Evelyn Glennie & Steve Hackett

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 21 Jul 02

More Godspeed than Genesis: a review of "The City in the Sea"
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
Sunday 21st July 2002

Evelyn Glennie: drums, tuned percussion, percussion, etc.
Steve Hackett: electric guitar
Philip Smith: piano, gong
Roger King: synth, tapes
Benedict Fenner: sound design
Stephen Barnett: lighting design

Hackett describes this composition-with-improvisation as the hardest project he's ever attempted. The hard work paid off.

Commissioned for the Rhythm Sticks Festival at the South Bank Centre, for which it was also the finale, someone had had the idea to bring together guitarist Steve Hackett and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Hackett has quite often stepped away from rock music and worked in a more classical vein, while Glennie has pushed improvisation as well as playing many more formal classical pieces. It was an intriguing combination.

The audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall seemed split between Hackett fans (I was sat in front of perhaps his biggest fan, his mum) and Glennie fans, with the former somewhat outnumbering the latter. (Nice to see someone with a Nearfest 2002 T-shirt so soon and on the other side of the Atlantic!) A discussion with Hackett and Glennie preceded the performance.

The piece was assembled by Hackett, who met Glennie at a series of fleeting meetings when he could catch up with her busy performance schedule. However, the first time the piece was actually rehearsed—Glennie not liking to over-rehearse these things—was that afternoon. The piece is not wholly notated, but rather a structure for a series of sections in which the performers—chiefly Glennie, but also the others on stage, live mixing/effects from the sound desk and even the lighting—improvise.

Described beforehand as being sensual, perhaps visceral is a better word. Rich, demanding of attention... It's glib to use comparisons to describe the piece, but imagine a more arty Godspeed You Black Emperor!

In the prior discussion preceding, Hackett talked of his decision to stick to an old-school approach to the electric guitar, playing with numerous effects but eschewing MIDI. King was equipped with two keyboards and some tape controls to Hackett's left, Smith on piano to his right. Glennie had four areas of percussion instruments. At the front of the stage was an array of oddments: gamelan gongs (flat on the floor rather than hanging as is usual), children's toys, a bucket, a siren... and various devices that defy description. Extreme stage left was a marimba(?), while at the back were, stage left, drums and, stage right, an assortment including a tuned percussion instrument, a forest of cymbals and more drums.

A drone from King, then joined by Hackett, opened the piece, with Glennie introducing herself through some power drumming. However, the first lengthy section was a very atmospheric, 'underwater' section, which saw Glennie come to the front with her waterphone (a particularly bizarre device consisting of a horn containing a small amount of water, surrounded by prongs that can be bowed or bashed) and then work her way through her assorted instruments, little musical spinning tops that light up included! It's easy to do 'atmospheric' badly, but the piece was gripping despite its relaxed sense of direction.

A very dynamic piece, several powerful, emotional sections followed. There were moments of clearer melody from Hackett—a moment reminiscent of his Hitler soundtrack, another reminiscent of Genesis, another of Mike Oldfield—interspersed with slabs of sound. Post-rock in style, we had catharses of building tension. The dense sections did not stop abruptly, but had these rapid, controlled dismounts, leading to heart-stopping silences or a single instrument remaining. The foundation for these sections was often from loops or King's synth. (If I have one criticism, it is that some of the bass sounds from King's synth were crying out for a live bass player.) Hackett's distorted guitar would power the drone, with Glennie providing the rhythmic change and timbral diversity. Smith's piano complemented Glennie's percussion, adding extra colouring. (Smith often filled in for Glennie as she moved between parts of the stage and had his hands in the piano about half as often as he had them on the keyboards.) There was some alternation between sections with Glennie and Smith versus sections with Hackett and King. The Times reviewer, Geoff Brown, complained, "It took 20 minutes for a regular pulse to surface, 40 minutes for a sustained melody." This was not music for people who require sustained melodies.

Sometimes on the edge of perception during these slabs of sound, sometimes emerging as the dense music subsided was the use of nursery melodies, notably at the end playing on a Fisher Price tape machine. They cleverly added a dream-like quality in contrast to the oppressive drones and controlled chaos of the percussion work. The piece was inspired by a verse by Edgar Allan Poe. What I presume was the poem in question was played from a tape at one point, although hugely distorted and mostly indecipherable.

The whole was a stunning success: gripping, emotional, memorable. Hackett provided a powerful structure in which Glennie's improvisations can work, while Glennie has dragged Hackett into his most experimental work. Still something of a work in progress and with much of the piece improvised, future performances will be interesting in their differences. Dates for a next performance have yet to be announced as far as I know, but go when they are! I don't know if a recording will be able to capture the weight of the piece, but I hope they try.

Henry Potts, 21 Jul 02, revised 31 Jul 02

Originally posted to rec.music.progressive, alt.music.genesis and rec.music.classical.contemporary.

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