Review: Philip Glass Complete Etudes for Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell

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As a music listener, I’ve begun to ponder what is it that makes a ‘lifetime’ album?

That is, one that keeps you company through the decades. One that inspires and consoles in good and bad times. Like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I fell in love with these as a teenager spinning black vinyl on my Mum’s antique Dansette record player. As a 50-something, they are as fresh and inspiring today as ever.

I reflected on this question last week after slapping on yet another new CD and only mildly enjoying it. Some early-70s jazz fusion. Fast, virtuosic, yet somehow ephemeral too. As I place it back on the shelf, I pat myself on the back for filling a small hole in my train-spotterish knowledge of that genre. Yet I sense I will never listen to it again.

It’s not unusual: My wall unit has 750+ CDs collected over three decades, shelved alphabetically and chronologically in mild-OCD fashion. It’s a movable feast. New albums are added to it monthly. Older ones, I no longer have use for, get shipped off to Ebay to make space for new ones. There are lifetime albums. And  flavour-of-the-month ones that sooner or later just ‘die’.

Musical trends are ever-evolving and as a fairly promiscuous listener, I’m always up for checking what’s out there. The internet suckers me into new CDs (Amazon and Spotify are pests). There are friends’ recommendations I feel obliged to listen to. And there’s my fave artists tipping their outtakes onto fans (I’m looking at you, The Beatles). Yet relatively few of these purchases stick around forever. There’s maybe just 10% of my collection that I consistently listen to through the decades.

So, back to the question at hand: What is it that creates a lifetime album? Hard to summarise. But, if pushed, I’d say music that constantly reinvents itself inside your head and which nourishes mind, body and spirit all at once. Easy, huh? No actually. They only come once in a while.

This autumn, a new one landed on my doormat that seems to tick all these boxes: Philip Glass’ Complete Etudes For Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell.

So far, I’ve listen all the way through just thrice (it’s a double album, two hours, not easy to find the time in one’s daily routine). It’s still early days, but I sense this one will stay with me for however long my remaining lifespan turns out to be.

At first, it comes over as a bunch of repetitive solo piano tracks. And yet as one listens in – to find out if there really is nothing going on here – you end up being seduced by the subtle inner motion and developments that invariably occur.

The opening minute sets the template; slow minor chords repeat over and over until the sheer accumulated weight of repetition opens out – like a blossoming flower – into rippling arpeggios and lyrical melodies. It’s like when you close your eyes; at first all is darkness. But study the darkness and you’ll find amoebic blotches of colour float past your retina. It’s the same here with Whitwell’s endlessly rolling chords.

If you just go with the flow, don’t strain impatiently for immediate developments, sooner or later each Etude track will reward you with subtle variations in tempo, time or timbre. Or the main rhythmic current will spin off into new eddies of fresh chords or tumbling melodies, before returning to the main current.

Etudes is split across two CD discs – ‘Book 1’ and ‘Book 2’ – each with ten tracks numbered 1 to 10. Yet the lack of descriptive titles positively invites the listener to find their own themes or meanings within. As one track follows another, my stream-of-consciousness free associates: ‘the calm before the storm’ – ‘frantically meeting a deadline’ – ‘a butterfly’ – ‘raindrops on a window’ – ‘my father’ – and so on. This is the power of Etudes; lacking any programmatic theme or lyrics to signpost your thoughts, it empowers you to personalise your own relationship with it.

When he started out in the 1960s, Philip Glass was the archetypal New York minimalist the cartoonists loved to mock (images of grand pianos tumbling downstairs). But if his Etudes evoke the ghosts of Schubert, Chopin and Debussy, he refracts them like a beam of white light fed through a minimalist prism until new colours fan out from the other side. Fast, slow, mid-tempi. Furious, calm, or in-between. Monolithic or shape-shifting.  Urban claustrophobia or open spaces. All life is here.

This is where Sally Whitwell comes into her own: her fingers dance in and out of these apparently simplistic modes and moods, an astonishingly supple and agile performance. Not just mechanistically playing from a written score but confident and playful enough to interpret the music and bring something extra to it.

As with Sally’s previous albums, recording and mastering engineer Virginia Reed brings a remarkable clarity to these tracks. Sally may be down under in Sydney 10,000 miles from my North London sofa where I write this. Several layers of digital technology separates her ivory keys from my ears. From her recording studio’s contact mics and mixing desks to my CD player and my cochlear implant that electronically route the audio signals to my brain (as I’m partially deaf too). But you wouldn’t know it from this recording which brings every note and chord to vibrant life. It feels to me as if Sally were playing the piano right here in my living room. The notes travelling up my spine, tickling the nape of my neck, massaging my scalp.

Her piano’s full dynamic range is beautifully caught here – all the way from Book 1 Etude 10’s loud fist-pumping motif to the quiet a will-o-the-wisp passages. Each track seems to emerge from silence and return to it.

When I first began buying CDs in the 1990s, they had a bad name for reducing the warm analogue tone of acoustic music to pixelated 10011 00110 10010 codes with shiny and sterile timbres. But thirty years, on the best engineers are maturing the use of digital technologies to the point where the distinction between live acoustic performance and digital reproduction is almost imperceptible (to my ears, at any rate).

So, Etudes has all elements of a ‘lifetime album’ for me. Some of the tunes are now embedding themselves into my brain as eagworms that pop up randomly during the day as I’m walking through the park or tidying the house. (They’re in very good company here, with the Floyd and Joni).

But I’m on a journey that never ends. Each time I hear Etudes, I hear it slightly differently; passages that I can memorise and hum to myself along with subtle details that had earlier escaped me. That’s key here. This is an album that will continually reinvent itself in the years ahead. It’s utility is endless, I can play it when I’m feeling upbeat or down.

Last but not least, the photographer in me loves the cover artwork too; Maja Basaka’s iconic portrait with rainbow-tinted lights exudes the music’s sophistication and warmth while also capturing Sally’s radiant personality (with a nod to her LBGT pride and activism too).

For now, this isn’t yet a definitive finished review of Etudes. More a review-in-progress, field notes if you like. I’ve often thought it strange that a review typically gets written almost immediately after an album’s release, to meet publishing deadlines. Note to self: I should return to these notes in a year and update them, as the album grows further on me over time (as it surely will), revealing further unexpected vistas and secrets.

For me, Sally Whitwell’s Etudes is one of those ineffable always-the-same-never-quite-the-same-twice albums that rewards repeated listens over an extended period time.

And I’m thinking that’s key to what makes a lifetime album.

Philip Glass The Complete Etudes – performed by Sally Whitwell (2018). ABC Classics 481 6592

For more about Sally Whitwell, visit her website.

More about Maja Basaka photography here.

Stephen Iliffe, December 2018.

Stephen Iliffe finalist in global travel photo awards

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Stephen Iliffe’s striking image of Zanzibari women has caught the attention of the judges for the prestigious Lens Culture Afar awards 2018.

With 20,000 entries from all over the world, Stephen is one of just 25 finalists making it this far.

As a result, Stephen’s work will have global online exposure along with other finalists from India, China, Brazil, Brazil, USA and Europe.

“In Zanzibar’s more remote areas,” says Stephen, “a lack of transport infrastructure means local women carry their groceries in large bundles expertly balanced on their heads.”

“It was early evening,” he recalls, “yet the sunlight was still intense. It picked out the women’s radiant colours while also casting long blue shadows along the street. Despite the heavy bundles, the women flashed by at great speed, as if in an Olympic walking race. I had little time to compose the shot. That’s why I always keep a camera in my bag in case the unexpected happens!”

“This image borders the edge of abstraction,” say Lens Culture Afar. “Isolation and shadow are powerful here.”

The elite judges panel includes New York Times’ Stacey Baker, National Geographic’s Ami Vitale, Magnum’s Carolyn Drake, and The Guardian’s Caroline Hunter.

Stephen’s current projects include Audiovisabilty, London’s Kings Cross district and Leicester’s Diwali celebrations.

Stephen Iliffe shortlisted for Britain’s top photography event

I’m delighted to share thrilling news that two of my images have been shortlisted for Britain’s most prestigious photography event.

Here follows, text for the UK press release…

Stephen Iliffe’s two portraits of a six-year old deaf child asylum seeker have caught the attention of an elite panel of judges for A Portrait of Britain 2018.

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A Portrait of Britain 2018 is the third annual event run by the British Journal of Photography. As a shortlisted entrant, Stephen’s photos will also feature in a globally-distributed book (with an intro by acclaimed novelist Will Self) published by Hoxton Mini Press, an award-winning independent publisher.

“I’m thrilled to be included in Portrait of Britain 2018,” says Stephen. “My images highlight the plight of deaf child refugees. It’s traumatic for any child to flee their homeland and seek asylum in a distant country with an unfamiliar culture and language. For deaf children, it’s a double whammy as they can lack access to appropriate support.”

“For me the photograph of Lawand – and his brother Rawa – is symbolic,” adds Stephen. “Living in barely-furnished temporary accommodation in Derby, the kids use their imagination to pass the time. As Lawand climbs up his bedroom walls to touch the ceiling, it metaphorically suggests his family’s desperate desire to be granted asylum in Britain now they have a tentative foothold here.”

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Stephen was commissioned by the Audiovisability project to help raise awareness of six-year old deaf boy Lawand Hamadamin’s case.

After a traumatic journey from northern Iraq to UK, Lawand was supported by Deaf Kidz International and referred to Derby’s Royal School for Deaf Children where he learnt to communicate via sign language.

Despite his dramatic progress at Derby School, the UK government planned last year to summarily deport Lawand and his family without even formally considering their asylum request.

Following a public outcry and a campaign supported by Audiovisability, a High Court judge upheld an appeal by Lawand’s family to remain in the UK for the time being to allow their asylum request to be properly considered.

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The boys’ uncertain future and their longing to find a new home that will accept them is also captured in a second image as they gaze out of their window looking across the Derby back streets.

The judging panel includes key industry leaders Caroline Hunter, Picture Editor of The Guardian Weekend Magazine; Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photographer; Martin Usborne, Co-Founder of Hoxton Mini Press; and Simon Bainbridge, Editor at British Journal of Photography.

The final winners for Portrait of Britain 2018 will be announced in August.

The Audiovisability project gratefully acknowledges the financial support of Arts Council England and Decibels.

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Stephen is available for interviews or quotes via: Stiliffe@aol.com or 07535 79631 (text messages only)

Lawand’s full story I have a dream…

Stephen Iliffe www.stepheniliffe.com

Audiovisability: www.audiovisability.com

Deaf Kidz International: www.deafkidzinternational.org

Copies of Portrait of Britain 2018 book can be pre-ordered via: www.thebjpshop.com

 

Back to the future

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From renaissance art to satellite photos, Adam Arbeid’s stunning contemporary marble frescos draw on ancient and modern influences. Review by Stephen Iliffe.

Amidst the bath, towels and toothbrushes of a Victorian-terraced house taking part in Brighton’s 2018 Artists Open Houses, hangs Oxygene (above).

It has an elemental presence: as if a coastal shelf had newly eroded and the fallen rock split to expose multiple layers of sparkling minerals and fossils. As if these textures had been polished into a shimmering artist’s canvas, overpainted with thin washes of oceanic blues and turquoises. A backdrop for what could be a satellite photo of a coral reef or a laboratory slide of tiny amoeba.

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This ambiguity is deliberate. Adam is concerned with both micro and macro perspectives on the universe: “I’m captivated by images observed through various lenses,” says Adam. “From the cosmic vistas of the Hubble telescope to photos taken through microscopes.”

Adam’s frescos seem to blend Google Earth’s topographic contours with surreal postcards from some parallel universe. Yet his visions are dreamily evocative rather than simply illustrative. As I make my way downstairs to the hall, my imagination is teased once more, by Synergy (below).

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I tell Adam it makes me think of two things at once: a hippie tie-dye; or my 40th birthday  flying over Iceland’s abstract moonscape of craters and lakes. “I’m excited by how viewers react differently to each picture,” he nods. “They’re open to all kinds of interpretations. Everyone has their unique take on it.”

Weeks of painstaking craft goes into each of these multi-layered works, Adam’s techniques akin to Italian renaissance fresco painters crossed with the random chance aesthetic of the 20th century surrealists.

Adam first builds up a thin veneer-like marble base and then blends in minerals, aggregates, fossils, pigments and inks. This not only gives his works like Transglobal Infusion (below) a wonderfully organic texture, it gives them a natural radiance too. “I like the idea that instead of just squeezing paint out of a tube,” says Adam, “I use colours extracted from earth pigments, glass, granite and metal ores.”

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Adam’s compositions have an extraordinary poetic charge from the way he alchemises their base ingredients: “I like to encourage the various materials to run free, collide, recede, reform into new contours and configurations,” he says. “As an artist, I can choose the moment when I freeze their motion for the final artwork. I call it my aesthetic of “controlled chaos.”

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Now I’m inside the living room where Juice (above) erupts upon the wall like fissures of hot steam. The colours seem to burst from the marble surface, creating a sense that you’re standing on some distant planet inhabited by floating, candy-coloured jellyfish. (Oh, and I loved the surreal juxtaposition of the cat sleeping peacefully on the radiator just below the fresco!)

Adam’s expertise in marble is enhanced by his previous experience as an interior designer and stately home restorer, working on projects such as refurbishing the nearby Brighton Royal Pavilion.

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“The earliest use of employing crushed marble in this way dates back some 4000 years to the Minoan civilization,” says Adam (above). “With the fall of Rome this virtually disappeared until its rediscovery in 16th Century Florence.”

“It takes ages,” he confesses, “but I love this process of crushing, sieving and grading these ancient materials to make the ingredients for new contemporary artworks.”

Autobiographical influences also feature. Adam was inspired to create Jelly Baby (below) by a vivid dream after a ‘plane flight and scuba diving experience.

Jelly Baby for Print

Is there a danger in this 21st century that modern art will hurtle into a virtual dystopia where image-making is reduced to mobiles, apps, instant effects? Leaving the viewers with the uneasy feeling that art has become mere software output, where the only means of engagement is clicks and likes?

In this context, it’s a delight to see Brighton’s Artists Open Houses encourage the public to physically engage with local artists. And it’s a joy to witness Adam draw on the ancient craft of marble frescos while innovating cutting-edge new artworks. Someone who is, as it were, going back to the future.

For further information about Adam Arbeid visit his official website.

The 2018 Brighton Artists Open Houses runs until the end of May.

From 23 June to 1 July 2018, Adam will exhibit the Rivermead Gallery, as part of the Chelmsford Arts Festival

From 7 July 2018, Adam will exhibit for a week at the Waterloo Square Gallery.

 

 

 

 

River runs through

A profoundly-moving fabric and glass installation tackles migration, memory and loss. Review by Stephen Iliffe.  OMHiRes1and2.JPEGHI.jpg

“I weave these elaborate textiles,” smiles Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, “only to watch Mike dissolve them between two layers of hot molten glass until there’s hardly a trace of my work left to see!

Her collaborator Mike Barrett nods: “We call these ‘flying carpet sandwiches’” he laughs. “I heat the glass to 1100 Centigrade and watch Omeima’s handiwork disintegrate into flames.”

So, delicate cottons meet white-hot liquid glass. Why’s that? The answer lies in Omeima’s childhood memories.

Unexpected twists and turns

“I was born hearing but went deaf aged four,” says Omeima. “I grew up by the River Nile in Khartoum, Sudan and then the middle east. I went to school in England. My family has Arabic roots but I’m British too. It’s been a very, very long journey to find myself. Like a river with unexpected twists and turns…”

The latest twist brings us to Brighton’s Fabrica where Omeima and Mike are staging a joint installation. As I walk into the converted-church arts venue, the initial impact of River Runs Through is sensuous yet mysterious.

Gentle Arabic music tints the atmosphere – violin and flute. A looped video projection of the River Nile flickers on the walls. And then three exhibits – linked by multi-coloured fibre-glass strings that rise and fall like the cables on a suspension bridge.

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As with all good audio-visual installations, one first has to stop, listen and stare. It tickles your curiosity but doesn’t instantly offer its secrets on plate.

A little context helps: The first exhibit (below left) by Omeima turns out to be a laminated panel that seals multiple layers of opaque and transparent fabrics. A rich fusion of east-west colours and textures. The warm violets and earthy browns of her Sudanese childhood, the cooler shades of England’s south coast. Under soft light falling from the Victorian church’s skylights, Islam’s embossed golden crescent shines out. “I’m deaf, a woman, British, a Muslim,” explains Omeima. “All these different identities link together here.”

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Beneath this panel, another fabric (below) flows like river of liquid blues and greens, encrusted in foam-specked greys. The Nile, as it were, tumbling to the wooden floorboards, decked with fishing lines and weights.

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The second exhibit (below) is a rectangular grid of Mike’s glass tiles. As I walk around it, the tiles dance and shimmer with Omeima’s delicate brushstrokes as she experimented with pigments and dyes worked onto the glass in various states of cooling back to its solid state.

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For such a bald exhibit, Omeima’s story gives it a powerful emotional undercurrent. It echoes her Sudanese pilgrimage last year as part of research and development for the project.  “When I arrived, the old Khartoum seemed to have disappeared. I couldn’t recognise it… New roads, new buildings. Favourite places seemed to have disappeared. Everything’s moved, there’s roads everywhere. New junctions, new bridges.

“But when I was on the boat on the Nile, that’s still the same…  Lots of people walking past the river. Families, friends, neighbours, picnics… The most massive orange sunset on the water which feels so close, that’s the same. It’s a very powerful thing to know that has not changed. The tiles celebrate Nile as an eternal presence, a permanent life force”

“After your return from Khartoum, we began talking about what you’ve learned from your travels,” says Mike to Omeima during a Q&A session hosted by Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead. “We discussed how we could feed all this into our fabric n’ glass mash ups”.

Destroy and create

The third exhibit is perhaps the most ground-breaking one. If Mike is destroyer to Omeima’s creator, the effect is sublime. As the glass slowly cools, Mike deftly shapes it into surging waves that melt the fabrics into inky blotches of sky blue, indigo, crimsons, sandy browns. Or colours evaporate leaving barely perceptible imprints – like a fossil of a sea anemone with only a shape or texture to indicate where it used to exist.

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The result is an utterly gorgeous series of wave-like slabs of glass (above) that ooze with subtle inky colours. The glass still and frozen, yet full of movement – roaring and twisting currents. I could almost ‘hear’ the Nile, almost place my hand inside and feel the water through my fingers.

Throughout the project, Mike plays a vital and empathetic role in uncorking Omeima’s emotions: “Glass was the right material,” he says, “because it reflects and mimics the quality of water. And when it traps the fabrics within it, it also captures Omeima’s memories too.”

Sweeping up the ashes

“We had to experiment a lot,” says Omeima, “and try out different temperatures and materials and processes. There was a lot of trial and error. But the wonderful thing about the hot glass is how the fabric catches fire and when we swept up the ashes, they made me feel as if I was wiping away old Khartoum. It had disappeared but still left traces behind in my memories.”

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As with any installation, how much you get out of it, as a visitor, is proportionate to how much you put in. I noticed a few puzzled-looking folk ambling in off the local shopping street and 15 seconds later heading for the exit. But mostly, people lingered to savour the experience, ask Omeima and Mike questions, take mobile shots.

I enjoyed my hour walking around the exhibits. Seeing how the colours and reflections changed as the sun played hide and seek with the clouds outside. In the same way that a river’s surface appearance is continually evolving with the ambient weather.

Like all great artworks, the power of River Runs Through is both specific and universal. Yes, it tells Omeima’s story, but it’s also a river that runs through our own lives too: the past and present: the river of time, of memory, migration and loss. A process of transforming that loss into something new and unique. Something lost, something gained. We can all relate to that.

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Ultimately, Omeima and Mike have created something special here. As Liz Whitehead (below left) reflects: “When artists work alone, they have a singular vision. ‘I know what I want and how to achieve it’. When two artists combine, each has to be open to new processes, new outputs, to experiment, make mistakes, accept chance elements and intermittent failures on the road to success.”

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In doing so, the best artist collaborations (be it Lennon/McCartney or whoever) alchemise something unique that neither artist on their own could realise. And that is the extraordinary achievement of River Runs Through.

Long may this river flow…

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All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe (except third image by Mike Barrett).

