In the old days it was cities such as Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg that commanded progress in the music business. These days they have curious rivals. If it’s off-the wall experiments you’re after, then you go down to Plymouth in the early spring – where there’s a festival devoted to how music and technology combine, run by Plymouth University.
This year’s programme was about “Expanding Musical Imagination”, and it did as promised. In one piece they asked the audience to switch on their mobile phones (more usually it’s off) and walk around a designated space where, through their phones, they could control the electronic sounds that were the score. There was a computer-aided violin concerto by Eduardo Reck Miranda (a composer who teaches at the university) which evoked in sound the image of a stained-glass window shattering on impact. Also by Miranda was a duet for piano and percussion linked to a computer that used the living organic component of slime mould (yes, you read right: slime mould) as a medium
for its electronics.
Where this takes you in the unfolding history of music isn’t obvious, but it’s a long way from Mozart. As with much experimental art, it’s not so much about experience as about ideas. But there are useful spin-offs. And one that featured in the festival involved giving people with motor neurone paralysis the possibility of making music – by monitoring their brain activity as they mentally selected musical fragments on computer screens, and feeding their selections through to a string quartet which then played as instructed.
The result wasn’t exactly a Bach cantata, but it gave the participants obvious pleasure through the gift of empowerment to create and determine something: a big deal when your life has otherwise been robbed of those faculties.
More conventionally, another teaching institution – the opera department at London’s Guildhall School – has been running one of the most dramatically charged and insightful productions of
Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia that I’ve ever witnessed. Staid, austere, but with an overwrought libretto, Lucretia has always been an undervalued work, criticised for wrapping an apparently irrelevant Christian theme around the pre-Christian story of a woman driven to suicide by needless shame. But this show came as close as any could to making sense of what can seem contrivance, drawing a disturbing parallel between Lucretia’s sacrifice and that of soldiers in the trenches of World War I. Equally pointless, tragic and obscene.
Directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, with a fabulously strong cast, it was moving, powerful and revelatory. A flagship student show.