Talking up, not down: London Sinfonietta’s new Blue Touch Paper series

I was lucky to have been invited last night to attend a preview of the London Sinfonietta’s three latest projects in their Blue Touch Paper scheme.

The main part of the evening involved work-in-progress previews of around 20 minutes for each piece (they were all projected to last 45–60 minutes when finished). This was followed by an after-show discussion – we  divided into three small groups to take part in a guided critique/dialogue with the creators of each piece. The three pieces were: 

There were things I liked about all three. Half of Me (pdf) retold the myth of Demeter and Persephone through puppets and music. I liked it most for its dramatic and narrative technique and its characterisation, in particular of the capricious child Persephone. The interaction between puppets and musicians was nice, and as a work of collaboration it had the most fun with its interdisciplinary overlaps. As a production for children of 10+ (which it is) it should do very well. 

The Revenge of Miguel Cotto (pdf) was, for my money, the most musically complete of the three. An exploration of the ‘sanctioned violence’ of boxing it was set out in a series of contrasting panels (rounds?), some of them connecting clearly with violent and physical theme, others more contemplative. (I half imagined these as post-endorphin come-downs, or as the fighter’s moments of clarity when decisions are made to punch or block, left or right.) There were lots of great musical effect in a score that always held your attention, but the best was two percussionists marking the beat in one section by alternately thwacking a pair of punch bags with giant plastic tubes. As well as the obvious sonic and theatrical verismo, there was an interesting musical function too. Punchbags are imprecisely made by the standards of modern orchestral percussion, so some thwacks came sounded high, some low. Like a metronome, the high ones sounded like accented beats, the low ones off-beats. So despite the relentless crotchets, the metrical pattern kept shifting, giving an unpredictable edge to the whole ensemble sound.

The piece I found most problematic, or at least most difficult to assimilate on a first pass, was 100 Combat Troupes (pdf). I think this was in part because this was the most ambitious piece: theatrically it had the most things going on, it was conceptually rich and it danced among such a wide range of reference points. Inspired by Borges’ short story ‘The Circular Ruins‘ and presented as a critical shuffle through the detritus of modern life, it incorporates clowning, Hegel, Balkan music, cereal nostalgia and Disney, as well as (perhaps inevitably)  Benjamin’s Angel of History. There’s probably more that I didn’t notice or wasn’t told about. Each scene was highly constrasting; some were very short, others (the clown/ages of man monologue, memorably played by Adam de la Cour) up to 10 minutes long.

My initial response was that there was maybe too much happening, without a corresponding sense of complexity. That is, for all the different worlds we were being shown, the different ways of being, even, there was a singular socio-political message: capitalism has destroyed everything that is good and beautiful, and we are left only to pick through its rubble, our fake smiles barely hiding our rage and sadness. I missed any alternatives, a critical engagement, or perhaps a sense of hope or humanity. The Angel of History might stare horrified and powerless at the rubble piling up at his feet, but he endures, and there is nobility in that, which is reflected in both Klee and Benjamin’s portraits.

And yet. Work like this needs every dimension to be completely polished and convincing. It is a martyr more than most to its execution. So a preview event in a blank-canvas space like Village Underground, rather than the finished product at somewhere like the Linbury (with the improvements in staging, lighting, costumes, etc. that come with that) is going to be a little compromised. I’m cautious of placing too much weight on my first reaction here because of that. And in the final moments of the bleeding preview chunk that we saw, there were moments on stage that suddenly opened up the possibility of more complex connections. So we wait and see.

By a process of random selection (I actually missed the announcement about which group was which), it was the 100 Combat Troupes discussion that I ended up taking part in. Which, when I realised this and given my ambivalent first reaction to the piece, made me a little anxious. But I needn’t have worried. For a start, the discussion was expertly moderated and carefully structured, so opinions, criticisms and questions all had their place, as well as positive reactions. Secondly, my fellow discussees were intelligent, perceptive and articulate, and not afraid to wade in to things. And, thirdly, Steve and Kélina were very open, generous in their responses and spoke interestingly about their work, and what they were hoping to achieve in both general and quite detailed specific terms.

Oh, how good it was to hear an artist talking within what was ostensibly a public/staged/institutional context about nitty gritty matters like durational structures, the density and texture of words, the role of narrative … Maybe it is just that Steve, and especially Kélina, were comfortable talking about their work in this way, but I thought the format for the discussions helped. I certainly appreciated greatly the opportunity to engage with both artists on this kind of level (and I want to thank them both for putting up with my sometimes abstruse interrogations). More importantly, it made me think through my response to their piece in much greater detail than I might otherwise have done. I certainly want to see it again, and I want to see how it develops.

Talking up, not down, actually made the work more, not less, accessible. Now there’s a thought.