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Illuminate the Underground

Feature

Luminate is the new contemporary music series, opening this autumn in Hall Two. Tim Rutherford-Johnson celebrates the irrelevance of categories in this vibrant creative arena.

It’s not news to say that the barriers between musical genres are crumbling – consider the recent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Music (usually reserved for the doyens of American art music) to rapper Kendrick Lamar. So, if genre categories are dead, how do we organise and describe what we’re listening to? One way is to talk not about what music is like, but about what it does.

There is music that makes you dance. Or that makes you sing in the shower. Or want to watch a particular TV show. Some of the pieces in Kings Place’s new Luminate series are written down for acoustic instruments to play, and some of them are electronically produced. A lot aren’t quite either. On paper, the guitar, guitar, drums trio of Ex-Easter Island Head, who play in October, may look like a rock group, but their sound owes as much to minimalist Steve Reich. This music won’t easily fit old genre categories. But it will make you think or feel something new.

‘We don’t care if you don’t know your Beethoven from your Brahms, or your Biber from your Bieber,’ declare Manchester Collective; and that’s as good a rallying cry as any for this new, post-generic world. Formed in 2017 and rapidly building a reputation as one of England’s most innovative ensembles, in December they will bring three interlinked sets to Kings Place. Modernist and minimalist works for strings by the likes of Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis and Michael Gordon will be contextualised against atmospherically unsettling electronica by Bristolian producer and film composer Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough), and 100 Demons by Hull composer Daniel Elms, a Japanese-influenced, eyes-wide glare at the last two seismic years in political history.

‘Ex-Easter Island Head may look like a rock group, but their sound owes as much to Steve Reich’

Even ‘classical’ music itself – not long ago rigid with genres that prescribed not only sounds and structures, but also instrumental line-ups – has relaxed. London’s Riot Ensemble is one of a new generation of groups guided as much by instinct and adventure as by dogma or habit. Its opening programme for Luminate includes a plasmatic study by Helga Arias Parra of eighteenth-century church music, funk-spliced skronk by Lee Hyla, and Sarah Nemtsov’s avant-gardist encounter with Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.

At its heart are two pieces by the bright new star of British music, Philip Venables. Illusions – a collaboration with the avant-garde cabaret artist David Hoyle – was originally written as a ‘note to the new government’, to be performed just after the 2015 general election. It will be played here in a revised version, although its themes of gender equality, sexual revolution and political corruption make it bleeding-edge current. Over a mash-up of shopping-arcade muzak and ferocious, quasi-martial brass and percussion, Hoyle – on video and in full drag – harangues, conspires with and directly challenges the audience’s assumptions. By contrast, but equally forceful in its own surreptitious way, numbers 91–95 adds a Britten-like lyricism to Simon Howard’s poetry of late capitalist alienation. Once again, categories of description are useless. This is music that simply hits you square between the ears.

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