I am unfashionably late. It’s a Friday, at the sharp end of January, and Emulsion has brought its fifth annual showcase to mac in Birmingham. It’s also five minutes to six and I’ve missed the first event – a curiously nondescript ‘panel discussion’.
But with White Rabbit enthusiasm I am throwing myself down (what’s left and what’s explained of) this half day programme – chocked to the Conservatoire gills with both ‘Pop Ups’ and staged performances.
Even as I arrive I hear music, eventually finding it nestled in the alcove between the Arena Bar and mac’s downstairs gallery; a small man plucks a double bass, accompanied by a tall blonde operatic singer. Unamplified and confident. We are immediately surrounded by music. Plus I warm to anything that makes me feel like I’m in a David Lynch film.
The Hans Koller Quartet is playing in… two and half minutes, oh my ears and whiskers, and I make my way into an emptier mac Theatre than I’d have hoped. (I’ve promoted events since I was seventeen and I know the difficulties in dragging out a Birmingham audience. But with Emulsion’s strong tie to Birmingham Conservatoire I would have expected a few more scholarly bums on seats.)
Joe Wright sits at the front right of a busy yet empty stage, in front of an infantry of mic and music sheet stands. Wright is alone and playing his sax across his lap, distorted though a maze of wires and speakers I don’t fully understand. Again it’s a brave exploration – a creative use of a player’s well known instrument, with Wright firmly engrossed in teasing out the sounds and masked melodies through a variety of techniques and intrusions. But beyond that I’m a little lost. As are both the children to my left and the older man I talk to in the Arena Bar afterwards.
A simple introduction to Wright’s performance (which would continue before the second show) might have helped ‘different audiences’ find this ‘exciting not daunting.’ And I don’t buy the premise that it’s weak to say I don’t understand, or that as the audience are mostly from Birmingham Conservatoire why should the organisers try to engage with anyone else – as someone suggested. The emperor is just a rich fool with his knob out and I’m too old for bullies, no matter how they throw their punches.
(I would later catch up with Joe Wright; a kindly human who would elaborate on his aim to “not just play the instrument, but to be part of something it plays through me”. He was clear and effusive. I am paraphrasing and a sucker for context. I think I see a way out of this…)
Eventually Fiona Talkington and Trish Clowes take to the stage, giving thanks to Joe Wright, the audience and a litany of funders/partners that have helped Emulsion become a reality. Boxes get ticked as if there was an election brewing.
Set up by Trish Clowes back in 2012, and now run along with Tom Harrison, Emulsion has to date generated several new commissions and held annual showcase events each year since inception. It’s a formidable vehicle, championing the diversity and power of contemporary classical and jazz composers and musicians; a cross section of genres Birmingham is blessed with. Plus this year’s event, Emulsion V, is being broadcast across BBC 3’s Late Junction, Hear & Now and Jazz Now programmes – hence Fiona Talkington. This is a significant score, in media terms, and generates an almost garrulous excitement about where this event could go next. But in a word, kudos.
Trish Clowes introduces the Hans Koller Quartet, with John O’Gallagher taking both the literal and figurative centre stage. Percy Pursglove picks up his first instrument of the day, a double bass, as Jeff Williams slides in behind his drum kit – shoulders, wrists and brushes at the ready. The eponymous band leader sits behind a beautiful Bösendorfer concert grand piano, as I try to think of a Thomas Crown caper that could get the beast into my living room. I’m also a sucker for ivory.
Playing “three arrangements by John” then three pieces from the quartet itself, the alto saxophonist takes an almost immediate lead – ushered along with firm bass, brushed percussion and soft keys. A moderate piano walks us out of the first movement, as the sax take our other hand and pulls us excitedly into the second. The ensemble reaches a crescendo then steps back as Williams sends soft rolls falling like rain on sloping glass, whilst Hans and his hot footed spiders dance forward to take us into the third movement.
The Quartet originals follow a similar play, with the baton being passed between Koller and O’Gallagher, as Pursglove and Williams keep it moving like a John Travolta strut or a James Bond tuxedo. It’s all excellent, but I could watch the double bass and drums for the rest of the day; as the third and final piece steps up the pace we get a Williams solo that makes me want to laugh with pleasure.
Back into the bar, as an absurdly long and well mannered queue discuss the events of the day. So far. It’s a short turnaround until the next performance – a showcase of Trish Clowes’ new album, My Iris, by the event organiser herself. More Birmingham Conservatoire students are playing, both in the Arena Bar and the aforementioned alcove, but little is done to send us their way. It feels a touch awkward and ancillary, with most polite chatter finding somewhere out of earshot to stand.
The bell rings. Round Two. Trish Clowes, on saxophone, is joined by Chris Montague on guitar, Ross Stanley on piano/Hammond organ and James Maddren on drums. The stage is set for the Birmingham showcase of My Iris, which the ensemble has been touring since its launch at Pizza Express on Dean Street earlier in the month. Ah, Dean Street… with all your parallel and perpendicular wonders. Moseley doesn’t stand a chance.
