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Plague Songs

Plague Songs was a performance at Barbican Hall last night of a collection of songs based primarily on the ten plagues of Egypt. The Biblically-inspired songs were commisioned by a project whose primary end result was a movie called (surprise!) Exodus, shot in Margate, and due to screen on November 19th on Channel 4 in the UK. The motley collection of songs spanned the genres from punk to folk, with a collection of heavyweight composers, talented musicians, exotic instruments, and moments as random as the NFL playing its first-ever official game outside of North America. (That's an analogy, for those of you who missed this snippet of news. The game in question happened at Wembley.)

The first half of the show was advertised as the original commisioned songs mostly being performed by their composers, with the second half consisting of songs newly commisioned for the concert itself on other modern "plagues". The program failed to tell us much about who was performing what, who had written the original songs, and the narrator didn't tell us such useful information either. June Tabor performed an eloquent and spare cover of Laurie Anderson's "Death of Livestock". Daniel Knox sang a rich, musing cover of the Tiger Lillies' piece, "Hailstones", the highlight of the show for me. Sandy Dillon's punk cover of "Boils", accompanied by pump organ, among other things, didn't do a lot for me, but her self-composed "Ring around the Rosie" in the second half was a powerful blend of carousel, punk, and nursery rhyme.

Phil Minton, improvist extraordinaire, led two pieces, neither of which he'd composed, which made phenomenal use of the very talented choir, Sense of Sound. The rap group Jackapella covering "Blood" were burdened with heavy-handed lyrics whose minor cleverness rapidly waned with repitition. Patrick Wolf's composition was striking and tuneful, but his on-stage antics completely distracted from it. The Handsome Family were funny and likeable, even if their lyrics were - like so many in this concert - hard to determine. Imogen Heap's "Glittering Cloud" (about the locust) was lovely, and so was her playing on one of the many instruments that I'm not sure what it was the Array Mbira. (She looked like she'd stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish painting.) She sang a duet with Rufus Wainwright for the first act finale, written by Wainwright, on the "Death of the Firstborn". Many of the other pieces, however, were chaotic, difficult to understand, with nifty moments, but no great cohesion.

One of the best parts of this show, whose second half was downright incoherent after the mere randomness of the first, was the unexpected and wonderful use of unusual instruments. The saw has such delicate strength and elegance. I'd never heard of a cristal Baschet or an ondes Martenot, but Thomas Bloch played both - along with the glass harmonica - over the course of the concert. Cors anglais are, by comparision, relatively common, but I have no idea what another of the instruments played by the same musician was. It looked like a double reed stuck into a two foot long stick of bamboo which had been cut in half length-wise up most of its length, and then played by moving the bamboo flap up and down. Thoughts on what it might be?

My thanks to flick for enabling concert attendance.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:04 pm (UTC)
Ooh, envy envy!
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:24 pm (UTC)
For which parts of it?
Oct. 29th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
Well, for being able to see an interesting show, and I was really excited to read about the unusual instruments - that's what I like about different medieval groups focusing on the music of certain geographical locations, the instruments are so very intriguing!
Oct. 29th, 2007 04:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, those were the best parts of the show! (I was wondering if you were interested in a particular artist or two.)
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:28 pm (UTC)
What was Wolf doing?
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
The premier of "Plague of Apathy". (All the songs in the second half were - I think - meant to be premiers.)
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
And if you wish to know what it might have been about, I shall quote his composer's notes for you.

"At twenty four, half my life has been without internet and the other half with. A new generation comes into social networking information at the same time the world falls into a state of neurotic terror, causing countries to attack or destroy each other's ideologies. Many mothers' sons die on burning soils in the Arabian deserts. as a daughter counts her friends on a social networking device, a son races cars with joysticks to kill computer-generated streetwalkers. The count of casualties rises. The plague continues to spread. The world loses a generation of human lives."

Good use of the choir in it.
Oct. 29th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
Well. The performance sounds like it was interesting, if not terribly musical. Thank you for the interesting links to the Cristal Bachet and the Ondes Martenot. I thought that the Ondes Martenot sounded a little goofy, but that it had the potential to make really beautiful music, but the Cristal Bachet music I turned off almost immediately as it was having the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard.
I've heard cors anglais - I did the administrative work for a baroque musical organization in Canada for a few years, and cors anglais were used in a couple of concerts. At this point, I don't know whether or not that was anachronistic.
Wish I lived in London!
Oct. 29th, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)
Daniel Knox
you can check out his web site here:

Oct. 30th, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
just june
i'm going to see just june tabor play in edinburgh in exactly a month. i've long admired her beautiful voice so i'm very much looking forward to the show. she often has an accompanist on hurdy-gurdy, one of my favourite mildly obscure instruments. :)
Oct. 31st, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
Re: just june
I really don't know her work, but she was one of the major incentives for going to the concert in the first place for the other people I went with.
Nov. 1st, 2007 08:17 pm (UTC)
Re: just june
i don't have her every album but am familiar with a majority of her work. i'd recommend 'rosa mundi' as it's a nice group of songs in english, french, and german gathered together under the theme of roses. i especially like the pairing of traditional tragic ballad 'barbry allen' with its more uplifting alternate ending song 'maybe then i'll be a rose'.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )