Sunday, 18 March 2012

3rd March 2012: Surrogate Cities Exploded! Southbank Centre, London

A couple of weeks ago I turn up, as I frequently do, to an event about which, frankly, I have no idea. Part of the fun of having a sister who works with music for a living is that you get invited along to all sorts of weird and wonderful things and you never know what you're going to get until you arrive (well, unless you pay attention to what you're told, but most people who know me will know I'm not very good at that.)

Over the last few years I've been along to all kinds of things from Renaissance choral events to African-themed outdoor jamborees, and enjoyed them all, so when I'm asked if I want to come along to the South Bank on a Saturday afternoon to watch something that Helen's been heavily involved in organising, I willingly agree, without asking too many details. (As we've established, the details are probably provided anyway but I expect I'm going "Mmm-hmm" whilst playing Angry Birds or something.)

What follows is a view of the afternoon's events from a member of the public's perspective, and hopefully it captures the spirit of the day, if not everything that went on, because, well, you'll see...

I get off the train at Waterloo a little early, and go for a quick wander back and forth across Hungerford Bridge, always my gateway to the West End, and a view of which I never get tired. Seriously, is there any better route into Central London? St. Paul's, The Gherkin, the Oxo Tower, the hideous concrete bunker to my right... yes, ok, the South Bank Centre isn't the prettiest building in town, but it has a certain "I don't know what" about it. Even the graffiti and sk8r bois underneath it seem somehow part of its history and would be missed if the place was demolished and replaced with yet another temple of glass and steel.

Who'd have thought a concrete egg box could be so pretty?

Eventually, it's 3pm and I head to the Clore Ballroom, a kind of open-plan sunken area in the Royal Festival Hall building, where I've been told that the fun will commence. I take up my usual spot in the front row, but somehow feel rather more self-conscious than usual. This is probably because everyone else in the "front row" is a child sitting on the floor, so I decide that normal gig etiquette doesn't apply and let a few people move in front so that they can see their offspring or siblings performing.

Soon enough, some children (and a couple of adults) come out and sit in front of some laptops at a table at the back of the performance area, as if they're about to start a day's number crunching for a top city firm. They're then followed by a whole raft of kids of varying ages with instruments ranging from cellos to trumpets to electric guitars - but rather than taking their obvious spots in the neatly arranged chairs at the rear of the ballroom, they stand in little groups dotted about the arena, still and silent.

At this point, one of the adults at the laptop table gets up and comes to the front, wielding what can only be described as a 'music detector' (okay, it could also be described as a microphone on the end of a pole if we're being literal, but let's not), and roams the space, waving it towards the various performers who start to play their instruments as he passes them. 

As he moves around, eventually everyone is playing, and there's an interesting mix of classical sounds, rock sounds (coming mostly from the band installed in seats at the back), even industrial sounds which come from the laptops. At one point there's some impressive sax duetting from either side of the room, calling and answering like an aural tennis match. The disorganisation in everyone's position is echoed in the music, which is discordant and rather avant-garde, but gradually people start to gravitate towards the back and take up their proper positions.

With the new seating arrangement comes a new order to the music, as all the performers lock into the same rhythm and the music takes on a gently undulating theme, like waves on the sea. Gradually, it shifts and moves into a more jazzy, swinging section which lasts a couple of minutes before the band members of the ensemble drive the theme into a heavy rock riff, which the whole group play with enthusiasm. As the riff builds in volume and intensity, the conductor prompts various instrument sections to stand up, until everyone is standing and rocking out to the powerful beat. And then, with a suitably climactic final flourish, it's all over and the proud parents erupt into furious applause. It's been little longer than 10 minutes, but we've been on quite a musical journey. 

I still have no idea what it is I've just witnessed, but I spot a friendly usher handing out leaflets so I grab one and take a look. "Surrogate Cities Exploded!" (exclamation mark mandatory) is, so the leaflet tells me, "a day of extraordinary new music, dance and film celebrating the city", inspired by a performance this evening at the Festival Hall of 'Surrogate Cities', a 1994 piece by Heiner Goebbels, a German composer noted for his mixture of orchestral, electronic and rock music. 'Surrogate Cities' is, in the composer's own words:

" attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them, it is material about metropolises that has accumulated over the course of time. The work was inspired partly by texts, but also by drawings, structures and sounds, the juxtaposition of orchestra and sampler playing a considerable role because of the latter's ability to store sounds and noises ordinarily alien to orchestral sonorities. My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music..."

