Proms at Battersea Arts Centre Showcases UK Experimental Music Scene

For me, summer in London would be unimaginable without two things: complaining about the weather being too hot, and the Proms. The festival celebrates its 125th anniversary this year: their founding impresario, Robert Newman, wanted to build an audience for classical music by creating a concert series with low ticket prices and an informal atmosphere with standing allowed.

Nowadays, the Proms are supported by the BBC and their main venue is the Royal Albert Hall. The two-month-long season focuses on standard classical repertoire played by British orchestras (many of them run by the BBC) and visiting orchestras, though the season also features artists working in different genres. It would be easy to complain about the Proms’ lack of diversity–indeed, I was moved to write to a national newspaper about the complete absence of female composers in the 2006 season. Things have improved slightly since then: the Proms have an important role as commissioners of new music and have committed to gender-balanced commissioning by 2022, though non-male creative artists are more prominent in side venues than the Albert Hall.

The Battersea Arts Centre Prom on 27 July 2019 was advertised for an entirely standing audience, connecting it with this aspect of Proms tradition, though its adventurous and varied programme is a long way from typical Albert Hall fare. This was the Proms’ first visit to the south London arts centre which suffered serious fire damage in 2015. Formerly a town hall, the building is about the same age as the Proms and has a splendid four-manual organ that has only recently been reinstalled. The young organist Kit Downes put the still unfinished Hope-Jones instrument through its paces in a striking improvisation, creating whooshing air pumping noises that sounded like there was a washing machine stuck in the pipes. Performing at the console at ground level in front of a wall of pipes lit dark pink, his improvisation was a visual as well as aural spectacle.

Kit Downes performs at Battersea Arts Centre during the 2019 Proms--Photo by Chris Christodoulou

Kit Downes performs at Battersea Arts Centre during the 2019 Proms–Photo by Chris Christodoulou

The five artists featured on the programme showcased the lively UK experimental music scene. Cellist/composer/producer Oliver Coates has been dubbed ‘Radiohead’s favourite cellist.’ His set traced an arc from folk-like, plaintive solo lines, through Neo-Baroque figuration underpinned with electro beats, to an extraordinary metal power chord climax with the volume turned up to 11. He stood up with the instrument and waved it around to create interference: I expected a smashed cello, but instead the equipment was switched off one by one and he exited the stage to a drone.

Neil Luck’s work was a good fit with Musarc, an un-auditioned choral collective led by Cathy Heller Jones whose performances draw on theatre and movement as well as all manner of vocal and physical sounds. The most ambitious of Luck’s three works on the programme was Deepy Kaye, a multimedia tale of a film actor with Luck as performing narrator, video, two string players (James McIlwrath and Rebecca Burden), and Mary Ann Hushlak describing the action, sometimes misleadingly. The knowing tone coupled with enigmatic content left me feeling that, for all the performers’ skill, this was an in-joke which went over my head.

But emotional immediacy as well as vivid musical imagination characterised the two standout artists, Jennifer Walshe and Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, who in their very different ways are both 21st-century divas with strong creative voices. Walshe riffed on nostalgia in G.L.O.R.I., a rollercoaster collage of pop lyrics and her wry commentary: I’m of the same generation as the composer and had fun spotting extracts of 70s and 80s tracks, as well as pointed remarks like ‘what it’s like being male, middle class.’ Walshe’s total commitment in vocal performance brings operatic style to the experimental scene. Her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity saw her draw on artificial intelligence, feminist gothic horror and online weirdness of all sorts, delivered in compelling, punchy style. She reminds us that even the most implausible standard opera plot is no match for the crazy reality of 2019.

Jennifer Walshe performs at Battersea Arts Centre during the 2019 Proms--Photo by Chris Christodoulou

Jennifer Walshe performs at Battersea Arts Centre during the 2019 Proms–Photo by Chris Christodoulou

Horrocks-Hopayian is a composer whose folk electronica duo project, Crewdson & Cevanne, was formed with instrument builder Hugh Jones: they recently released their first album, BRACE. She delivered their set as a solo artist, playing harp and controlling a wide range of recorded and live sounds on her laptop. Horrocks-Hopayian was wearing an extraordinary ‘sonic bonnet’ designed by Jodie Cartman and inspired by traditional Armenian metallic headdresses. The metal and jewel elements of the sonic bonnet are MIDI-controlled and react to touch and movement. Combining a clear and perfectly placed folk delivery, stylised gestures and an array of field recordings and live electronica, her set had an emotional directness that drew the audience into her universe. My favourite number was “Two Machines,” a witty techno relationship story delivered in a deadpan manner, though “Sisa’s Well‘ was more typical of Crewdson & Cevanne’s album. This haunting, resonant folk song with sinister undercurrents evoked Suffolk, her home region, with recordings of waves and seagulls coupled with allusions to Sizewell nuclear power station.

The BBC Proms showcases an increasingly broad spectrum of music, and it was good to hear experimental music brought under the Proms’ capacious wing in a sympathetic venue. Jennifer Walshe is an established composer with many large-scale works under her belt, and Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian is currently writing for Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. When will we hear their larger compositions as part of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall?