Imagine the National inviting RuPaul to play Hamlet. Or Tate giving Beryl Cook a retrospective. The London Sinfonietta offered a similar cocktail of mischief and insanity in devoting the opening concert of its return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, after a three-year refurbishment, to the nihilistic drag act David Hoyle. It had me grinning from ear to ear. Mostly from watching the other critics squirm. The woman next to me, an off-duty member of the Sinfonietta, was spitting words into her hand: ‘Patronising bollocks’.
It was one of those nights. Half the audience stony-faced and tensed with anger. The other half creased double and whooping. It’s what you get if you transfer the trashy camp of a gay mecca like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Hoyle’s usual home, to this sexless temple of high modernism.
The Gender Agenda was a new work by the composer Philip Venables, a game show with a gobby host (Hoyle) instead of a soloist, catchphrases standing in for pitch material. ‘Let’s destroy the military-industrial complex!’ he enjoined us, in the way Brucey used to announce the presence of a cuddly toy. The Sinfonietta, squished to the back of the stage, were consigned to squirting out gobbets of rancid Gebrauchsmusik. Then a sudden burst of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. This set off an alarm warning us on a big screen that we were exposing ourselves to ‘Homosexual Music’.
It was hard not to agree with my neighbour’s analysis during the game itself, in which audience members were dragged up on stage to draw and then guess various sexist scenarios. Too didactic. Too much preaching to the converted.
But the value of this work was not in the detail but in the kamikaze boldness of the whole. It was also a fine up yours to my doubts about the QEH. I had arrived at its familiar heavy doors sceptical. Did anyone really miss this bunker? You could argue that closing it had invigorated the scene. The past few years had felt like the adults had gone on holiday. An explosion of forms and ideas, spurred on by DIY necessities, had resulted. We now have half a dozen great little venues scattered across London catering far more generously to the needs of what composers are actually composing today. Why reopen this old place?
But then I hadn’t counted on Venables storming the modernist fort. Mainstream critics have dismissed the postmodern unravellings of half a century ago — which expanded what was musical material to include movement and gesture, speech and play — as fads without followers. Well, those ideas are back. And if only to remind people where we are, this work felt important.
That said, I wish the experimentalism had been extended to the game show itself, which was allowed to proceed as predictably as a classical sonata. And I wish they’d worked out their politics. Saying gender was a ‘waste of time’, while also obsessing over every element of it, didn’t strike me as fantastically logical.
The second half consisted of a proper little zinger. Venables’s Illusions marries the anger and energy of the first half with a stuttering score, Hoyle back again, berating us, provoking us, coaxing us to dabble in some sodomy (I’m not sure the audience needed much encouragement).
More oblique rage was to be found at Cafe OTO, which is to the 2010s what QEH was to the 1970s. One regular night there, Kammer Klang, devoted a programme recently to the greedy, Gesamtkunstwerky composers of the New Discipline school. Jennifer Walshe’s new work was astonishing. She manages to devour the mess and madness of social media, the tweets, posts, junk ads, political poison, spurious stats and Reddit rants, and turn all this garbage into something truly, bleakly hilarious and poignant and very great.
Is It Cool To Try Hard Now? ends doped-up, with Walshe floating out the phrase ‘I will fight this/ with every fibre/ of my carbon-based being’. Is she blissed out? Or concussed? ‘Humans. Are. The. Next. Platform’, she sings, climbing beyond her vocal range, climbing, climbing, till her voice has become a faint scream.
Despite the Sinfonietta’s best efforts, the QEH will not regain its primacy over this scene. But it might not need to. Last Friday I sampled Concrete Lates, its new monthly night of experimental dance music. As I wandered around the clubified foyer, the sound system filling this strange space deliciously, red and blue neon shocking the concrete into life, the exquisitely controlled sonic geometry of Giant Swan electrifying the audience, the building for the first time suddenly made sense. QEH’s real contribution to the future of music might from now on be found in the foyer, not the hall.
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