The leaflet also explains what we've just witnessed, a new composition called 'Then the Bricks Spoke', improvised in a few days' workshop by a group of students from schools in the Boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham under the banner of "Animate Orchestra", an initiative organised by the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (I say it explains all that - it pretty much tells me what the day is about and the name of the various groups performing, and I have to fill in the rest of the information from Google after the event, but let's pretend.)

The one thing the leaflet cleverly doesn't do is tell you when or where in the South Bank complex any of the day's events will be happening. Hence, 5 minutes after the Animate Orchestra is over I'm still standing about waiting for the next thing to happen when I start to hear some faint music coming from elsewhere. Suddenly realising what this event is all about, I follow my ears which lead me up the stairs (not for the last time) to one of the top floor lobbies. 

It's difficult to get close at first, since there are lots of people wanting to take a look, but as I push my way through the crowd the music starts to take shape, into something vaguely approaching a jazz-rock type sound. There are both double bass and bass guitarists, some funky Fender Rhodes-ish keyboard playing, drums, violins, trumpets, oh and bassoons. The music is pretty loose and soulful and it sounds fantastic. There's also a vocal section featuring 4 vocalists "ooh-ing" and "ahh-ing" over the top of the groove that's built up. (This later turns out to be a piece entitled 'Running', which is being performed by LPO The Band, although I have no idea of this at the time as I'm too busy enjoying it to read my leaflet.)

Gradually, as with the previous piece, the music starts to evolve, moving into an absolutely fantastic section which is somewhere between progressive rock and a film soundtrack, with half-rapped, half-scat vocals over the top. It's amazingly powerful, and it doesn't last anywhere near as long as I would like before moving into an equally impressive tribal sounding section with the vocalists chanting, the orchestra thrashing away, and a guy banging on a dustbin lid with some real gusto.

It's pretty unique, absolutely fantastic, and ends far too soon. I curse myself mightily for not having seen the whole thing so I hang about for a minute to see if it looks like there might be a repeat performance but the musicians start to pack up almost immediately. Instead I follow a section of the crowd who are purposefully heading across to the opposite side of the building and down the stairs, and then when we're halfway down the stairs some piano music starts to play and a group of girls who seem to have been standing around suddenly spring into dancing action.

Now, honestly, I don't claim to be able to write about music particularly well but when it comes to dance, I'm completely lost. To me it looks like the girls are in regular clothes, as if they were hanging out in the school yard, and indeed the dance is reminiscent in parts of playground games, so that's my interpretation of what's going on but if anyone from the group (students from Mulberry School for Girls) reads this, please feel free to put me straight! It's a fun way to spend the next few minutes but like with everything else today, it comes and goes in a flash and I'm off again, this time back down the stairs to the main foyer to see if I can figure out where and what the next thing is going to be.

I can't hear anything happening when I get there but as I'm standing wondering what to do, a girl with a violin comes and stands pretty much in front of me and sets up her music stand, so I figure something of interest is about to take place.

Soon enough, she starts playing from the decidedly odd notations on her score which don't look like any music I've ever seen, and sound even odder. It's at this point that I hear a trumpet coming from somewhere else and then looking up and down the walkway I notice that there's also a clarinetist and the three of them are standing in a line, performing music which if you stand in the right spots does actually go together to form a cohesive and interesting piece. It's the most flash-mob like part of the day's events and it's quite something to have the public continuing to walk up and down as if nothing is happening. The piece ends to the sound of 3 people clapping (literally, which is a bit unfair but is I suppose fitting with the kind of "pop-up" nature of the event), and the performers pack up and are on their way. (I think, from the leaflet, that these are performers from the Junior Trinity Composers' Ensemble, but forgive me if that's not correct...)

I'm just thinking about where the next thing might be happening when I spy a percussionist nearby, looking like he's about to start doing something interesting - and sure enough after a couple of minutes he starts whacking the hell out his kit in a very rhythmically complex percussion solo. Or is it a solo? Suddenly from behind us, clarinets start playing from the balcony above the foyer and turn this into a fascinating percussion / woodwind duel. It's very clever stuff, using the architecture of the building as part of the performance, and I suppose very much in keeping with the theme of the day.

