Thursday 22 September 2016

Cold Calling: The Arctic Project – The Rep, Birmingham

[seen 17/09/16]

Composer Nick Powell’s Cold Calling: The Arctic Project is absolutely beautiful. It’s a commissioned chamber piece for the CBSO, designed to be presented in a theatre. To that end, there’s a small amount of text, and direction by Anthony Neilson, as well as video by Simon Wainwright.

Reading Powell’s creator’s note in the programme was instructive, as I thought I’d detected a lot of carry-over from Unreachable – on which Powell also collaborated; most audibly (to me) with the song that constituted that show’s trailer, and play-out music. I’ve had that song going round on my laptop’s MP3 shuffle all summer, and it feels that there’s so much continuity here between the song’s lyrics about the past, childhood, snow, the face of your mother, and the material here. And, well, yes, there absolutely is continuity, but from which party it comes is now impossible to tell, suggesting a previously unsuspected level of fellow-feeling between Neilson and Powell.

In Cold Calling's programme notes, Powell recounts a recurring dream he’s had about being in a place in the dead of night where it is eerily still light. He thought of this dream when asked to write this piece, which he then composed in Tromsø, Norway, during the season when the sun never sets. The piece is also dedicated to his mother, who died at the end of August, 2014, and to his child who was born at the beginning of that month. There is a similar circularity in the piece, which begins by musing that a mother’s face, looming moon-like over a child’s cot might account partly for why humans like looking up at the sky, and at the moon in particular. The not-constant video design switches between the “snow” on a TV screen, to a kind of arctic landscape – almost certainly made of white bedsheets throughout. At the end, like the text, it reflects on the way that ultimately, it is the child’s face that looms over the wondering parent’s bed. In between, Neilson creates small phone dialogues, largely between people who haven’t spoken before (a play on “cold-calling”), ranging from the unsettling to the amusing. It’s all very readable and agreeably suggestive (not *that* sort of suggestive).

But it’s Powell’s music that is both the main event here, and – problematically – the aspect which I’m by far the least qualified to review. I can say a bunch of composers of whom I was vaguely reminded, with the qualifier that I’m not saying the music is derivative or unoriginal. I will say that that it has a kind of pop sensibility, insofar as, over the 55 minute length of the piece it felt more like an album’s worth of tracks, than a smaller number of longer, more drawn-out movements. But each “track” tended to be more symphonic than anything like verse-chorus, verse-chorus. In terms of possible forbears or influences, I thought it sounded more like that point in the 20th century where romanticism/nationalism met modernism. The bit where we go from Grieg and Sibelius to Britten and Vaughan-Williams. That is to say, for the most part, this is music that has little to do with the atonality, serialism, and chromatic-scales. There is one part that sounded a bit like one of Michael Nyman’s pieces in Drowning By Numbers, and elsewhere there was a piece that I imagined might even be an chamber-orchestral variation on Powell’s own song 'The Light Disappears', from Unreachable. But I was probably imagining that, because I already knew it.

So, yes. Thanks to the heavily pregnant images on the screen, the suggestive title, and the snippets of imagistic dialogue from Neilson, I spent a lot of my time listening to the music allowing myself to be influenced into believing it was all very Arctic-y, and evocative of the freezing oceans of the North Pole. Whether that’s actually true – if you replaced the video images and the programme notes with images of something else, would the music read differently? – is possibly too impossible a question to ever answer. I’m not even sure why I’d want to ask it, except that when being so affirmative about a thing, you kind of want to question why you’ve allowed yourself to so entirely fall under its spell.

The music has a certain romanticism to it, but also a crispness (thanks to the size of the orchestra? Thanks to the writing? Thanks to Jonathan Bloxham’s conducting?) that stops it ever getting near schmaltzy or syrupy. I mean, it’s never Helmut Lachenmann. It’s not the sort of modern music where you fear for the instruments, or where – say – the actual strings of a violin are disregarded in favour of scratching the wood for minutes at a time, but I don’t suppose that’s compulsory in contemporary music, even now.

Instead, Cold Calling does something that very little else I’ve experienced in modern theatre ever has. It paints a lyrical picture of the world, based largely on landscape and the most basic, primal human interactions – even while mediated by the newest technology. And it makes you *feel* an absolutely indescribable set of sensations and emotions, all quite precisely pinned to certain ideas and areas of life – it’s not just free-associative, but *about* something. Because dialogue, video projection and chamber music aren’t *new* by themselves, I’m wary to describe this as completely original, but I think it probably was. 55 minutes in Birmingham city centre on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, and we’ve found possibly one of the most important pieces of work made in 2016. And it was only on for three performances. ARGH. Bring it back. Someone find a way for this to tour, please.

Cold Calling is beautiful, original, and – weird word to want to use – kind. It felt like seeing it actually does your soul a bit of good.


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