‘Mysterious Accidents and Heavenly Calculations’ Scott Walker, Jean Cocteau and the Royal Opera House 2

There is a very obscure Scott Walker track, long forgotten now, except by the scant few who have fallen in love with it, called Time Operator, from the singer’s 1970 album ‘Till The Band Comes In’. It is an especially pretty song, in which the protagonist conducts a make-believe affair with the speaking clock. “You just picture Paul Newman,” Scott sings, “and girl he looks a little like me.” The telephone adds a particular sense of mystery to relationships, whether make-believe or painfully real, due to the ambiguity wished up by separation and distance. “Could she really be that nice?” One wonders. “Could she really be that funny?” And then the nerves and harsh light of reality snatches that away when meeting eye to eye. Of course this is only of note when the protagonists are beautiful, shy and lovelorn types in the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor mould, eternally in love but persistently at war. Not hunched over, distasteful loners using the telephone to pester and stalk. But we are inhabiting a particularly romantic sphere here, so the former is, of course, the case.

La Voix Humaine, a one act opera by Francis Poulenc, based on a monologue penned by that inimitable genius of the French avant garde, Jean Cocteau, must have been one of the first works to consider the effects of the telephone on love. The brisk, 55 minute piece, depicts a lonely woman recovering from taking an overdose of sleeping pills, making a phone call to a former lover, on the eve of his wedding. The distance and shelter that the telephone offers lulls the woman into believing she can alter an irrevocable situation from afar, she is of course mistaken. The way the telephone cord lingers around her neck during the final minutes of the performance and seems to twist like a constricting snake, suggests that the emotional trauma inflicted by their break-up is, most likely, irrevocably fatal. “Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime,” she whispers, as the music concludes. Everything rests on it, nobody is free.

A rare performance of La Voix Humaine made up the second part of Cocteau Voices, a recent double bill of new productions at The Royal Opera House Two, considering the monologues of the French genius. “The Royal Opera has never produced La Voix Humaine before,” says Aletta Collins, the choreographer extraordinaire behind this and other recent ROH productions, such as Anna Nicole Smith The Opera, “mainly because it is for a single woman, lasts for 50 minutes and has an orchestral score of almost fifty parts, so there is always the issue of what are you going to put on with it.”

This problem was solved by transporting the production to the cosy Linbury Theatre, which sits in the rather grand shadow of the Royal Opera House itself. The London Sinfonia (a much more compact 38 players) was drafted in and a new, purely dance work, for the first half, in support of  La Voix, was created, choreographed by Aletta, with a completely new score composed by none other than the irrepressibly mysterious former Walker Brother himself, Scott Walker.

Scott and Aletta’s working relationship stretches back to Drifting and Tilting, a Barbican production of Walker’s songs from his experimental and almost impenetrable recent albums Tilt and The Drift, which saw British pop luminaries Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker performing Walker’s oeuvre. Scott, renowned for being one of pop’s great absentees, got in touch with the show’s producer and suggested that a handful of the songs feature an element of choreographed dance. Aletta was of course recommended for the job, and the partnership was so successful that she turned to Scott when she was in need of a new soundtrack.

The new work would become Duet for one Voice, based on Le Bel Indifférent, a Cocteau play written for Edith Piaf, featuring a woman pleading for the attention of her lover, only to be met with constant and complete silence. The scenario is turned on its head here and features a man pleading for the affection of his lover, only for her to sit through his protestations and pleas in silence, her face covered by a morning edition of Le Monde.

Walker’s score is intimidating, as all of his recent work has proven. The multi-layered beauty found in Tilt and The Drift can only be discovered after repeat listens, and the same is no doubt the case here. The music is varied and often jarring, the dramatic and loud stops and starts which dominate The Drift return here, as does a musical experimentalism which sees, at one point, a chorus of barking dogs dominate the recording, followed by noisy industrial drones. A solo trumpet consistently returns throughout the work, playing some wonderfully melancholic jazzy tones, which brings to mind dark street corners and sultry neon tragedy.

But it is the text, says Aletta, which was the first port of call when devising the choreography. “It started with the text because that’s what we had and we pinpointed in it certain colours and emotions or mental states, which became the genesis of different sections of the music.” From these early discussions and reactions, Scott developed the score. “I didn’t want the dancers to visualise the music,” Aletta says, “I wanted an honest response physically to the themes and ideas of the text and then married them together with the music.”

The narrative of movement on the stage, seems to play out the different clauses and stages of sexuality, from rejection to acceptance, the ecstasy and passion of carnality, from connection to disintegration. What is presented is, of course, an opposing and imagined reality, it could be reality, quite easily, it all depends on the say so of the woman, who sits deaf to the simmering sexuality, engrossed in her newspaper, her foot turning clockwise, repetitively, maddeningly, inpatient and uninterested. Other opposing realities are explored by the dancers too, what if the lover responds, what if communication springs into life, does it end blissfully, or in the kind of despairing phone call seen in La Voix Humaine? And yet, as the opening scene of the production reminds us, which depicts a half naked man maniacally gyrating inside a large red ruby lipped mouth, everything begins with desire and often ends up in trouble.

