June 2011


A week or so ago I was phoned up by my composer friend, Jeremy Thurlow.

Back in 2007 we collaborated on a choral-electronic-video-text piece to great success. Sadly there was no recording taken and it seemed that our magical moment of musical musing would be lost for ever. But sitting in the garden in London, I was delighted to hear at the end of the telephone Jeremy telling me that some undergraduates at Cambridge (where he works) had dug up the score and text from his website and wanted to put it on.

That was all I heard about it for a few week and then after a few desultory emails, I found myself on the 10.15 from Kings Cross up to my alma mater to rehearse and perform A Sudden Cartography of Song again.

I didn’t have high hopes. It’s a fiendishly difficult (though ravishing) score and the videos and electronics are complex and delicate. But when I arrived on my bike outside the ramshackle factory building on the edge of the city, my heart ticked a little faster.

A vast, echoey warehouse. Cavernous ceilings, a floor covered by the abstract expressionism of the tires of cyclist playing cyclepolo, improvised stages, rostra, dustbins, gangways. And everywhere the busy, exciting industry of hipster students.

When I was an undergraduate we were all so dumpy and square. There was a fringe of hip-hop inspired cool kids at Kings but otherwise the dominant trend was helpless sixth-formism. These girls and boys were all sporting the obligatory Shoreditch looks, curly hair tumbling into their eyes, skinny jeans, cool unthought-out tee shirts. And more impressive, they were getting things done.

The art collective, Carmen Elektra, had already put on three site-specific music events – including HK Gruber’s Frankenstein in the Cambridge Museum of Zoology. Kate, the girl in charge of everything, seemed to command unwavering obedience in everyone around her – students or fellows of the Music faculty. The evening was primarily a performance of her opera Terrible Lips. Our piece was the entree on the other side of the vast warehouse.

Impressed as I was by the hive-like industry, I was equanimous about the turnout we would get in a off-centre venue, in Cambridge’s May Week party season (in June, don’t ask) and with massive rain clouds gathering. I love my contemporary music but would Cambridge?

However, after a lovely day pootling round with Jeremy, hearing finalists’ compositions in a fellows drawing room, drinking Pimms at the faculty garden party – we gathered back at the Bike Polo Warehouse for a brief rehearsal with the choir and videos.

It was noisy and people were wondering in and out throughout but I was amazed at the brilliance of the singers. These music students at Cambridge have an amazing and larynx-defying amount of performance. The lead in Kate’s opera had been singing Albert Herring the day before and was taking a big solo in the Matthew Passion the day after. All my quintet of vocalists had absolute grasp of Jeremy’s complex score and sounded wonderful. I even managed to bumble through my cues without too many glitches.

Then – astonishingly, – as the rain poured from the heavens, the doors open and hundreds of people rocked up. Members of the music faculty, my old choir master, my professor of literature, a massive spread of very cool-seeming undergraduates who fanned out into the space and drank beer and listening to the feisty and loud dubstep from the soundsystem.

And then – even more pleasingly, – when the moment came for the piece to begin, everyone sat down on the Cy Twombly floor and listen in silence to the ethereally shifting chords that start our piece.

It was a great performance – if I say so myself. Looking back at the video Alfredo took from the wings afterwards, it really worked with the video, the music and the text. And when it finished there was a very pleasing silence before the warehouse erupted into applause.

There was more dancing, more beer, and then Kate’s opera. A fiery, fabulous oddball thing, with great music and a bamboozling libretto. Again fiercely sung by great musicians.

The whole thing was a great slice out of my normal London life – rounded off by more beer and the odd image of my 75-yr-old director of studies, JH Prynne standing in the middle of some rather drug-fuelled ravers mentioning how the music wasn’t really loud enough. He liked it very loud.

Alfredo and I cycled off through a sparkling wet Cambridge feeling very content indeed.

I am even more content to report that Daniel, our technical wiz, managed to get a really clean recording of the whole thing which means that we will be able to put together a video so you can hear and see it all online. Jeremy and I are also planning another piece about Berlin – so a double bill will follow.