Opening with ‘One Hour’, a salute to the “extra dreaming time” you get when the clocks go back, an ambient cloud breaks with Clowes’ (I think…) soprano sax, before a guitar fueled jazz rhythm makes it across stage to the frenetic fingers at the Bösendorfer. Immediate and engaging. Next up is ‘Blue Calm’, which opens with a playful sax and brushed percussion, before dropping back into a small ivory dream and, finally, a clearer sax led state of mind.
‘I Can’t Find My Other Brush’ opens with a punchy staccato, whilst ‘In Between the Moss & Ivy’ follows with a stripped back, softer pace, before squeezing out a cadenza from the soprano sax, a guitar led lullaby, then giving away completely to the concert piano. All eyes, on stage and off, turn to Ross Stanley. The set pretty much mirrors the My Iris track list, with only ‘A Cat Called Behemoth’ getting nudged – allowing the remaining two album tracks to be played later by the Emulsion Sinfonietta.
By the close of the set I am in creative awe. It’s simply that good. Trish Clowes is ambitious, composed, multi-talented and magnanimous – with her fourth album being showcased in front of me. An eclectic with unflinching vision; in both her music and her patter, Clowes is arguably the embodiment of the principles Emulsion was formed to uphold. Which, in less purple prose, is probably why she set it up.
More coffee, a thick chocolate slab, and even a beer – for (by my watch) it was a respectable time to start drinking at the end of the first performance. The Arena Bar and mac foyer is a bustle of enthusiasm, with music again being played at one end or another. I don’t know who’s on or where, but I’m irritated at myself for not spending more time in front of the Birmingham Conservatoire students who have been providing the ‘Pop-Ups’. Peter Bell has been walking around with the threat of performance in his eyes and he’s always worth checking out.
Back in for the last hurrah, as the Emulsion Sinfonietta cradles the front of the stage in a proud semi circle. The army advances. Roll Call: Trish Clowes (saxophones), Chris Montague (guitar), Ross Stanley (piano/Hammond organ), Calum Gorlay (bass), Rachel Lander (cello), James Maddren (drums), Percy Pursglove (trumpet), Hans Koller (euphonium), Anna Olsson (violin), Melinda Maxwell (oboe/cor anglais), Max Wellford (clarinets).
The Sinfonietta is the ‘happy byproduct of several Emulsion festivals’ and includes ‘a colouful line up’ of previous performers, collaborators or peers. Tonight they are performing a selection of pieces from guest composers, including Iain Ballamy, Hans Koller, Percy Pursglove, Anna Olsson, Bobbie Gardner, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and Joe Cutler – opening with ‘Beamish’, where Chris Montague’s relentless guitar underpins a beautiful cello lead from Rachel Lander.
Next is an original composition from violinist, Anna Olsson – a recent Birmingham Conservatoire graduate and cake maker. Even amidst my fervent note taking I miss the title of this piece, but its small frenetic pockets, blanketed by a lullaby of stings and keys, is one of the most beautiful moments of the evening. I am not classically trained. I am not a musician. I was brought into this world by Erik Satie, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. But I have a head and a heart, alongside a deep rooted love for the right combination of ivory and bow. And I simply stopped writing.
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian presents ‘Muted Lines’ next, a new commission from the London Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence. Exploring the themes of migration and forced exile, a topic with absurd pertinence, the piece was also constructed to help Trish Clowes progress her vocals – as she sings, at one point a capella, during the performance. ‘Muted Lines’ is well comprised, restrained, yet unabashed and melodic; even to a lay person you can feel confidence of the composition, caressed by saxophone and cradled by percussion.
Bobbie Gardner, another Conservatoire post graduate, has her work performed next – delivered in partnerships of staccato and dissonance, like half an orchestra falling down a spiral staircase. Before Joe Cutler presents his award winning composition – ‘Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder’. Percy Pursglove’s despondently titled ‘He Whose Dreams Will Never Unfold’ sets up the final triptych, followed by Han Koller’s ‘Happy Mountain’ and a piece from Iain Ballamy.
Emulsion V ends as it was presented, without fanfare or fuss and quickly to the bar. It has been an exceptional evening, with challenges and comfort zones thrown around a programme of rich talent and diversity. Trish Clowes’ original endeavour – namely a cross genre celebration and a place to nurture new work – was alive and well on stage tonight, flying past so simply that Derren Brown may have been working the lights. Five hours has seldom seemed so short.
My one gripe is that not more people were there to see it. Birmingham has a lustrous bed of talent, with home spun composers working to evolve an exciting musical landscape, and showcases need to be seen. Emulsion isn’t the only one, there are other events – independently organised or institute affiliated. But us, the audience, the ticket buying public, it takes all of us to make this wheel turn fully.
Oh, and all that stuff about introducing Joe Wright…. Left alone to fend for his creative honour with nothing but feedback and blank faces. Poor bastard. Still, he seemed happy enough. And I guess heated discussions have to start somewhere.
For more on Emulsion Festival, visit www.emulsionmusic.org
For more from Trish Clowes, visit www.trishclowes.com
For more from Tom Harrison, visit www.tomharrisonsax.com
For more from mac, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk