heartstrings rather than churned the stomach.

Here’s a video of ‘A Love Song’, performed at Union Chapel last year.

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