Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Critical Thinking

Critical Distortions - Natalie Clein, Shiva Feshareki, Simon Fisher-Turner.
Kings Place, London, 2nd December 2008

‘Critical Distortions’ is a collaboration between three artists from what, at least on the surface, appear like very different worlds. There’s Natalie Clein, the 1994 Young Musician of the Year winner and virtuosic Cellist, Simon Fisher-Turner, the electronic sound artist probably best known for his work for Derek Jarman’s film ‘Blue’ and the young composer Shiva Feshareki, currently studying with Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music. I’ve been waiting a while for this intriguing proposition to arrive in London and the new Kings Place venue (lovely once you get into the music rooms but rather corporate and soulless in its lobbies) have opted to heighten the ‘look at us, we’re contemporary’ atmosphere by not providing any proper seating. There are beanbags but not nearly enough of them! The floor is hard! Mercifully the music, whilst certainly challenging, is not nearly so discomforting.

Shiva has, somewhat hilariously, been introduced as ‘The DJ’ in some of the publicity for these concerts, as if she is the first and only person to ever spin two records on a set of decks. Actually, tonight’s performance gives some credence to this implication, so inventively does Shiva transform her turntables into a credible musical instrument.

Her piece ‘Critical Distortions’ is the centrepiece of the evening and is an audacious work of real quality. Part of a series of compositions exploring the urban environment of bustling London, it is visceral, confident and aggressive but also rich in nuance and detail. Shiva places strong emphasis on honesty as the essential element of successful composing and performing. She admits tonight that, being human, a lack of subtlety isn’t necessarily negative. It is often good to say what we really mean and sometimes stark, undisguised language is the best means of communication.

Perhaps the piece is unsubtle in its effect, only in that the responses it inspires are as much physical and emotional as they are intellectual. The refreshing aspect of this approach is that there is clearly no need for one to understand the technical aspects of her compositional process – the conceptual and gestural aspects of it are far more significant. She captures the inherent links between experience, feeling, language and environment.

Having said that, it’s clear that the meticulous scoring and rehearsing that has gone into this project have paid dividends. There are some clear reasons why this piece and its performance have worked so well. There’s a strong emphasis on rhythm which makes the music both exciting and insistent. Perhaps more importantly, Shiva has given patient and careful thought to the range of sound and timbre that can be drawn from both instruments, and also to how the two can be most effectively integrated. Exposing that any dichotomy between acoustic and electronic is likely to be false is not a particularly new idea – but it’s rare that a pairing of seemingly disparate instruments manages to sound so convincingly like a dialogue. This is the sort of novel project that in lesser hands could be a total disaster, but Shiva and Natalie have rehearsed this piece so thoroughly that it seems like a real shared experience being communicated to its audience.

I’m not really an expert on classical music and this is the first time I’ve seen Natalie Clein perform, but her playing is a total revelation for me. She seems completely absorbed in the music. Her movements, somehow both completely relaxed and attacking, are transfixing and the sound produced by them even more so. Her reverent performance of part of the Kodaly Cello Sonata, which by virtue of its Eastern European sonority sounds very otherworldly and entrancing to my ears, is quite overwhelming.

Simon Fisher-Turner’s contributions are nowhere near as excoriating as his extraordinary Jarman soundtrack, rather more serene and hypnotic. This makes his role, in spite of the ubiquitous laptop, perhaps the most conventional and comfortable of the three. His duet with Clein starts off disconnected but ends blissfully entwined and somewhat catatonic. Clein seems slightly apologetic for Fisher-Turner and Shiva’s meddling with her tribute to Pablo Casals and the Bach Cello Suites but I felt they worked well by managing to combine playful irreverence with creativity and respect.

The world of contemporary music really needs this kind of boundary breaking, co-operative spirit. Musicians need to seek new contexts and pitch themselves outside their comfort zones if they are to develop further. The music must speak to broader audiences, without losing its artistry, and, through this process, direct listeners into new areas. I feel inspired to explore the worlds of Kodaly and Bach in a little more depth as a result of attending this unique performance.

If this wasn’t inspiration enough – we’re treated backstage to a private performance from Natalie and, once again, I walk out into London’s enthralling night feeling that little bit more alive.

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