Sounds Lyrical Project
Basement Bar, City Screen
Thurs June 4
The air in York City Screen’s Basement bar is thick with anticipation. The room has the inviting aesthetic of, what I imagine to be, a 90s New York comedy club: low lit, candles flickering on every red tablecloth.
A deep red curtain swathes at the back of the stage. The place evokes distant (and thankfully much less sinister) memories of David Lynch’s Black Lodge.
We are gathered for Sounds Lyrical Project’s fourth and final concert in their 2014-15 series, GHOSTS, and the excitement is tangible.
Guests settle into the intimately jovial atmosphere; scattered mics and wires wait on stage with a few chairs and an electric piano.
Composer Tim Brooks is invited on stage to introduce his piece, Ghosts, setting off my private alarm bells. Explanatory discussion of works at these events often strikes me as patronising. My fears are quelled, however, when Brooks says what every artist envies: “I was just playing.”
Before we are treated to Ghosts, the Sounds Lyrical poets enter to deliver the pieces that inspired its creation.
We are offered emphatic performances from Rose Drew and Lizzi Linklater, Alan Gillott and Andy Humphrey’s meeker readings being somewhat overshadowed.
The poetry is accomplished, playing at turns with alliteration in Gillott’s Red Dress, assonance throughout Drew’s Crow, and repetition across Humphrey’s works while Linklater’s pieces attack with emotional intensity.
In places some crystal clear images are disappointingly specked with impossible to miss cliché or evasive abstraction, but overall the work is enticing.
Brooks’ composition was both inspired from and born out of these poems. In a collaborative, ekphrastic feat, Brooks has forged his soundscape by cutting, splicing and manipulating fragments of the recorded poets.
The speakers vibrate as the digital recording opens, booming a delicious juxtaposition to the cosy setting.
Uncannily, the collage-style piece opens with vocals that evoke again Lynch’s Black Lodge: The Man from Another Place stumbles mechanically over his words and we are plunged into a dream sequence.
Steeped in the surreal
Saxophonist Iain Harrison enters, deep in improvisation as he moves. As the digital recording relentlessly ploughs on (as heartbeat, steam engine, alarm), Harrison’s frenetic playing is a wonderful contrast, flirting with traditional musicality, drawing closer, pulling away.
Ghosts is the triumph of tonight’s performance, Brook’s avant-garde experimentation evocative of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and steeped in the surreal.
The fragmented narrative of the piece ends beautifully as Harrison saunters off, leaving us with the dwindling heartbeat, in a place between the real and the imagined. Yet the soundscape is long, in places relentless, and could perhaps benefit from some more variety throughout.
Guest poet Carole Bromley brings a welcome calmness to the evening. Her sure-footed and honest poetry roots us once more in the realm of the human, and bridges the gap between the first and second halves of the show.
The gap, however, is wide, almost cavernous. The Sounds Lyrical poets deliver a second round of works which, in this instance, have been set to music by composers David Power, David Lancaster, Steve Crowther and Peter Byrom-Smith.
Pianist Josephine Peach and vocalist Benjamin Lindley stumble through a broken description of the pieces to come. This time the explanation is wholly unnecessary, as are the primary readings of the poems and do amount to that somewhat patronising effect.
Passion and energy
The works have been set to music quite traditionally, and range from hauntingly beautiful accompaniments to full on, get up and dance, jazz. Peach is incredibly inspirational on stage, and I can’t help but mourn the absence of an acoustic piano for her skill.
In some instances the accompaniment itself manages to evoke the entire narrative arc of the poetry (for example with Brook’s setting of Linklater’s Jeer), and prompts the question of whether the vocals are necessary at all.
At any rate, the night (pushing half ten) has begun to drag a little; the crowd is thinning as guests quietly slip away.
While the evening has been a tour de force of experimentation and collaboration, the line-up itself would benefit from a little whittling down. Definitely the repetitive nature of displaying the same poem twice in different ways, as in an anticipatory Euripidean prologue, can be forgone.
Nonetheless, Sounds Lyrical Project is an endeavour certainly moving in the right direction. The passion and energy of all the participants was evident all evening, and they are definitely a group to keep an eye on.
I wouldn’t want to miss what they come up with next.