If all this seems very far removed from the traditional operatic fare that one expects of the Royal Opera House, then this is because the production was commissioned by the Royal Opera House 2. ROH2 is the contemporary arm of the ROH, or as Alison Duthie, the head of ROH2 labels it, the Opera House’s “permeable skin,” because of its ability to work with different companies and commission new works. The aim of the organisation is to push new art forms and promote and commission new and contemporary opera and dance, in an attempt to widen the mediums audience.

Cocteau famously said “an artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” And yet he was very adept at describing the themes running through his prose. “Mysterious accidents and heavenly calculations,” he said were his inspiration, the invisible undercurrents which run beneath the foundations of any relationship. These undercurrents can of course be highlighted in a text, but they are made much more evident when considered through the prism of music and movement, arts which themselves hold certain invisible and mysterious powers. “All my poetry is in that,” Cocteau said, “I trace what is invisible, invisible to you.”

Cocteau Voices – The Linbury Studio – Royal Opera House 2 – Covent Garden – A Review

I must admit, I arrived at the Royal Opera House on Friday night for Cocteau Voices as a disciple of Scott Walker, and left with Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc entirely on my mind. The double bill of performances features a new dance piece based on Cocteau’s plays Le Bel Indifférent and Lis ton journal,  interpreted musically by a brand new soundtrack by the irrepressibly mysterious former Walker Brother, and concludes with a performance of the Cocteau/Poulenc collaboration La Voix Humaine. I’m hardly a scholar when it comes to Cocteau’s work and with what knowledge I do have, I would probably have sided with Walker’s own recent assessment of Le Bel Indifférent as an “antiquated piece of misogyny.” The play, written for Edith Piaf, features a woman pleading for the attention of her lover only to be met with constant and complete silence. Both pieces are though, without doubt, excellent representations of failing relationships, caused by failing communication.

Cleverly, choreographer Aletta Collins’s Duet for One Voice, a dance interpretation of Le Bel, commissioned especially for this occasion by the Royal Opera House, turns the scenario on its head and features a man pleading for the affection of his lover, only for her to sit through his protestations and pleas in silence, her face covered by a morning edition of Le Monde. 

The nearly thirty minutes of dance that ensued seemed to me to be impressive. I know little about the ins and outs of professional modern dance, but if the purpose is to showcase the beauty and contradictions of the human form, then this is exactly what I saw. The narrative of movement seemed to play out the different clauses and stages of sexuality, from rejection to acceptance, the ecstasy and passion of carnality, from connection to disintegration. It is of course an opposing and imagined reality, it could be reality, quite easily, it all depends on the say so of the woman, who sits deaf to the simmering sexuality, engrossed in her newspaper, her foot turning clockwise, repetitively, maddeningly, inpatient and uninterested. The emotion conjured on the faces of the dancers was really quite extraordinary and their energy and passion, seemingly limitless.

Scott Walker’s score is intimidating, as all of his recent work has proven. The multi-layered beauty found in Tilt and The Drift can only be discovered after repeat listens, and the same is no doubt the case here. Nevertheless the music was varied and often jarring, the dramatic and loud stops and starts that dominate The Drift return here, as does a musical experimentalism that sees, at one point, a chorus of barking dogs dominate the recording, followed by noisy industrial drones. And yet, there is much more to hang onto here, there are moments of real melody, something that has disappeared from Walker’s recent work. A solo trumpet consistently returns throughout the work, playing some wonderfully melancholic jazzy tones, which brings to mind dark street corners and sultry neon tragedy.

The second part of the evening features a performance of Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, a short opera, for one voice, which sets a woman’s telephone conversation to a departing lover to music. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and was impressed that one woman, on the phone, could hold the stage and the audience’s attention for so long.

The words sung belong to Cocteau and depict a woman who is trying to put a brave face of her emotional disintegration. She tells her partner she has just returned from a restaurant, a dinner date, dressed up to the nines, when in truth, she is in her nightgown, make-up stale, bed unmade and surrounded by plates and bottles. She puts her mind at rest by considering herself footloose and fancy free, but deep down she knows her heart is settled on a destination and failure to reach it would cause it to break.  All she thinks about is him she finally admits, and when he is going to ring and what life would be like without him. The ultimate fear of course is loneliness, dying alone, isolation, her friends, she admits, are settled, organised, while she still relies on hapless affairs and momentary passions.

