Being in a museum after-hours invokes a childish thrill- it’s naughty, daring, clandestine. So the opportunity to sit in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland after-hours and be entertained by an auditory-visual spectacular featuring the percussion of Evelyn Glennie, with Philip Sheppard and Canty, and the art of Maria Rud, was irresistible.
The audience awaits in the Grand Gallery..
I wondered who would be the star of the AniMotion show. Evelyn Glennie is undoubtedly an accomplished percussionist; she certainly knows how to bang her own drum. In the programme notes she boldly claimed to have taken “the lead musical role in the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” and indeed to be “the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist.” One wonders whether, in Ms Glennie’s world, the beginning of ‘musical history’ serendipitously coincided with the launch of her very own career.
I am perhaps being a little harsh, but my hackles were raised by her claim to have been “on a mission to overcome barriers and stigma”. I once met Ms Glennie at an occasion in London, where she was far from the most celebrated of guests. I was with a deaf friend and colleague who is a native BSL user. As we moved into the conversational circle containing Ms Glennie, she physically launched herself across the space proclaiming “You don’t need to do that. I don’t Sign”, whereupon I was obliged to inform her that I was not signing for her benefit. Instead of apologising to my friend or blushing at her error, she merely tossed that lifeless mane of hers and sniffed, with ne’er a nod to my friend. So I have witnessed Ms. Glennie acting to overcome barriers and stigma.
But I digress. The evening was not about politics, but le spectacle. It was organised by the ever-capable Clare Allan to augment the Museum’s current exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress. The exhibition is truly stunning: Nana was sorely tempted to break out her inner Pink Panther and make off with a horde of goodies on that gorgeous sleigh. *sigh*. But beautiful objets aside, I learned that Catherine’s banqueting hall was at one time fitted with chalkboard placemats. Guests wrote their order on their placemat and- get this- the placemat then spun down through the table on a winding mechanism to the kitchen below, whereupon said dish would be placed on the mat and reappear as if by magic in front of the diner. I mean, come on! This lady knew how to rock. In her menopausal years she managed to kill off her 20-something ‘favourite’ du jour, who suffered from a weak heart. (She kept a special wing of one of her palaces in which to install her succession of ‘favourites’). On the wall at the entrance to her party palace (oh yes) she had displayed a list of house rules, which bound guests to be playful and to join in. Breaking these rules was punishable by forfeit- such as drinking a glass of water (as opposed to Champagne, one assumes) or reciting a particularly tedious poem of Catherine’s choosing whilst everyone else partied on, laughing at your expense. With each breach of the code of conduct, more water and more verses were added to the forfeit. It was with this glamorously playful spirit in mind that I took my seat among the excited throng.
And so it began. As the voices of Canty- “Scotland’s only Medieval music group” looking rather well for their great age – took flight, the great vaulted glass ceiling reflected the black sky beyond and the sparkling lights beneath and the diminutive Maria Rud began to daub oil colours on to the surface of her light box. Seen in projection, the tangle of her hair and the silhouetted movement of her hand and arm embodied and enhanced the performative. I pondered whether the singers’ process was equally transparent in their performance and why I rarely thought of it in those terms. As colours and shapes appeared, merged and disappeared into white, I found myself comparing Rud’s activity to that of a sign language interpreter. Both work at speed, creating a visual product from an auditory stimulus. And she was working quickly and efficiently enough to make the grade as a fully qualified ‘terp’. But something was not quite right…
Rud at work
I once returned from a long maternity leave and in literally the first hours of my first day back was filmed interpreting -without preparation – a presentation on French culture. I was then filmed reflecting on my experience, during which I acknowledged that I had identified a single underlying theme (comparing English to French) and whenever I began to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar I had reached for and re-iterated this theme. It wasn’t my best day’s work, but that was the point since it was being recorded as a learning tool (Three Interpretations: Sign Languages International).
Back in the Museum, after only the second piece of music, I began to feel that Maria Rud was using exactly the same coping strategy. No sooner did the audience began to discern unintentional Cubist figures, Van Goghian skyscapes and fabulous Monetian garden scenes in the richly coloured abstracts emerging before us, than they were brushed, wiped and sponged into yet another hooded figure with arms or scimitar upraised, yet another Christ, tree, bird, house or fish. Whenever a percussive burst heralded a change in tempo, a red sun could be relied on to appear. It brought to mind the MC One Tzu, who recently told me the Edinburgh-based Sketch the Rhyme (where MCs are expected to compose on the spot in response to the output of a visual artist) was quite a difficult exercise since “everyone always draws faces”. Back in the Museum, my inner Nana was about to imperiously call for a glass of water when the interval arrived.
Aha! Something different!
I spent much of my twenty minutes, wine glass in hand, gazing upon a finely carved 18th Century Chinese ivory lantern, longing to see it lit and wondering what intricate filigreed shadows it might cast. How would this evening be , I mused, if the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster had been allowed to let rip in the space, doing some live construction of shadow art. Now wouldn’t thatbe something….
Oh to light the lantern
As the second act unfolded much like the first, we again appreciated the indubitably confident, skilful and occasionally rhythmic dynamism of Rud’s work but my eye was drawn to the Museum’s beautiful Chronophage. Whenever I peeped over, its giant insect was eating time at a different pace- now speeding, now slowing, now pausing, now seeming to reverse and again or not. Its movements wove in and out of the music around it. And that’s when I understood the second problem with the evening: Tempo. Rud clearly felt an urgency to produce, such that whenever a sound was ringing out, she felt obliged to respond. What I longed for was what I see when a good sign language interpreter is working well, transforming sound into really visual sign language (not a visual version of a spoken language, like SSE); for what I could see in the Chronophage as it sometimes aligned, sometimes counterpointed, sometimes wilfully ignored the insistence of musical rhythm.
The Chronophage dances
I wanted Maria occasionally to step back from her canvas, to pause, to duck, to weave around the musical stimulus rather than be simply directed by it. If this was an act of translation-in-process, I wanted to feel the relative spaces between the two forms. I didn’t want Rud simply to paint to a tune; I wanted her to allow the paint to dance to it, from it, with it, against it.
It might have been that everyone else in the audience felt the same, it might have been a response to having been instructed on the etiquette of applause at the start of the evening, or it might simply have been that this was an Edinburgh audience, but I didn’t feel a swell of joy rising from those gathered. Catherine might have felt this was not the most swinging party her palace had ever held – although it was engaging and thought provoking for a’ that.
So – a couple of renditions of pretty long poems for Dame Glennie, perhaps a small glass of water for Maria, but a large crate of champagne for the Museum, which stole the show.
And for the real party-goers don’t miss the upcoming Museum Late. Nana regrets most sincerely that she is unable to attend, and for that she is already reciting her verse….