Written by: Edward Lewis
Phillip Neil Martin
Voices of the Asylum
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Thursday, 18 March 2007
The World of Fashion is, without doubt, a strange parallel universe, removed from that inhabited by us mere mortals by an absence of sense, practicality and self-awareness. Although I found myself present at the Royal Academy of Arts to review the music of “Voices of the Asylum”, it would be foolish, indeed negligent, to attempt to remove it from its natural context.
That context is the reason almost everybody else was there – to gawp, and, I suspect, to be seen gawping, at the London College of Fashion’s Centenary Show, for which Phillip Neil Martin was commissioned, as Composer in Residence, to write the accompaniment.
Having been ‘instructed’ to arrive no later than half-an-hour early, I promptly did so to be “greeted” by what I can only assume to be a High Priestess of Fashion with the blunt inquisition as to whether I had an armband. Armband? Was this a water-based show, or was it simply an enquiry as to whether I was a member of a Woodhousian Spode-like political party, hell-bent on introducing the mandatory wearing of clothes made from a selection of scrap metal, carpet and toast. Upon admitting the absence of an armband, but explaining who I was, I was passed to the Sub-Deacon of Style, who promptly ejected me from the building, informing me that I shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.
It was raining. It was cold. London was just beginning its 24-hour emulation of Hurricane Katrina. I waited under the hallowed portals of the Academy. After half-an-hour, a queue had started to form. But no ordinary queue. This being Fashion, it was an embodiment of a developing and fascinating social situation. Everybody joining said queue assumed that They had the sole, unquestionable right to move to the front of it, leading to an evolving mêlée that had more in common with a party game of musical chairs than the traditional British Muttering Queue. I spent the time hoping the high-heeled, leopard-skin clad Venuses would gang up with the towering, haughty ladies-who-lunch to give the stick-thin size minus-four androgonites, with figure-hugging lycra right down to the inexplicable and mystical point about three inches above their silver pumps, the pasting they doubtless deserved. But it was not to be, as we were finally admitted some fifteen minutes later.
To gain access to the performance space, we were filed through a large state room, empty but for a small Perspex box containing a lady in sack-cloth banging to be let out. It is quite possible that the explanation for this display involves phrases like “social comment”, “ironic” and “post-modern”, or “metaphor for the role of anti-climax in the fashion industry”. Or perhaps it was a night-cleaner who, having got stuck in an awkward situation, had been mistaken for Art and left there for three weeks.
Seated, we were treated to ten minutes of heavily amplified, reverb’d breathing, which reached orgasmic proportions when the show appeared to be, finally, starting. Three white-clad, closely-mic’d singers took a corner of the stage each, the fourth occupied by Beardyman, who, for those shamefully ignorant of such a fact, is the UK Human Beatbox champion. What ensued was a soundscape built from human voices, electronically processed at times, melded to recordings of vocal phrases and beats. Stylistically moving between filmic, neo-renaissance and sound-design, Martin’s music carried a beguiling combination of energy and purity in a structure engineered to maintain musical interest and fascination.
The three singers were of outstanding ability, with astonishingly clear tone and diction, although their voices were obscured at times by an over-bearing reliance on electronic processing and overlaid sound. Beardyman alone was worth the 45 minutes of weather-beating waiting. That a man can produce such a range of sounds with such agility and with a solidity of rhythm I have rarely heard in the most adept percussionists is in itself astounding. As if by-the-by, he also found time to supply his own synth-esque bass-line, a walking bass-line, a trumpet, and what seemed to be a kazoo, all without breaking a sweat and, more importantly, without using any instrument.
It is tempting to suspect that inside Martin is a contemporary choral composer trying to break free, and I have no doubt that if it were to do so the results would be beautifully impressive. The situation, however, seemed to cramp this apparent urge, with aspects of minimalism, African melodic fragments, harmonic textures reminiscent of John Tavener or Judith Bingham, and sound structures invoking the scores of Lisa Gerrard, only to be suppressed by driving rhythmic noises.
Strikingly, though, the soundscape, for soundscape it was and concert-music it was not, was at immense odds in its insistent energy with the alarming passivity of the actual display. The models would have been more animated playing corpses in a murder mystery. Or standard lamps.
Martin is obviously an immensely talented, skilled and imaginative musician, and the creation of 45 minutes of backing for the occasion demonstrated these gifts. Moments of aesthetic interest, consummately skilful writing and intelligent mastery of electronics melted together in his hands to form a soundscape of cryptic interest and beauty. But beauty is a strange thing, in both models and music. While aesthetically very pleasing at a distance, one suspects they might be relatively insubstantial should one choose to spend an entire evening with them.