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The NMC Songbook live

A swallow, a rose, an admonition

Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Andrew Ball (piano), Iain Burnside (piano), Huw Watkins (piano), Lucy Wakeford (harp)

Causes for wonder
Iestyn Morris (counter-tenor), Daniel Norman (tenor), Andrew Ball (piano), Lucy Wakeford (harp)

King’s Place - 2 April 2009

In celebration of 20 years in operation the recording company NMC commissioned nearly 100 songs from British composers, which were recorded in King’s Place in August and September 2008 resulting in the CD boxed set ‘The NMC songbook’. Composers were invited to write songs to English texts of 3 minutes suggested duration, using one or two voices with piano, harp, harpsichord, guitar or percussion, or unaccompanied. From the 1st to the 4th of April, King’s Place presents all of these new songs in 8 concerts. I heard 21 of the songs in the second evening.

The format of these concerts is ideal for the MTV generation. Each concert lasted only around 40 minutes and in the first concert we had the pleasure of enjoying the considerable talents of 7 musicians in various different combinations. Jonathan Cole’s ‘tss-k-haa’ was based on mouth percussion with the addition of the squeak of air escaping a bright orange balloon! Unfortunately the miniature sound world here was also augmented by the unwelcome sound of a fan at the back of the hall, which persisted annoyingly throughout the first concert. It was however an encouraging start to our voyage through new English song.

After that we entered a world of isolation and desolation that was astonishing in it’s similarity through the music of nine different composers. There was a disproportionate number of texts by long dead poets, Shakespeare and Blake featuring prominently. Most of the songs were for voice and piano, with little exploration of extended techniques or electronics.

We heard mesmirising performances from Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside including the singer/composers own ‘A Coat’. Martin Butler’s ‘London’ and Anthony Payne’s ‘Ghost Train’ were thrilling for the sheer magnitude of the pair’s storytelling capabilities. The diction was perfect and the sound worlds wonderfully evocative.

Jean Rigby’s chocolatey voice added warmth to the evening and her performance of Robin Holloway’s ‘Go, lovely Rose’ was particularly touching. In a number of the songs in this first concert, there was a lot of pain and struggle which was presented as a dichotomy between the vocal and piano parts. It left one with a feeling that these 21st century composers are living in a lonely and fearful state.

The songs (all with piano accompaniment except ‘tss-k’haa’) were interspersed with arrangements for harp by David Watkins of melodies by Giles Farnaby and Thomas Morley. These instrumental interludes were beautifully performed and gave us the opportunity to contextualise the new music we were hearing.

The second concert of the evening featured an entirely different line-up of singers with Andrew Ball and Lucy Wakeford continuing their evening’s work. This concert was a bit more varied in terms of tone. We experienced the compelling tenor of Daniel Norman giving us more of the stark beauty which characterised the evening in John Casken’s ‘Night and Morning’ and Ben Foskett’s ‘Driving’ (a personal favourite).

This was juxtaposed with the first piece for voice and electronics which dissappointingly contained no live elements, Luke Stoneham’s ‘25’. This was the only piece of the evening that I didn’t enjoy. It felt like being in bed late at night with a party going on next door and a dog fight outside your window. There was no audible text and a rising buzz which hurt my ears. Audience members also felt they had the right to talk through the piece (presumably as there was no one actually performing) and that also marred my enjoyment.

Fortunately, after that, we were back on the familiar territory of new British song. At this point we began to hear some of the songs with harp accompaniment and Lucy Wakeford came into her own. Tarik O’Regan’s ‘Darkness Visible’ used both counter-tenor and tenor with harp accompaniment to haunting effect. Other memorable songs and performances were Robert Keeley’s ‘Because I breathe not love to everyone’ and Joe Cutler’s ‘Bands’.

Towards the end we moved towards lighter territory. Gerald Barry’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was hilarious. We heard a recording of the composer himself singing and playing the piece which is intended for performance by one or two voices which could be boy trebles, tenor or bass. The composer jumped up and down a vast three octave range in his ‘singing’ (or shouting or squealing depending on the moment) to great comic effect. The final piece of the evening, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Bellamy’ for counter-tenor, football hooligan and harp, continued the lighter theme and was a joyful end to a fantastic evening’s entertainment.

Each concert in the series has been given a programmatic title and I wonder how the songs were grouped together - this could be the reason for the simliarity of tone, particularly in the first concert, and the relative non-variety of accompaniment. They certainly weren’t conceived as a series and it is interesting to see how they work as an evening’s entertainment which is to say, very well.

The evening has threw up all sorts of interesting issues about the attitudes and interests of the contemporary classical music establishment. The programmes states ‘The Song book represents a snapshot of British music in the twenty first century’. If this is really the case, where were the collaborations with popular lyricists and songwriters? Why weren’t Lilly Allen, Jarvis Cocker or Elvis Costello approached to write for this project?

The evening wasn’t very well attended which was a shame considering the quality of both the music and the performers but it does beg the question how is this medium to survive if it is not viewed as relevant or interesting to the wider public? The overwhelming mood of the evening was one of isolation and despair. Where is the wit, tongue in cheek naughtiness, surging passions and experimental sound worlds that are typical in the popular music scene? I feel a real opportunity was missed to explore the fertile ground for collaboration between different genres. In a world where U2 set songs with texts by Salman Rushdie, where Jeff Buckley can put Benjamin Britten on a rock album, where classical music is constantly sampled for use in rap songs and other popular genres, why does the ‘contemporary classical’ establishment feel the need to distance themselves from their contemporaries and isolate themselves from the general public?

Tess Ormond

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