It must have been one of the first works to consider the effects of a technological medium on love. Whereas today a similar piece would no doubt consider the art of breaking a heart via text message, here the telephone is studied as an instrument of torture. The line continuously breaks down and wires are crossed by confused telephone exchanges, a true reflection of the rudimentary Parisian communication system of the day. She jumps when the phone rings, she panics when it cuts out, she is held to ransom by its ring.

The way the telephone cord lingers around her neck during the final minutes of the performance and seems to twist like a constricting snake, suggests that the emotional trauma inflicted by the break-up is most likely irrevocably fatal. “Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime,” she whispers, as the music concludes. Everything rests on it, nobody is free.

The stage direction and designs by Tom Cairns are simple, yet effective. Deciding to conceal the Southbank Sinfonia backstage allows the set to be close to the audience, unbroken by an orchestra pit and allows for an exceptionally involving experience. Nuccia Focile, the Sicilian singer, is tasked with pulling off this one woman act and she does so with panache. Her first notes sounded slightly crushed by the weight of first night nerves and the thoughts of what she had to meander through for the next fifty minutes, but she quickly recovered and delivered an engrossing performance.

This is certainly not a night for everyone, I heard grumbles on the way out, and it may prove difficult to maintain an audience for two exceptionally different pieces of work following one after another. However, if you approach it willing to accept the “mysterious accidents and heavenly calculations,” which dominate Cocteau’s work and the invisible undercurrents which run beneath the surface of relationships, then there is a great deal to learn and revel in here.

Plastic Fairy Liquid Bottles and Django Reinhardt’s Finger Tips – The Black Country and the Birth of Heavy Metal

Plastic Fairy Liquid bottles and Django Reinhardt’s finger tips are things unlikely to be associated with the birth of Heavy Metal, that brashly grinding, cherished Brummie drone which has afflicted, or violently garnished, depending on your viewpoint, our airwaves for years. Django famously burnt his hand after his caravan, (shared with Florine Bella, and stuffed to the rafters with crepe paper and celluloid flowers) caught flame after he knocked over a candle. Reinhardt’s obstinate determination to recover from his injuries and pick up his guitar again would later inspire one Tony Iommi, soon to be of Black Sabbath, then a young Brummie factory worker, to return to the guitar after slicing his fingers off in a particularly nasty industrial accident.

Yes, floors around the world are scattered with the digits of significant guitarists. So, how did Tony Iommi bounce back from his lack of sculpted cuticles, in order to form one of the great Heavy Metal groups of all time? Well, cleverly, he crafted replacement plastic finger tips from washing up liquid bottles, tanned them in leather, tuned down his guitar and loosened the strings in order to adapt to the change, thus, or so the story goes, giving birth to that fabulously dirty, grinding, heavy metal drone.

The ominous shadow of industry also played its part, which hung over the youth of Birmingham in the 1970’s like the smoggy silhouette of Richard III. It was the factory or nothing for most. And long before the repetitive grind of machinery was eclipsed by the soft crinkle of office keyboards, the noise of industrial Birmingham it seems, proved oddly inspiring.

Now, years after Black Sabbath and Judas Priest swaggered through a decade from Henry’s Blues House to the rest of the world, Capsule, a Birmingham based arts group are to launch Home of Metal, a summer-long arts festival ruminating on Metal and its legacy. “We found there was very little held in museums, libraries and archives that looked at the history of the genre,” says Lisa Meyer, Capsule’s coordinator, “and we wanted to make up for this.”

To bypass the lack of materials, Capsule organised a series of “Antiques Roadshow” fairs for Metal fans, in which rockers of all ages brought in their dark trinkets and dusty vinyl collections for judgment and appraisal. One such fan was Bill Sneyd, a forty year old accounts manager and a lifelong Metal fan since his days at Walsall College of Technology. He discovered the music through the usual channels, a loaned cassette on a Spanish holiday and a rifle through a friend’s record collection. His friend “had the lot,” Bill remembers, “Priest, Purple, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Lizzy, Magnum, the list went on. It was 1988, he played me British Steel and Led Zeppelin IV and I was hooked.”

Metal fans are famously devoted to the genre, but they are also aware that much of the music’s affiliation with doom, gloom and the fiery occult should be approached with tongue firmly in cheek. The philosophy of the music says Bill, is to “turn it up to eleven, bang your head and have a good time.” There is a sense of escapism on offer to those who love the music, the heavy sound is all enveloping and can transport you to another place, if you are willing to let it. Bill believes Metal is best labelled as “music with teeth,” with lyrics that can be quite laughable one minute yet contain the ability to “move you to tears” the next.

