Sounds from the sweatshop: Marxist Chillwave and Dialogues des Carmélites

Classical music perhaps wouldn’t be everyone’s medium of choice to shout about issues, ideas and beliefs but two recent events made a strong case for why it should be.

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Marxist Chillwave; Dialogues des Carmélites
Second Home, London E1; Royal Opera House, London WC2

If you wanted to raise your voice in art – to really shout about issues, ideas and beliefs – how would you do it? Make a film, perhaps? An installation? A play? The chances are that classical music wouldn’t be your first response. But two recent events made a strong case for why it should be. Church and state, economics, ideologies, faith and social cynicism all came under scrutiny in performances in which musical abstraction was no barrier to provocation.

The London Contemporary Music Festival returned for a second year, with a programme ranging from Japanese Noh theatre to electronic improvisations and industrial music. Most interesting was the “Marxist Chillwave” event on 27 May, an evening of musical responses to capitalism. There’s a pleasing friction – surely not lost on the festival’s organisers – in hosting the event at Second Home, a Shoreditch warehouse soon to become an office hub for entrepreneurs, capitalism’s worker bees.

The Kuwaiti composer Fatima Al Qadiri’s Industrial Patterns is a two-part film that sets the visual consumerism of a video fashion look book to a digital soundtrack that might be the cousin of something by Philip Glass. As models pose and an expressionless voice-over speaks of “cargo pants” and “mesh T-shirts”, the music’s wilful blankness asks us to question when the synthesised becomes synthetic: it’s a mass-produced imitation of “real” music, just as these “SameSame” garments are imitations of their original designer counterparts. That Al Qadiri’s music was used to soundtrack the look book designer’s live runway show only adds to the tension between artistic complicity and critique.

More direct is Johannes Kreidler’s 2009 work Fremdarbeit (“Outsourcing”). Part music, part narrative, the work, performed here by the composer with five musicians, tells an uncomfortable musical parable. Kreidler was paid around $2,000 for a commission that he outsourced, first to a composer writing to order in China for $15 and then to a computer programmer in India, who created an algorithm to generate Kreidler-esque compositions for $30. Any disapproval the audience might have felt for the composer’s methods was destabilised by his spoken-word sections, as he reminded us of the role of assistants in the visual arts – is Fremdarbeit exploitative in a way that the work of Damien Hirst or Roy Lichtenstein is not?  “It’s my music because I have bought it. I own it,” he said.

While Kreidler’s and Al Qadiri’s works, though fascinating, risked subordinating music to polemic and creativity to concept, at the Royal Opera House questions of faith, evil and redemption were explored on an instinctive, human level. Poulenc’s unaccountably neglected Dialogues des Carmélites tells the true story of an order of Carmelite nuns who were executed during the final days of the French Revolution.

Robert Carsen’s production premiered in Amsterdam in 1997 and has been seen around the world but only now visits the UK for the first time, conducted by Simon Rattle. The director balances Poulenc’s realism – the personalities, doubts and desires of the nuns – with an arms-length symbolism. It is a coolness that tempers the horror of the final scene, in which each nun is sent to the guillotine in turn until a sole voice is left singing the “Salve Regina”. While the production’s restraint works well for collective gestures, however, it fails to animate individuals. The drawn-out death of the Prioress (Deborah Polaski) doesn’t confront here as it should, while the country reminiscences of Constance (Anna Prohaska) and the struggle of Blanche (Sally Matthews) with her brother lack emotional sharpness.

This has little to do with the excellent cast, led by the neurotic and intense Matthews. She moves from mezzo territories in Act I to soprano heights in the later acts, balancing technical demands with a singularity of intent. Emma Bell’s Madame Lidoine and Sophie Koch’s Mother Marie offer exceptional support, creating the distinctive character through their voices that Carsen’s production denies in their physicality.

There were some issues in Simon Rattle’s pit on opening night, with some scrappy entries and odd textural imbalances distracting from the glowing, melodic certainty of Poulenc’s score, but doubtless these will resolve as the run continues. Neither these nor Carsen’s monumental direction take away from an extraordinary work that dares to transform a theatre into a cathedral, evangelising with unabashed directness.

“Dialogues des Carmélites” is at the Royal Opera House until 11 June

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain