On The Sheltering Bars
Claron McFadden (soprano)
Dave Le Page (violin)
Zoe Martlew (cello)
Dave Arrowsmith (electric guitar)
Pete Wilson (bass guitar)
Rob Millett (percussion)
Director Toby Wilsher
Live video and processing Howie Bailey & Ben Jarlett
Actor James Gleave
Sound engineer Chris Lewis
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 22 February, 2005
Venue: Riverside Studios, London
Soprano Claron McFadden, in mourning dress as writer Mary Shelley, is singing to her dead husband, whose ghostly image appears in the chair beside her. Behind her head, clouds boil in an unnatural frenzy. The music, which has up to now suggested the subdued foreboding of a Romantic string quartet, is energised by a funk-inflected bass line and swirling electronic sounds.
Is this the future of new music? Composer Colin Riley thinks so. The issue of how best to present classical and new music has been much discussed of late; digital technology offers unprecedented flexibility in manipulating sounds and images, and musicians are beginning to exploit its potential for musical theatre outside the traditional confines of the opera house. Deirdre Gribbins’s new violin concerto gets the full son et lumière treatment in its current tour, and this Riverside Studios concert saw the debut performance of Riley’s group MOOV, founded to “revitalize the look and feel of new music events”.
Part of the enterprising IF-05 Festival, the evening had an endearingly experimental air, suggesting that, for all the hi-tech wizardry, this was still new music on its usual shoestring budget. Nonetheless this experiment was a success, among the best of its kind I have seen.
The show consists of a pair of theatrical pieces featuring soprano Claron McFadden, each preceded by a short instrumental work accompanied by visual projections. For “No Trace”, the band is hidden behind a screen, onto which close-up images of instrumentalists are projected, rippling to produce kaleidoscopic effects; “Close” overlays a sequence of faces in close up, among them Mozart, Elvis, an aboriginal tribesman and George W Bush. I enjoyed Riley’s subdued lyricism in these pieces, which merged the versatile live ensemble with subtle electronics, and the visuals enhanced the music rather than distracting from it.
“Science Fiction” was the Shelley piece and the evening’s weakest link, a rather overcooked Gothic mad-scene that felt busy and over-directed. Claron McFadden gave her all in a vocally demanding role, variously assaulted by video apparitions and portentous electric guitars, but even she was unable to bring off a climax which saw her brandishing a rubbery slice of her husband’s heart.
Altogether better was “On The Sheltering Bars”, which falls somewhere between chamber-opera and (pop) song-cycle. Riley sets nine poems by contemporary women poets, which together offer a meditation on the difficulties of love and relationships. His music’s directness of expression, which shaded into kitsch in the earlier piece, here suited the subject matter admirably, and his subtle and unpredictable melodies were sensitive to the poets’ voices. The standout moment was the spare setting of Wendy Cope’s “at 3 am”, which brought out the poem’s quiet desperation with effective economy. Claron McFadden was excellent, coquettish and despondent by turns, filling the vignettes with human warmth. The recording, out next month on Riley’s own label, will be worth seeking out for anyone interested in sassy, sophisticated new music.