Take three stages in a resurrected venue, brazen in its shabby chic state with a nearly-completed organ restoration. Add five composer/performers and the might of the BBC, let alone the droll enthusiasm of presenter Georgia Mann, and what have you got? The first Proms at... this season in the cool surroundings of Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, with its distressed walls revealing a patina of the building’s history and a constant reminder of the fire that all-but destroyed it four years ago.
It was a true Prom in that – just like the Arena at the Royal Albert Hall (and roughly the same size, though more oblong) – everyone was standing. The Grand Hall hosted, back in April, the Proms’ official launch, coincidentally just days after the Notre Dame fire. But things have moved on even since then, with the nearly complete re-installation of the Hope-Jones organ at the opposite end of the Hall to where it was originally situated. The organ came into its own two-thirds of the way through this matinee, which aped Jools Holland’s Later by having its three stages and organ console around the walls of the venue, and the audience mingling in the central space. While Mann resolutely stuck to the stages for her announcements, this Prom could easily have been titled Earlier.
Jennifer Walshe set the bar very high with her opening vocal barrage Glori, an extraordinary rapid-fire smash up of pop lyrics, from Abba via Queen to ... oh there must have been something beginning with Z! Sometimes just a sung word, at others whole lines, suddenly cut short and intercut with a crazy juxtaposition, all acted and sung by Walshe in a tour de force of expression and compression: a whole world of music dispatched in minutes.
Her later contributions included Nature is a Machine, a riff on the way a real-life venture-capitalist views his own existence as increments to his development – just like computer software – version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 – and They Go People and Person setting text provided by an online AI neural network, Bob Sturm & Oded Ben-Tal’s “folk-rnn”, which responded to Walshe feeding it tracts of feminist gothic works including by mother and daughter Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, so perhaps it was no surprise that the phrase “Social Policy” suddenly stood out.
Indeed the majority of works were text-based. Complete with her Sonic Bonnet, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian – one half of Crewdson & Cevanne (Hugh Jones was elsewhere) –coupled her haunting vocals with synthesised sounds and loops by tapping her bejewelled headwear and that most stately of instruments, the harp. Her first song Two Machines sounded like a cross between Laurie Anderson and Edward Lear, while the others were more folk-based, Sisa's Well including sampling (like a Geiger counter) from Sizewell B.
Neil Luck’s pieces are more like poetry performance art, using the massed choral forces of Musarc, sometimes split into four. Any's Responses utilised a three-way trigger mechanism between a sole caller of words (often tempo markings) which set off a duet of spoken descriptions and choral reactions. His Deepy Kaye was a peculiar setting including film and a spoken commentary alongside amplified viola and cello, with Neil himself laying playing cards on a table. Namesaying involved four choirs repeating nonsense syllables to the beat of claves and a megaphone.
Even though wordless, Kit Downes’s fantastic improvisation on the organ seemed to speak especially when huffing and puffing like Thomas the Tank Engine (I assumed these were as yet unturned pipes). Ranging over the three keyboards, foot pedals and a bank of stops this was a thrilling display of what can be achieved without the aid of additional electronics: the high point of the concert.
To end was the sound of Oliver Coates’s cello – in a seamless quintet of pieces, building in electronic intervention, so that the final one Reunification turned his noble instrument into the harshest reverberation of an angry electric guitar. I suppose it was good to be reminded that not everything in this World is beautiful, and I can only be thankful that this ended the concert, as otherwise I would have been in a bad mood while listening to anything further.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms