Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter is set to host a 'huge cultural olympiad event'. Christopher Morley gets ready to roll.
Somehow the arts (always just about on the periphery of those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing) have become important this year, what with the Diamond Jubilee (no problem with that) and the treasury-emptying Olympics (which our political masters successfully courted just before the hugest financial crisis in our history).
So, as a result, of munificently doshed-out funding which has somehow been found, events are proliferating country-wide in celebration of this London-centric extragavanza, and this Bank Holiday sees a huge cultural olympiad event taking over Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (some possible compensation for its traders not receiving any medal-making orders) on Sunday.
“Ping It, Ring It, Roll It, Write It” is the title for this day of musical fun and games, part of the PRS For Music Foundation’s New Music 20x12 programme, and David Saint, acting principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, is delighted at the success that Conservatoire composition staff have achieved in securing four of these 20 commissions, which were “hotly contested. This event will be a great adventure for the whole family and will prove that contemporary music can be enjoyed by anyone”.
And this promises much to enthral people of all ages, its multiple, repeated performances filling the day with quirky offerings alongside workshops, talks, face-painting, Wii games and video screenings, and, importantly, an onsite café.
“Ping” is a collaboration between Birmingham Conservatoire head of composition Joe Cutler, the Coull String Quartet and Fusion Table Tennis Club, plus film by the international visual artist Tom Dale.
“My family was table tennis mad,” says Joe, “and my brother Tom became a professional player. He and I had discussed the idea of making a piece that used the sounds of table tennis in some way, and I saw this as the perfect opportunity.
“My wife plays viola in the Coull String Quartet, and string quartet seemed an excellent medium to combine with table tennis as they both share things in common, like the way the bow bounces on the string, or percussive effects like left-hand pizzicati, which are not so dissimilar from the sounds made during a table tennis match.
“We chose to work with four table tennis players to mirror the four players of the quartet, providing a sense of two distinct ‘teams’. In most of the piece, the table tennis players are like dancers, responding to the music by building a complex choreography around the music. At the centre of the piece, there is an actual match where the musicians underscore what is happening in table tennis.’’
Joe himself used to play at county level, “but I lacked the talent of my brother! This project has been a good opportunity to revisit an obsession of my youth, and we recently bought a table tennis table for the garden. Growing up, one of our biggest heroes was Desmond Douglas. He was one of the best table tennis players in the world for around twenty years, and comes, of course, from Birmingham. Rumour has it, that he might be making an appearance on May 6th!”
‘Five Rings Triples’ is a typically thoughtful response by Howard Skempton to an invitation to write a piece for church bells.
“I was attracted to the project because it was clear at the outset that it would be a unique challenge; that I would have almost no room for manœuvre,” he explains. “The rules of method ringing are determined by physical constraints and the need for methods to be memorised. I was determined to create something both distinctive and musical, but I was dealing entirely with numbers.”
Coventry Diocesan Guild of Bellringers will be ringing the piece throughout the day from Hockley’s elegant St Paul’s Church, when people can visit the bell tower and learn more about the art of campanology.
We also have the world premiere of ‘The Voyage’, a two-act 12-minute opera by Michael Wolters, staged by Stan’s Café with a custom-made seating bank designed to roll spectators 20 metres away from the action before bringing them home again. Its subject has an olympic link, with a mythological character leaving home to face challenges overseas in the hope of returning a hero. James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Café, is delighted by this opportunity. “‘The Voyage’ was inspired by the venue at A.E.Harris. We’ve been looking for an excuse to have a rolling seating bank since we first moved in three years ago. Now, finally, we have our excuse and it is a great experience. Having your perspective changed so radically during the action is wonderful.”
“The music also takes the space into consideration,” adds Michael.” During the performance the acoustic changes for the audience dramatically, so I had to work with that, which was an interesting challenge.”
The piece is scored for 11 recorders and a single, jazzy double-bass – and one singer, Suzanna Purkis.
“I’ve written lots of pieces for her, including a two-hour-long music theatre piece,” Michael explains, “I love her voice. It’s very powerful, but it is her way of breathing life into the vocal lines that I admire. The vocal lines, and the music in general, are quite traditional. There is more than a touch of Baroque about them. But then there are also poppier moments. And woven into this poppy Baroque are strange microtones, which gives the sound an outlandish quality.”
The fourth and final offering in this family fun day is Richard Causton, introducing a film and discussing his ‘Twenty-Seven Heavens’, a work for a 120-piece orchestra, which will be premiered in August at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Gianandrea Noseda conducting the European Union Youth Orchestra, repeated a few days later at the Edinburgh International Festival, and then in Darmstadt, Germany.
Richard describes its inspiration: “This idea is taken from a poem by William Blake – ‘Jerusalem, Emanation of the Giant Albion’ – which was an enormous work that he was engaged with for about twenty years until near the end of his life, and there are wonderful things in it.
“To start with, it refers to all sorts of areas of London, places in East London which are very close to where the Olympics are taking place. Blake’s imagination is very psychedelic and the colour and intensity in the poem give me lots to work with in terms of instrumental colour and sound colour in the new piece that I’m writing.”
* “Ping It, Ring It, Roll It, Write It” takes place on Sunday May 6 at A.E. Harris, 110 Northwood Street, Birmingham B3 1SZ, from 11.45am to 5.30pm (admission £6.00/£5.00, under-fives free). Details on www.aeharrisvenue.co.uk