Community music charity Spitalfields Music have marked their 40th anniversary – and twenty years of their Winter Festival – with a stellar line-up of shows, ranging from the serious to the silly.
Spitalfields Music was formed out of a concert in 1976 organised to save Christ Church Spitalfields from demolition. It grew into an organisation which now hosts two annual festivals and is involved in community music work in Tower Hamlets.
This year the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival – which ran from December 4-11 – saw the London-based ‘Bollywood Brass Band‘ performing music from the sub-continent’s favourite film industry, synced to clips of dance sequences from original films.
It also encompassed the sensual ‘Protein: May Contain Food’, which irreverently explored the pleasures of food and chewed over culinary debates, as the cast’s four singers and dancers bit by bit served the audience dinner. The festival also saw also a performance from the internationally renowned pianist Melvyn Tan.
For a centrepiece to the week-long festival, Spitalfields Music put out an ‘open call’ for three “laboratory-style submissions” from composers. Laura Sheldon, Spitalfields Music’s Programme Director for Festivals, says it is about “bringing artists and audiences together and allowing audiences to have a role in the development of work that they don’t often get.”
One of these saw hearing-impaired composer Ailís Ní Ríain exploring language and communication in a hotel room performance which featured live music, story-telling and projection.
Another, the “Migration Game”, saw vibraphone player Jackie Walduck explore the movement of people through an “immersive opera” – using the opportunity to test the migration-themed puzzles she has been developing.
The third saw Timothy Cape exploring the politics of hard work in “short films of musical performance” he calls “worker portraits”, created based on interviews he conducted with local workers. Cape said:
“I’m interested in how people connect their identity with their work, and in how individual and professional values conflict.”
He is also interested in how work is changing and what the rise of automation might mean for working lives, adding: “I’m not sure what a work song would look like in the age of Deliveroos.”
“The reason I wanted to do this kind of work in Tower Hamlets – looking at the rhetoric of work [and meritocracy] and how it is justifying wealth and inequality – is because Tower Hamlets has such a broad income spectrum.”
His worker portraits included that of an estate agent, a freelance soprano, a cafe worker and an employee working at a communications company. Cape also produced a “relaxation tape for the post-work society” based on the repetitive tasks of a worker in a local gift shop.
Sheldon said: “We have a long history of supporting artists to do their own work. That process of being able to share pieces as a work in progress, in development, and get feedback from audiences, is vital.”
One of the festival’s spookier acts saw local poetry brought back – literally – from the dead in the ‘Dead Poets Social Club’ by Penned in the Margins, performed three nights last week.
Set in the atmospheric Tower Hamlets Cemetery, Chris McCabe starred in this performance which brought former bards of the area back to life – as he weaved their words alongside soft music strewn throughout the forest.
Participants walked in single-file around the cemetery, amongst the eerily tall trees hung with straggly ivy, and past the occasional lighted grave – a world away from the bright lights of Canary Wharf elsewhere in the borough – as McCabe linked present and past using verse.
One of the pieces within the performance told the story of local 19th century character ‘Spring Onions’ – who developed from his childhood in the workhouse into a man with 200 convictions to his name, before becoming a poet.
Poet and ‘literary investigator’ McCabe said the performance grew out of a piece he did for West Norwood Cemetery three years ago. From that point he became increasingly obsessed with rediscovering late literary characters in local cemeteries.
But the Dead Poets Social Club wasn’t a piece solely about the past. Performers read their lines from lighted kindles in the dark forest, which McCabe says illustrates the “tension between the Victoriana and the digital. ” The performance is also concerned with how “books and poetry survive” and with the written word’s leap from paper to digital.
Spitalfields Music also undertakes a number of other projects outside its festival programmes. This year it launched the ‘LivingArts’ project to engage care home residents, including those living with dementia in creative activities and the arts.
Julian West, LivingArts Project Leader said the project involved: “working with a team of artists which includes musicians, a dancer, a visual artist and a writer to see the ways in which the residents of the care home might wish to express themselves and their identity as creative individuals.”
There was much more to be enjoyed as part of the festival’s programme. Other Winter Festival events included the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments with a performance about Francis Bacon’s exploration of acoustic illusions, vocal ensemble Gothic Voices playing in the Tower of London, and a night of jazz performed by young local musicians.
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