When this is done, I decide that it must be time to leave the main foyer again in search of something, however the lack of a timetable or plan at this point makes it very difficult to know where to go next. I wander over towards the stairs again and hear what sounds a bit like whalesong, so I follow it up the stairs only to realise on the 4th floor that it's actually got quieter and must have been somewhere on the ground floor. It's a good workout, but it's frustrating knowing that I'm probably missing something really spectacular in another part of the complex.

Eventually I realise that the source of the sound filling the entire stairwell is actually right underneath the stairs, as I come across what I think is a member of the public having a go on a computer, making different sounds based on the movement of the operator's hands. It looks like fun but I'm not brave enough to have a go, so run away in the direction of some music coming from a sunken area across the hallway.

Peering over the edge I spy some more girls dancing (in fact they may be the same ones, it's hard to tell from above) and they're gradually joined by some guys, who take the display in a more modern, street-danceish direction, accompanied by music which bridges the gap between hip-hop, classical, and world music and is rather intriguing. (From the programme - the group is called Dance Fusion and they're performing 'We apologise for the delay to your journey' with music by Jason Rowland - also the conductor of the Animate Orchestra, the talented chap.)

When they finish to huge applause, I realise I have no idea what's happening next. I make one last attempt to find something upstairs, and think I've done so when I come across a couple of people playing cello in the hallway but suddenly realise after I've stopped to listen that they're actually just practising. There are awkward glances and giggles as they stop playing and I avert my gaze and carry on up to the next floor. Hey, I wouldn't have been surprised to find something really cool happening on the fire exit today, so I think I can be let off.

After a trip up and down each of the two main stairwells of the Festival Hall complex, I've not seen anything for a good 10 minutes and my legs are hurting too much to continue with this auditory treasure hunt, so I decide it's time to take a break and return to the foyer. Bumping into my sister Helen, we both grab a cold drink as she finally manages to relax after having devoted the last however many weeks to the Animate Orchestra part of today's proceedings. It makes me realise just how much must have gone into organising this completely free event - the leaflet lists 11 different groups performing, each with anything from 5 to 50 performers, and then there are the organisers of each of these, the conductors, the project managers, not to mention the SouthBank Centre staff responsible for making sure that everything happens in the right place at the right time. Hats off to them all. 

Unfortunately it also makes me realise that for all the great stuff I have seen, there's probably just as much again that I've missed. I know it's part of the idea, the spontaneity and surprise of stumbling across something incredible happening in a broom closet, but I feel rather sorry for the performers who didn't happen to get stumbled across. As my G&T goes down rather too nicely, I spy some young lads setting up percussion instruments by the main entrance so I decide that to save some shoe leather I'll stay here until something happens.

10 minutes later, a really exciting percussion ensemble performance kicks off. (The programme later explains that this is the Junior Trinity Percussion Ensemble with a piece of their own entitled 'Route Record'.) There's a xylophone duet which meshes nicely with bass drum and samples from the other side of the space, including some cleverly recorded London train announcements, the best use of the "Surrogate Cities" concept I've heard all day. There's also some amazing drum'n'bass-esque snare work, tubular bells and all kinds of other percussion, building up an incredible piece, loaded with complex syncopation yet never losing the strong beat which keeps the audience mesmerised. 

Another well-deserved round of applause rings out through the building as the piece comes to an end, and with it we come close to the end of my afternoon's fun. I stick around for a bit of a chat with Helen and some of her colleagues, one of whom has a timeplan of today's events, something I would have killed for an hour ago. 

Unfortunately it looks like the musical performances have drawn to a close, but I stick around just long enough to catch the showcase dance performance from the Trinity Laban Undergraduate Dance Students back in the ballroom. It's an amazing display of contemporary dance from a very talented ensemble, set to music from Herr Goebbels himself and is a fine end to a most enjoyable afternoon.

It's been a unique but fascinating couple of hours. The concept of wandering around the building to see what's going on here and there may not be a good match for my worrisome nature, causing me to panic all the time that I'm missing something incredible elsewhere, but it's been spontaneous and fun, and what I have seen has been extremely professional, whatever the age of the performers.

The "main" events of today (a chat with Goebbels and then 'Surrogate Cities' itself, both of which I have to miss due to another gig later this evening) may have grabbed all the media attention, but this pop-up, flash-mob approach to new and exciting music has been quite the event in itself. 


  1. What a fascinating event! Sounds like something I would love to see myself. So much originality to the ideas and the approach to the performances. You've definitely captured the feel and flow with your words, James. Nice one!

  2. What an excellent writeup for what sounded like a great event! Well done, James!