A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Seven Stories takes its lead from writer and journalist Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The theory is that all the stories of the world, from fairytales to grand opera, can be reduced to seven basic plots, namely, the Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation.

Try it. It’s fun.

Cinderella is Rags to Riches, Harry Potter is Overcoming the DarknessGotterdammerung is Journey. And Transformation. Or maybe Quest. Or Fatal Flaw. Hmm. Trust Wagner to muddy the water. But you get the general idea. Like many literary theories, there’s as much fun to be had finding the exceptions to the ‘rules’ as there is applying them. But as stimulus for a meditation on narratives, dialogues and archetypes, it’s rich in possibility.

A catchy premise, however, is just the starting point for Ensemble Offspring‘s latest creation. Stories need storytellers. And it’s not just the seven sound composers, each paired with an ur-plot, or the word composer, Hilary Bell, whose text picks up threads from the diverse works and weaves them together, or the image composer, Sarah-Jane Woulahan, whose swirling, cloudy visual gestures dance across the screen above the stage. No. These stories need real time storytellers too, and that’s the job of the seven piece ensemble whose job it is to deliver these seven nuggets of humanity.

I’ve written before about the impressive virtuosity of Ensemble Offspring, and I think it’s worth saying again. This is a group playing at a level where they can really perform.  What they do with their sonic resources — whether a cello, or an egg-shaker, or a voicestrument — is completely at the service of the story. It’s a joy to watch such a cracking band, engaging with the music, engaging with each other, engaging with the audience.

As for the work, it’s a fascinating example of many pieces making a whole. By luck or design, there is a satisfying consistency running through the seven works. Not homogeneity, mind. Individual voices come through loud and clear, from Amanda Brown’s edgy clockwork grind in Rags to Riches, to the playful, gritty invention of Caitlin Yeo’s Quest to Kyls Burtland’s dreamy but determined step in Journey. Like the unstoppable force of Sally Whitwell’s Fatal Flaw, or the unexpected transformation of Jodi Phillis’s Overcoming the Darkness. Every work uncovers new surprises, but they all retain a strong commitment – whether through catchy rhythmic patterning or harmonic cues (gotta love a modulation) — to drawing in the audience, settling us down, telling a story. They all play with us, as they should. They all explore the tension between narrative, dialogue and pure sensation.

Two that stand out are Jane Sheldon’s Transformation and Bree Van Reyk’s Comedy of Errors. Van Reyk’s three-part invention is a delicious riff on how to be funny. Of course,  a joke explained is usually no joke, but Van Reyk, in close collaboration with her performers, somehow manages to explore the anatomy of a gag without killing it. In fact, not only does she not kill it, she demonstrates that even though you’ve already laughed at an anticipated punchline, you’ll laugh again. And again. And again. Especially when the person delivering the punchline is Jane Sheldon, armed with a pneumatic car horn and a cheeky wink. It’s all timing, in the moment and in the architecture of the piece.

Finally, Transformation by Jane Sheldon who, up till now, has stayed on the interpreting side of the line. It’s perhaps inevitable, after working so closely composers to create new work over the years, that she is now creating work of her own. And why wouldn’t you? Jane’s is one of the most demanding pieces in the evening but, coming as it does towards the end, the audience are ready, listening closely. The changes they hear are subtle, tantalising even, drawing us into a deep engagement with the sound and the idea. This is what storytelling is all about.

I haven’t mentioned the visuals in detail, and that’s partly because there was so much to process on stage. Sarah-Jane Woulahan has put together an exquisite montage but in the end it is upstaged by the real time action, the sounds and words and brilliant performances. That, and the feeling that a key element of storytelling, for me, is the audience. The performers plant the seed, but the audience provides the space for the idea to grow and play. Perhaps imagination is enough.

This was a one-off performance of Seven Stories, but I’m confident that it’s not the last we’ll hear of these works. They are all strong enough to stand on their own, and as a whole it’s compelling, not to mention highly entertaining. Want more.