It is hoped that the festival will appeal to a wider audience than just Metal fans though, and Lisa and her team at Capsule have gone to great lengths to ensure there is a wide palette of shows and exhibitions on offer, “which will make people in the region feel really proud of their heritage.” One of the events they are most proud of is an exhibition planned for the Leather Museum in Walsall, which will display a number of Judas Priest’s famous leather costumes. There will also be a display at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery called “You Should be Living” which will explore the language of Heavy Metal and an American called Ben Venom will display a host of patchwork vintage metal t-shirts, “kind of patchwork quilts,” as Lisa labels them , “but with sculls on.” Obviously.

The major art show of the festival will be “Be True to Your Oblivion” presented by Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner. “Metal is something that has cropped up in my work over the years,” Mark says, in a career that has focused on the visual potential of language. One of the newest works displayed will feature a video of Nic Bullen, one of the founding members of Napalm Death, a famous grind core band. “They are known for their extremely fast songs,” says Titchner, “but for also developing this style where the language becomes impossible to hear, the vocal becomes a grunt.” Many, like me, struggle to get past that particular element of Metal and start to sound a little like Pete Seeger standing, axe in hand, over the electrical cords powering Dylan’s amps at Newport, mumbling about how it’s impossible to hear the lyrics over the “distortion”. But I suppose you just have to get over that.

Bullen performs a work written especially for him by Mark in the video, with a very close camera shot bearing in on his mouth and throat in an attempt to “consider the actual mechanisms of sound making, separated from the background noise.” The sound of the voice is critical to other parts of the exhibition too, for example an exhibit called “Be Angry, Don’t Stop Breathing” which Mark labels as similar to group primal scream therapy, will encourage visitors to shout, scream and talk into a large microphone linked to the galleries PA system. “I’m interested in what happens when you give a person the opportunity to scream in a place where they shouldn’t,” he adds.

The power of the pithy epithet and the isolated lyric are also important to Mark. Much of his work consists of colourful banners and posters, embossed with a particular quote or lyrical line, such as “you should be living, but you only survive” or “we want answers to the questions of tomorrow.” A banner made especially for Home of Metal features the adamant “I’ll chose my own fate” taken from the lyrics of a Judas Priest song. The banners are the result of “disconnecting an idea from its original place,” says Mark, “so if you have something that is a Heavy Metal lyric or a Britney Spears lyric, it sounds like a philosophical text, when you take it away from the context of the music.”

Of course the existential can be found in anything if you are willing to look hard enough to see it, from the pages of scripture to the list of ingredients on the back of a Crème Brulee. The mysteries of life are not necessarily held and solved only within the holy or the sacred. Rather a simple isolated lyric from a Heavy Metal song penned by a bunch of Brummie rockers can, to some, offer the key to a happy life and a well anchored existence, if held up to a particular light. Answers are seen in the eyes of the beholder. Bill Sneyd’s favourite lyric is “hell bent, hell bent for leather,” from the Judas Priest song of the same name. He can see something in that, and you know, if I look hard enough, so can I.

The Maine Blueberry Experiment

6th of July, 1952

Smokey London’s hapless night time feel and me were never one. Forty eight minutes to ten, Guinness time. Hold me up or hold me back, I’ll make it there in time for The Girl I Love.

The trams are finishing tonight. When you heard them fumbling their way through the morning, first thing, you knew you had survived another fiery night. The rattle, the clang and the sway and oh how snug it was to be on the inside, when it was raining on the outside. The trams and the rain and South London all seemed to go so well together then. And now what of these unused rails? The paths left abandoned, the streets never chosen. And what of that special section of thin air, reserved solely for those hardy souls, temporarily suspended between street and sky?

I never appreciated my position. I never gave it a second thought. The magic in the everyday, the mystery within the machine. Gliding through the kerosene strings of Christmas lights and Chinese lanterns, the filament eyes, tripped into life by the lamplighter’s touch, all the while sat side by side with the wishless old ladies who thought nothing of it.

I thought something of it though. Every single night. Like putting lighter to cigarette, I still love that sound. It’s nothing. The fizz, the sizzle, as flame meets paper and root catches light. Inhale and exhale smoke. Smoke is like a secret, the hazy wisp of a secret, breathed in for a moment, hidden inside, deep within the chest and breathed out when concealment becomes too much.

Now I’m demobbed, but I’m still feeling the Ardennes in the palms of my hands, in the soles of my feet, I’ve got its mud under my fingernails and its metal in my back. I held his hand as he melted into the dirt.  I took his pictures from his top pocket, took his letters given passage by BFPO and held them in trust near his St Christopher, until I could plead my way home.

The tram driver becomes a bus driver tomorrow and for the first time in forty years he will be able to sit down, but then again, I suppose bird song always does sound louder after any storm. I’m going to open all the windows on the top deck, I’m going to let the atmosphere flood in, I’m going to jump up on a seat and peer out and see over the edge of the world, and the old ladies are going to frown and I’m going to let them. I miss my father more than anyone else in the world, and if love is the absence of anxiety, then I’m as anxious as hell.