Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Extract from (Highly Pretentious) Essay on Musical Performance

The connecting strand between Ben Frost's live re-enactment of his By The Throat album, the Minimal festival's evening of Arvo Part's choral music and Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers - all appearing in Glasgow in a single week - is not so much in any shared musical heritage as each performance's balance of the theatrical and the musical. Taiko drumming comes from a Japanese tradition - made explicit by the welcome guest appearance of Mugenkyo's teacher - while Part's compositions are very European: the use of language on stage during the recitals, Japanese and Latin respectively, emphasise that the manipulation of noise into music is culturally determined and while Frost and Part share bits of their audience, Mugenkyo attract a very different crowd. Despite the simple categories of newspapers and magazines, grouping these three shows together is not as obvious as it appears.

Although the word "performativity" has been heinously misused in recent years - originally part of Judith Butler's attempts to disassociate ideas of gender identity from naturalism, but now a bland catch-all for the performance potential of any action, and flung about with abandon by critics and students to describe anything that has had a performance made about it - it might be the best approach to understand both the similarities and differences in the three events. Disconnecting it from any feminist context, perfomativity will be defined for the rest of this essay as being the qualities of performance that are defined by the nature of the art. This definition does not address the problems of misapplying Butler's original idea, but it does help to clarify how Ben Frost's live show is fundamentally different from Mugenkyo.

First of all the actual instruments and performers used during each of the three performances need to be considered. In brief, Ben Frost predominantly uses a laptop, slings on a guitar to build up some treated and distorted loops, sits down at a piano for a spot of mutant honkytonk - the Jools Holland collaboration may be expected in the next decade - and invites a drummer on-stage for the occasional bash on a classic rock kit. Two performers - Frost himself, doing most of the work, and the percussion. 

Although the Arvo Part performance features a variety of line-ups - the first half alone has assembled choir, choir with added big drum, solo voice and organ - it works around a combination of the untreated voices of  highly trained singers and acoustic instrumentation associated with western classical music. Stabat Mater, which made up the second half of the evening, pitched two trios together - violin, viola and cello against soprano, alto and tenor. 

Mugenkyo Taiko, meanwhile, had a wide variety of drums from Japan. They all looked really cool and, not coincidently, very foreign to the western tradition. The core Mugenkyo team consisted of two women, who also looked really cool piling about the stage and whacking big drums, and five guys who had this sweet martial artist meets rock'n'roll vibe about them. They were joined by their teacher and two of his students - these three were given much respect by Neil Mackie, Mugenkyo's main man and the compère for the evening.

Even this limited and increasingly fatuous analysis of the three events clarifies the fundamental differences between the artists. Despite the writer's apparent inability to maintain the academic tone of the first paragraphs, and the sudden descent into self-referential analysis, each event offers a different foundation for musical performance. That both Ben Frost and Mugenkyo had their kit set up before they arrived on-stage suggests that the instruments themselves were offered as a form of introduction: the spectacular array of Taiko drums or Frost's tangled electronics present a clear setting for the subsequent mood of the performance - even if the musicians would later subvert it.

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