Strange News

Strange News [London premiere]

Leigh Melrose (baritone)

Arthur Kisenyi (actor)

Sound Intermedia (sound projection)

James Weeks

London Sinfonietta
Baldur Brönniman

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 3 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concise but intense concert marked the start of the London Sinfonietta’s 2010/11 season with works reacting to states of war throughout history. It culminated in Rolf Wallin’s extraordinary work Strange News, which manages to tackle the horrific plight of child soldiers in Africa without resorting to polemic.

This 35-minute work of theatre was far more affecting than the overly-explanatory programme-note led one to expect. The London Sinfonietta was joined by Ugandan actor Arthur Kisenyi, who narrated Josse de Pauw’s poetic and dreamily repetitive account of a child-soldier caught in devastating jungle warfare and of his eventual rehabilitation. Kisenyi’s largely motionless delivery, relayed onto a screen above the stage, was riveting for its calm detachment and for its sudden bursts of terrifying energy. His depiction of an induction into armed life was illustrated by pre-recorded material, marshalled by Sound Intermedia, including the deafening sounds of helicopters apparently passing close over our heads. The character Kisenyi portrayed escapes from jungle war to a contemplative section which saw the musicians leave the stage and had Kisenyi move among their empty seats and stands while dripping sounds and blue lighting gave the impression of a recently passed storm. With the musicians back in their seats, Kisenyi’s young soldier suggested a life beyond fighting in poetic terms that avoided easy answers and sentimentality through dreamlike imagery. Josse de Pauw’s text is one of this work’s assets; so too is Wallin’s music, which judders and screams the sound of war whilst also carrying the calmer sections with washes of sound studded with tiny ravishing details. Subtle amplification lent the London Sinfonietta’s playing a tinge of metallic distortion.

Not everything came off. Kisenyi’s final unaccompanied appeal directly to the audience for a life like ours turns the work towards a lecturing tone that it otherwise steers clear of. His repetition of the word “strange” is rather meaningless – what exactly is strange about what we see and hear is never explored. Unnecessary, too, is Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, whose slightly laboured appearance on the screen begins the piece, although there is an irony to his words “Here is the news”, which precede a montage of video footage from Africa’s war-zones far more brutal than anything a mainstream news programme would broadcast. But these concerns count for little when the sheer force and intensity of the work are considered. There is an element of total immersion to this piece, particularly given the remarkable use of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, whose every corner was inhabited by sound and light for the duration of Strange News.

Iannis Xenakis constructed the text for his 1967 works Nuits from Persian and Sumerian syllables, here performed with considerable power by Exaudi. Nuits combines block paragraphs of wailing and overlapping vocal writing with forceful staccato passages which unite all voice parts in angered attack. Xenakis’s eight-minute onslaught suggests swirling tumult and anguished struggle, all of which was captured by Exaudi’s virtuosic account of this demanding score.

War of the middle ages informs Michael Finnissy’s account of the battle of Maldon, a bloody struggle against the Vikings which was fought 1,000 years ago. Earl Byrhtnoth led English resistance to the Viking attack, and his memory is preserved in a contemporary poem, set here in modern translation by Finnissy. Finnissy’s Maldon has a baritone soloist recount Byrhtnoth struggle and death, set against unconnected early English poetry sung at various points by choir. Two trombones and two percussionists begin offstage to haunting effect before emerging to carry on a dialogue across the stage. Maldon has the feeling of the ancient, in part because the choir’s interjections are stylistically derived from early polyphony, though the writing is unconstrained enough to avoid pastiche. A doom-laden intensity pervades the work, though its effect was on this occasion blunted by the lack of surtitles (provided for Strange News, incidentally). Leigh Melrose produced astounding volume and colour in his account of Byrhtnoth’s battle, but Finnissy only occasionally renders the vocal line intelligible and, while the programme reproduced the text, the black print on dark grey was of little use in the darkened hall.

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