I hear those voices that will not be drowned

Put Guardian critic Andrew Clements in a plush upholstered seat in a concert hall to listen to Shostakovich or Mahler's parodies of popular tunes, and chances are he will wax lyrical in his review. Ask him to walk around outside Snape Maltings and experience a multi-media and amplified opera which includes, horror of horrors, a Beatles tribute band, and he will grumpily find it 'in a word, dreadful.' Fortunately I don't earn my living in London churning out reviews of unamplified Mahler and Shostakovich in twentieth-century concert halls, so here are my pictures, and impressions, of Aldeburgh Festival's new commission, Elephant and Castle.

Opera is the original multi-media art form, and it all started with Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607. The proscenium arch single location format using natural acoustics has been the status quo for four-hundred years. Isn't it time to at least challenge that status quo?

Director Tim Hopkins sets out his position clearly: 'The arrival of digital technology proposes a new box of tools in this area, within the economic reach of arts projects. It's a bit like the early days of film: the grammar of how you use it and what you can do with it hasn't been decided yet.' Note the last sentence Mr Clements, that explains what Elephant and Castle is about.

The 100 minute opera is in seven scenes using six different locations seen in my pictures here. One scene is in the Maltings concert hall (pictures adjacent to this text), the rest are in the landscape around the hall. Two of the scenes are reflective interludes combining sounds and video. The second interlude samples words from Britten's Peter Grimes 'I hear those voices that will not be drowned'. The irony of that sample passed Andrew Clements by.

Music critics still live in the world of Mahler and Shostakovich, and see their role as answering the profound question - is it great art? Nobody is pretending Elephant and Castle is great art. As director Tim Hopkins explains it is art in progress, precisely as Orfeo was in 1607. To even start to understand Elephant and Castle you need to leave the concepts of great art and conventional performance practice behind in London. Otherwise the journey is wasted.

Now Andrew Clements is safely back in London he may well hear music by that great symphonist Carl Nielsen. As he settles into his seat in the luxuriously refurbished, revoiced and unamplified Royal Festival Hall Mr Clements should reflect on these words by that visionary musician:

'The right of life is stronger than the most sublime art, and even if we reached agreement on the fact that now the best and most beautiful has been achieved, mankind thirsting more for life and adventure than perception, would rise and shout in one voice: give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional.'

I came away from Snape last night feeling that I was very much alive. Thank you Jonathan Reekie, Tim Hopkins, Tansy Davies, Mira Calix and the Aldeburgh Festival.

All photos taken by Pliable on 21 June 2007, copyright On An Overgrown Path. Quotation from My Childhood by Carl Nielsen, Hutchinson 1973. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Interestingly, just about the only music critic to 'get' Elephant and Castle was Norman Lebrecht, although he didn't actually make it to Snape.
Pliable said…
Links to more reviews of Elephant and Castle here.
Anonymous said…
A not internet-connected member of SPSPQ (Society for Preservation of Suffolk's Peace and Quiet ) asked me to post the following comment:

Norman Lebrecht is right, the 'Elephant and Castle', like any soviet housing, is an urban disaster, and it's understandable that people who have grown up in such locations feel the need to make a song-and-dance about it, with whatever means at their disposition. Still, if that 'song-and-dance' has to be made ad literam, could it not be presented in a more suitable setting? Like, in 'Elephant and Castle' itself. Why 'transplant' the whole Hansel-and-Gretel-shopping-centre-electronic-ho-hum into the peace and quiet of rural Suffolk? Locals could notice an alarmingly increased number of disturbed wild birds, overtrampled grass paths, and confused holidaymakers after the event… Do you think they are... amused?

We, on the other side, are (beside amused!) absolutely envious of you living, as we understand, so very near to Aldeburgh.

On a general note: it's a pleasure to read your blog, thank you.

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