Chances are, if you’ve seen a couple of unassuming men with an entourage of wine-toting revellers strolling into a cosy flat in South London, you’ve likely witnessed the early stages of a Bastard Assignments gig. You’re part of it now. The new new music: the growing trend of experimental music in experimental venues.
These flats, basements and houses are the stomping grounds of Timothy Cape and Edward Henderson, the curators of the avant-garde collective Bastard Assignments; musicians who eschew the grandeur of concert halls for robust kitchen countertops and poky, dim-lit bedsits. For them, the venue is half of the performance, and the performance is a very intimate affair.
The whole premise of their series, titled At Your Place, is to subvert any ingrained notion of new music as an unobtainable art form. Everything happens mere feet from your face and in a very informal way, which helps to break down the barriers that most people have built against the age-old “pretentiousness” of art music.
Bastard Assignments acquired their name from the less-than-desirable coursework which was obstructing their members’ music composition throughout university. Yet coping with such obstacles is an integral survival mechanic for groups who venture into such spaces as Bastard Assignments do on a continual basis.
These intimate venues often throw up challenges that large-scale venues simply don’t have to contend with: a lack of toilets and comfortable seating were evident at Bastard Assignments’ ‘Fresh and Clean’ event in the Thames Tunnel Shaft last September, and the issues of spacing and extraneous noises are a prevalent reminder why series like ‘At Your Place’ are not universal.
These are sacrifices that are increasingly being made in the contemporary music world. A location dictates more than just the music’s acoustic; it controls the dynamic of the pieces that happen within it. The building’s walls, surroundings and innards contribute in a very deliberate way as a venue, offering a consistently varied and utterly unique acoustic, along with the extraneous noises that become part of the performance itself. It’s now that we’re seeing music performed not merely in spaces, but for spaces.
Cafe Oto in Dalton, East London, is a hot bed for this modern approach to music. When Otomo Yoshihide performed there in 2010, the bar staff had to turn off the fridges because the hum they made was louder than the performance. Conversely, Germany’s Casper Brötzman Massaker produced an orchestrated but deafening din in 2012, while in 2011, Korea’s Balloon & Needle utilised every facet of the Cafe’s existence, including the fire exits, as instruments in their pieces. It is a venue of outstanding possibilities. and co-founder Hamish Dunbar has a policy on showcasing the original: “if it’s bland and boring and is being done in other places, why do it here?”
‘Oto’ translates as both ‘noise’ and ‘music’ in Japanese: a fitting description of the acts it gives host to every night. More recently, Cafe Oto has played stage to acclaimed series like Kammerklang, 840 and Bastard Assignments itself. It’s Britain’s brightest exponent of the contemporary experimental, so why, despite huge public and financial backing from people and groups who recognise its influence, do we still tend to ignore the proceedings of modern music?
The musical world was in a very progressive flux around 100 years ago, with art music emerging from the fatigue some composers felt towards the hitherto eternity of tonal music. Individuals like Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg were controversially driving music into the strange and exciting 20th century, forcing audiences to reconsider every pre-conception they’d had about sounds and their relation to each other.
These composers were rarely appreciated in their time, and composers nowadays are just as unpopular. The death of Pierre Boulez earlier this month would be news to most, as would his existence at all, yet the passing of this most ground-breaking art music composer should not be overlooked. By comparison, the death of David Bowie, a man who made parallel waves in pop music, has set the world on fire.
What it may be, this mass lack of involvement in art music, is the perceived elitism that echoes with its every clanged note. Most people have already aligned themselves with those unable to ‘get’ art music before they have attempted to immerse themselves, however briefly.
What Bastard Assignments and Cafe Oto are doing is presenting the music in a more accessible way. It’s less formal and more simple, a recipe that produced immense success when conductor Alan Gilbert talked an unfamiliar crowd through the various meanings of Magnus Lindberg’s thoroughly grinding ‘Kraft’, resulting in an unprecedented standing ovation from irregular concertgoers.
Still, these new series and performance spaces have a long way to go before reaching the comparable wealth of popularity that other avant-garde mediums like art and architecture enjoy. But if there’s one way to go about it, it’s to stage performances in cafes, strangers’ houses or abandoned tube shafts and charge as much for entry as an average pint of beer.