The way in to the venue is an unprepossessing entrance beside the PeckhamPlex cinema. There’s a bouncer in attendance and some heavy-duty metal barriers such as one might see at a demo. We ascend a grubby narrow concrete staircase and suddenly we are in a vestibule painted floor-to-ceiling in bubblegum pink. There are more stairs (the lifts haven’t worked for years), and a lot more pink paint, and helpful people in Bold Tendencies t-shirts directing the punters, some of whom look distinctly relieved to have arrived safely at their destination after running the gamut of the shopping alley outside Peckham Rye station, where a market stall sells about 20 varieties of chilies and pungent dried fish. The BBC Proms banner reassures us that we’ve come to the right place for today’s concert. Meanwhile, Bold Tendencies staff issue us with wrist bands, as if we’re attending a secret rave.
As part of the “Proms At…. “ element of this year’s music festival (which has included concerts at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the Roundhouse in Camden), the Proms moved out of its usual plush crimson comfort zone of the Royal Albert Hall and headed down to Peckham, a lively and ethnically diverse district in south-east London, for two concerts given by the Multi-Story Orchestra in a disused car park. It’s the orchestra’s home and also that of Bold Tendencies, a not-for-profit commissioning organization, which has transformed the multi-storey car park through its annual summer programme of visual art, music, theatre, literature, and food, and a refreshingly relaxed, accessible approach to presenting culture. So much so that it has captured the imagination of almost a million visitors so far and has become an important cultural hub in the heart of Peckham.
At a time when those both inside and outside classical music are questioning how music is presented, how long concerts should last, and how to engage younger audiences, the Multi-Story Orchestra approach seems totally in touch with the Zeitgeist, and its events have received wide praise. Up here, on the 9th floor of the multi-storey carpark in Peckham, Bold Tendencies and the Multi-Story Orchestra have created something that is both unique and approachable. The orchestra is comprised of young musicians, dressed casually, while the audience sit on folding chairs (if you arrive early enough), or benches and wooden stools. For this concert, the audience was pretty diverse – the usual classical crowd mingled with younger people, families, hipsters, kids.
For those of us more used to the highly refined atmosphere, décor and acoustic of London’s finest classical music venues, a brutalist concrete lump with low ceilings and ugly, unremittingly grey graffiti-strewn walls cannot possibly be a good place to hear music, whatever the genre. The acoustic should be appalling, a brisk wind slices through the performance space, riffling music, which is pegged to the music stands to stop it blowing away, and the music is regularly interrupted by rattling trains and the sounds of the street below.
How appropriate then to perform music by Steve Reich, a composer whose music connects art and urban life and culture with its drive, repetition and asymmetry. In the year of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, a concert of his music in this gritty, urban venue is a fitting tribute.
The concert opened with Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” (1982), a work for amplified solo flute and 10 recorded tracks played on flute, alto flute and piccolo, all performed by Hannah Grayson. The tone of the flute is consistent throughout its range, and in this work we hear crystal clear lines and motifs weaving in and out of the foreground, bouncing around the concrete walls and low ceiling (which create a surprisingly resonant acoustic), while its rhythmic shifts are subtle and understated. The resulting texture was surprisingly full and varied, quite mesmerizing in its fluctuating colours and patterns.
“Eight Lines”, composed in 1979, is scored for two pianos, two or four woodwind players, and double string quartet. The pianos, which were transported up to the ninth floor of the carpark through a combination of specially-made tracks and very patient piano movers, create a pulsating, motor-like ostinato which felt more urban, more industrial due to the venue. Over this, gentle waves of strings hover, while flute and piccolo create longer, brightly-wrought melodies. The inspiration for the structure of the piece came from the composer’s studies of Jewish “cantillation”, ritual chanting from the Torah. The piece is scored in five sections, but the boundaries between them are blurred which creates a sense of ambiguity and allows the work to be enjoyed as a continuous flow. The orchestra was highly amplified with thickets of microphones but in spite of this, the sound was clear, vibrantly coloured and highly textural with a particularly warm sound in the strings.
In “Music for Large Ensemble” (1978) the orchestra was swelled by marimbas, xylophones, a vibraphone, double basses, saxophones, trumpets and two female voices which act as instruments since they sing no actual words. As in the previous piece, the pianos (this time each played by two pianists) create a continuous ostinato, together with the percussion, and again the music is scored in sections containing rapid short phrases which stretch out into longer or more rapid lines, combining contrapuntally with other melodies before retreating back again. Each of the piece’s four sections develops in an “arch” structure, characteristic of Reich’s work at this time. The orchestration, with key changes every few minutes, creates a large palette of sonic colours, while vitality and precision combine with ethereal sonorities which bring an infectious joyfulness to the music. Its incessant pulse and looping circles within circles has the effect of a perpetuum mobile which became more obvious as the musicians settled into the repeating rhythms and motifs. When it ended, it was as if someone had simply flicked a switch off.
Throughout the performance, the music was punctuated by trains passing close by, their rattle and hiss adding an extra layer of rhythm and melody – almost as if Reich had intentionally scored them. Despite the casual attire of the orchestra and relaxed atmosphere in the venue, this was a performance of great energy, infectious enthusiasm and commitment by the Multi-Story Orchestra with conductor Christopher Stark. This was not some classical music “gimmick” to attract the hipster crowd, but serious, fully committed music-making, and the Multi-Story Orchestra approach proves that it doesn’t matter where one hears music – carpark or concert hall – so long as it is presented in a way that is engaging, imaginative and convincing.
Frances Wilson, 3 September 2016
Video clip of Multistory Orchestra https://vimeo.com/44765167