Kraal: a corral, an enclosure (Dutch/Afrikaans)
As the sunlight comes and goes through the stained glass of St Marie’s Cathedral, leaving mushy pastel stains on the stone arches, Sheffield-based composer Jenny Jackson premieres her latest commission, Kraal.
Hundreds of singers, all in black, have physically surrounded us, showing us their backs. So begins a gigantic musical version of Chinese whispers, where pitch and rhythm is passed in both directions around the circle. Music flows back and forth in a microcosm of human interaction; learning and building, changing and repeating. After rising to a pulsing crescendo, it fades to a whispered end. It’s the singers whispering to each other for once, not the audience. The listeners are corralled but the music is not a fence; we are the air inside the bubble, the space between the ears.
Staying with Jackson, her composer collective Platform 4 play amid the glazed tiles of Channing Hall, a set bookended with John White’s Hooting and Drinking and Jackson’s response, Hooting, Not Drinking. Tom Owen leads the former, with the audience again encircled by the performers who drink and blow, drink and blow, the pitch gradually lowering around us. Classical musicians make their rider go further.
At times Hooting, Not Drinking sounds like a gang of robots trying to communicate with owls – a compliment, honestly – as flutes and variously sized empty receptacles converse, the glassware silently swapped on towelled surfaces. Jackson herself fumbles a small liqueur bottle mid-performance but catches it. I wonder if, with her contemporary composer brain, she’s now distracted by the potential sound of unsmashed glass.
Between the two hootings, Tom James’ Ophelia with its ‘sweet bells’ and ‘blown youth’ is cried out on wounded flute and cold piano, losing strength just as the bottles surrendered their pitch, while in Chris Noble’s Of Limits the composer has corralled his own process.
Walking from Channing Hall to Kelham Island Museum, I pass Rob Lee’s geometric ‘SHF’ mural, the illusion of depth reminding me again of Hooting and Drinking’s gradual descent. But it is ascent we experience in Canticles of the Sky (John Luther Adams). Olly Coates leads 40 local cellists who yet again surround the audience. With an impish smile, Coates rotates towards each compass point throughout the four movements, while a gentle tornado of strings sweeps the room. I would love to combine Canticles with Anthony McCall’s ‘solid light’ installations. Though different art forms, to me they express the same sensation, reflecting an idea of a smooth and perfect expiry, the exact opposite of Tom James’ Ophelia. There’s a spectrum, another circle.
In the Upper Chapel there’s a shiver across the stage as ‘Autumn’ sets in during Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the visible ripple of bows blown across the violins and violas. In the Winter Garden, Escafeld Choir are singing ‘Moon River’ to delighted shoppers, while Olly Coates is back in the City Hall Ballroom with a snowstorm of Shostakovich, featuring the saddest plucking I’ve ever heard.
Lizzie Ball is perched high in the Upper Chapel, aglow against the organ pipes, playing Arvo Pärt with the accompaniment hidden in the dark. Fortuna’s Wheel spins in Firth Hall. Back in Channing Hall, there’s a whispered ‘here we go’ from a voice in the audience before the music starts and we go round again.
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