Five years of 840

Monday 3 February 2020

The year has started. Two gigs this weekend just gone, both at Cafe Oto. The 840 series celebrated their fifth anniversary on Friday with an evening of music for voices and strings. It was satisfying to see that the show had sold out and the bar was rammed, airless and sweaty as on its biggest nights; it makes a change from their usual venue of a small church in Islington.

I arrived late but in time to hear Juliet Fraser sing Cassandra Miller’s Tracery: Lazy, Rocking live. I got to hear another piece by Georgia Rodgers: Masking Set placed alto Sara Rodrigues alongside a small string ensemble in a way that seemed more beguiling than usual, but then took an unexpected turn. What seemed at first to be sentiment was revealed as phenomenology; so I liked it. A new work by John Lely, Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space, was also unexpectedly yielding in tone and structure, so that I started to wish for the reductive logic I had come to expect from his compositions.

Yes, I’m skimming a bit here because the crowd and the occasion kind of dominated on the night. The BBC was on hand to record it all so it can be heard at leisure sometime this year, I hope. The ending of the gig also became the most lingering memory, with the premiere of Laurence Crane’s European Towns. As mentioned ruefully by the announcer, Britain was leaving the European Union in 40 minutes’ time. Crane described the piece as “regretful and melancholic” but its simplicity – a repeated idea, a fragmented litany – and the sweetness with which it was sung by Fraser, accompanied by a small ensemble of introverted strings, added a note of na├»ve wistfulness. Listening as an Antipodean immigrant who is still, fundamentally, an outsider to this political relationship, I could also hear that unfulfilled dream of an imagined kinship with another culture that could never be fully known. Some of the audience had started singing along as the ending lingered, reluctant to let go.