For further details, visit www.omeima.arts.com and www.mikebarrettglass.com

 

Two logos FINAL

Instagram – reality or illusion?

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Is Instagram a reality or an illusion? Does it feed or kill human creativity? Harmless pastime or serious addiction?

Three urgent questions tackled by art photographers Natalie Christensen and Jim Eyre in their first joint exhibition alteredstates/alteredscapes.

Like many of us in the 21st century, Natalie (above left) and Jim (right) – who live 5,000 miles apart in New Mexico, USA and London, UK – initially made contact via social media. Both share a fascination with street scenes reduced to starkly beautiful abstractions of shape, line, colour and light.

From there, Instagram’s algorithms for matching ‘users’ with like-minded profiles, hashtags, followers and – you know the score – connected the dots.

Over time, the pair began to swop messages in cyberspace;  likes, comments and ideas for collaborating together.

For alteredstates/alteredscapes – Natalie and Jim selected elements of each other’s work and collaged them into single images.

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The above example blends Natalie’s fascination at faded 1950s Americana with Jim’s love for the nondescript corners of Lewisham. A empty swimming pool, deliciously pink concrete, a sun lounger. An unruly burst of weeds, a road cone and steps leading to nowhere. An ominous shadow cast by an object outside the picture frame.

Despite its superficially banal content, there’s a hidden psychodrama at play here – poised between nothing’s-going-on and something-dramatic-lies-around-the-corner. As if blending Jim’s original training as an architect with Natalie’s part-time day job as a psychotherapist.

During the exhibition’s Q&A session, I speculated which individual elements in the image came from New Mexico or London? Half of my guesses were wrong. Which just goes to show how playfully Natalie and Jim tease our senses, challenge our assumptions about what’s what?

The image can be read on so many levels and it’s available to view in cyberspace 24/7 wherever you are in the world – by logging into Instagram, of course. That oft-maligned platform where people show off their haircuts, cleavages, ice creams, while advertisers prospect for your likes.

“Yeah, I admit, Instagram is… let’s use that word… an addiction”, confesses Natalie, with a knowing smile. “But Jim and I want to use it, not abuse it. We’re asking questions about what is real and what isn’t. It’s kinda surreal to be collaborating from half way across the world via mobile phones and laptops, so that naturally leads to surreal images too.”

“Sometimes people may think we’re cheating when we Photoshop stuff,” adds Jim. “But we’re challenging people to think about what we see, who we engage with. And,  Instagram is a just app. Is any of it real anyway?”

As with any philosophical line of enquiry, some dilemmas arise: “Do Natalie and I stay true to our original intention – to share and create meaningful art?” quips Jim. “Or do we allow it to get interrupted by a never-ending dopamine rush in the quest for the most “likes”?

In this context, it was inspiring to see Natalie and Jim’s Instagram work occupy a public space at Peckham Levels – a new arts, shopping and eating venue hosted in a former multi-story car park.

I loved how the architectural content of their floor-to-ceiling-sized prints merged seamlessly into the building’s own structures of concrete walls, walkways and ramps.

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As shoppers and families strolled past (including those who’d never normally set foot inside an art gallery), I was struck how often they’d pause to take a closer look, and occasionally take selfies in front of them. Who knows, maybe some of these ended up on Instagram too?

During a photowalk after the Q&A, I decided to have a little fun with this myself and took a few candid shots with passersby blending into the images (above). Art into life into art, as it were.

For me, a key lesson from altered states/alteredscapes is that Natalie and Jim are showing it is possible to strike a balance, to be artful and well-liked too (Natalie has 33,000+ Instagram followers). To inhabit cyberspace while physically interacting with people. And that’s a humanising message for all of us art photographers and Instagrammers alike.

Natalie Christensen at nataliechristensenphoto.com

Jim Eyre at germaine.co.uk 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes from the Bird Cage

Stephen Iliffe reviews Echoes from the Bird Cage, Evelyn Glennie – Platform Theatre, Kings Cross 

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For most, London’s Kings Cross station is a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. Trains and commuters enter and exit as if in a manic 24-hour time lapse film.

