On Friday evening he stood around on the bank of the Thames for an hour. Then he went to the pub.

Sunday 16 September 2007

I went to see/hear Alvin Curran’s Maritime Rites on the river out front of Tate Modern, expecting to be slightly underwhelmed. I was either a real enthusiast or a slow learner, so it took me at least five years of regularly going to to events like this which combine:
  • public, outdoor locations
  • spatialised performances
  • amateur scratch orchestras
  • composition mixed with improvisation, and
  • acoustic instruments and electronics
are more likely than not to be pretty bad. After it had finished I wondered if it was my lowered expectations that made me like it so much.
The piece made use of the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra on a stage on the bank, Curran himself on piano with a group of improvisers on a barge in the middle of the Thames, and an orchestra of volunteers assembled along the Millennium Bridge. These first two ensembles were heavily amplified to carry across the water, also effectively drowning out the musicians on the bridge and any surrounding ambient sounds, which was supposed to be one of the features of the music. Mind you, any distinctive sounds made by the Thames around Waterloo get lost in the regular city noise.
Yes, the music tended to ramble, but it did so in a nicely discursive way, apparently getting caught up in one piece of shtick after another, from freeform antiphonal honking back and forth across the river, to passages of Handel pastiche, to long sax solos by Evan Parker out on the barge, disrupted by confusing outbursts of digital DJing.
More than the arrangement of musicians around the river, the most interesting spatial aspect of the music was the way the sound would echo, with only some sounds and frequencies travelling along the water, bouncing off the distant buildings in unpredictable ways. All the way through the live music was ghosted by transformed shadows of sound hovering in different parts of the air amongst the evening commuters, joggers, tourists, and drinkers on the riverbank while the sun set.