Thanks for reading this. Now go and read look at this. My book on Dartington Summer School of Music is crowdfunding at Unbound and I need you to support me! 


Timeline: how was it for you?

After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”



How to kill music performance stone dead

Just read Richard Dare’s great piece in the Huff Post, ‘The Awfulness of Classical Music Concerts’. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.

Never have I seen it demonstrated so clearly as at the concert I went to on Monday night. The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall was packed out, which is always great to see. And I’ll wager that well over 90% paid for their tickets too, which means not only that the money is coming in to support the music, but that the audience value what they’re about to hear. Even more encouraging, this was a concert of ‘new’ music. OK, so it was being played by rockstars, and there was a drumkit, keyboards, lights and some funky numbers, but it was a two hour concert, full of through-composed, multilayered instrumentals with nary a three minute 120 bpm track to be heard.

What really made me stop and think, however, was the first half, which was given over to the Orava String Quartet playing works by each of the three main artists. They were introduced by Bryce Dessner (guitarist of ‘The National’), who told us all to give them our support because they’d been working hard and done a great job.

OK. You asked us to be nice. We will. We were. But you didn’t make it easy.

The quartet was set up in a little well of light at the front of the stage. There was lots of stuff behind them. In fact, they had to pick their way through it to get to their performance space. Awkward. They also had to fiddle around a bit with their pick-ups. Um. Waiting. And while they did so they didn’t give us any kind of update. “Sorry folks, the arts are so impoverished we have to set up our own microphones,” or even, “Sorry, I’m a klutz”. In fact, they hardly made eye contact with the audience, and it started to feel like they were pretending we weren’t there.

Then they played. Dessner had given us a heads up on what they were playing, but hadn’t mentioned that the first piece stopped and started. The technical term is ‘movements’, I gather. So when the first movement finished and we clapped, the musicians barely acknowledged the audience. As the work went on, with more of these odd breaks, it became more and more awkward. “If we ignore them, they’ll stop clapping and we can get on with the music…” The music itself was pretty good – a bit owlish, a bit cerebral but worth a listen. But the feeling of disorientation was quite alienating and the lack of audience connection made it really difficult.

The second two works were more boppy and thrashy and generally louder, and didn’t stop and start, except when the first violin stopped to fiddle with his strings. I think it’s called tuning. But we all liked the boppy thrashiness and clapped lots.

After the third piece they all stood up and bowed a bit and smiled and then disentangled their instruments and scampered off. Then it was time for a drink.

Now, of all people, I am totally complicit in the whole classical music recital scam. I don’t know how many concerts I’ve sat in, silently, no fidgeting, glaring at program rustlers and hummers. I’ve rolled my eyes and whispered “peasants!” to my erudite companion when someone claps between movements. But it’s wrong. It’s all got to stop, it’s stupid.

Isn’t performing about communication? Isn’t the audience a crucial part of the whole experience? If it is, then the tradition of performers who don’t communicate and don’t acknowledge the audience are in danger of being replaced by a damn good sound system. At least then you can be sure the notes will be right.

The second half of the concert was Planetarium, a sixty minute plus song cycle about our solar system, composed (if you like) by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens in a collaborative project commissioned by all sorts of high culture peeps including the Sydney Opera House. It was fab. We all clapped a lot. But more to the point, when Muhly made glib comments about how they hadn’t quite sussed out the beginning of one piece, or when Stevens apologised for taking so long to get the right buttons on his digital box of tricks pushed, we all grinned and settled back contentedly. And then we listened no less intently for the interruption.

I think we’ve got mixed up on this classical stoush somewhere along the way. As Dare says, Mozart and Beethoven wouldn’t recognise the way we do concerts these days. Yes, there are times when you don’t want to break the spell between movements and, by all means, tell the audience to just hold their breath for that moment. They’ll be glad to help out. And yes, some music – especially sacred music – engenders a more reverential mode of listening than others. And some needs more brainpower than others. But it still has to be a performance, a collaboration between the audience and the stage.

Otherwise, what’s the point?