Yet across five square miles, the wider Kings Cross district is a rich tapestry of the old industrial revolutions and postmodernist architecture. And, if you have time to wander the side streets, piazzas, gardens, canal towpath, to stop and stare, you’ll discover hidden oases of calm, a soul, even.

As a street photographer, I’ve documented the area for many years (selected images  appear here).

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So, I was intrigued to hear that composer and jazz pianist Jill Jarman also intuits this soul. The result is Echoes from The Bird Cage. A six-part impression of Kings Cross that aims to capture – as Jill writes in her programme notes – energy, colour, light and sound, dancing up and around a vertical landscape, relentless movement, combined with quiet and beautiful spaces.

To add to my delight, Echoes is a collaboration with a long-time heroine of mine, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Over three decades, I’ve followed Evelyn’s journey from  orchestras, drums and xylophone to the wilder shores of free improv – beating, brushing, scraping sounds from household or junkyard objects.

And better still, Echoes got its world premiere at the Platform Theatre, ten minutes’ walk from the back of the station.

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As the spotlight falls on the stage, the eye is drawn to Evelyn’s landscape of percussive instruments and found objects. After a lingering silence, Evelyn appears, slowly walking around the instruments, ear cocked to each one. As if in the act of listening to the Kings Cross streets and their ambient sounds. For Evelyn, active listening has always been a crucial element of her composition and improvisation process.

The music begins softly as The Spaces In-Between evokes pre-dawn stillness. Evelyn’s humming waterphones and brushed gongs reverberate softly until Jill makes her entrance, along with cellist Brian O’Kane, and we’re led into gentle strings and jazzy piano strokes. The city is slowly awakening.

As if on schedule, the tick-tocking rhythms of In Motion steadily up the ante before erupting into a commuter rush of hyperactive drums, horns and strings.

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One is struck by how familiar instruments are making unfamiliar sounds. Outside The Box is an almost gamelan-like percussive workout; Evelyn picks out a bass clarinet and (without blowing into the mouthpiece) taps the keys with her palms to create bracing non-standard rhythms. These are echoed by Jill who nips over to the back of her grand piano to strum and then tap the strings – John Cage-style – with mallets. Brian drops his bow to ambidextrously explore the Cello strings, while Paul Booth on clarinet and Ian East on tenor sax likewise contribute to the polyrhythmic speed rush.

Walk the Kings Cross side streets, the crowds soon disappear and the roar fades to an ambient hum that intermingles machine, man, nature. Likewise, Echoes From The Bird Cage starts as an abstracted tone poem of sounds bouncing to and fro off buildings at different times of day. Gradually the intensity climbs as the individual contributions of the ensemble players overlay each other into mesmeric patterns, until we slow fade back into silence.

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The world music-infused Global Chant is a 360-degree experience; marbles rattled in steel pans, a clarinet and flute play from within the audience, eastern sounds and modes drift around our heads like exotic perfume. The ensemble breaks out into chants and handclaps.  Kings Cross has been enriched by waves of immigration from Europe, Africa and Asia. The mood is joyous and celebratory.

Finally, the haunting Echoes Past nods backwards via a series of fleeting vignettes that evoke heavy industries, disease, world wars, poverty, debauchery.

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For all the visual associations I’ve cited here, Echoes From The Bird Cage isn’t simply picture music. It sets out the physical and emotional terrain of Kings Cross while allowing space for listeners to insert their imaginations into the weft and weave of the music.

During the post-show Q&A, Evelyn clarified that Echoes is a work-in-progress. It will evolve over future performances until, hopefully, getting a wider CD release. This makes sense due to the evolutionary dynamic at the heart of Jill’s and Evelyn’s collaboration. Evelyn respectfully working within the composer’s tightly structured score, Jill allowing space for Evelyn’s wild card improvisations.

KXXXmasterThis aligns perfectly with the ever-changing topography of Kings Cross – a pragmatic trade-off between the infrastructural visions of city and transport planners on one side and quixotic movements of commuters, workers and residents on the other.

In 2018, new questions arise: Kings Cross seems set for another new phase; aspiring to be London’s new creative quarter. Kaleidoscopic, dynamic, emotive. Echoes From The Bird Cage is a bold and beautiful anthem for that future.

All text and images by Stephen Iliffe. Except, concert photo © Martin Collins.  

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