Thursday 9th May, 2019
My birthday eve. Or the night I was going to celebrate turning 42. It feels like yesterday I was counting down the last days of my 30’s. How did an extra 2 years get added? So much has happened in those 2 years. So. Many. Gigs. Remember this whole ridiculous thing began as a 40th birthday celebration. 40 gigs in my 40th year. Easy when I think about it now. Given that this was my 40th gig of this year. Yep, I’ve already been to 40 gigs in 2019 and we are part way through May. There is no goal, no aim, no magic number this year, I just don’t seem to know what else to do with my time!
I first saw the Paraorchestra in April last year, entirely deconstructed, spread over all four floors of Colston Hall’s foyer. I fell in love with them there and then and have seen them perform a few more times since. Everything they do is extraordinary. Everything they do pushes the boundaries of what an orchestra can be and do. They are hugely accessible and approachable and want to make classical music playing relevant, creative and exciting. It is as far from the stereotypical orchestral performance as you can get. Nothing staid, polite or boring here. The one and only time I’ve seen them play on a stage where I was sat down in front of them was in a nightclub where they were reimagining Kraftwerk. Basically, it was a warehouse rave with an orchestra. See, nothing at all as you would expect. Nothing ordinary. Nothing safe.
I first saw The Nature of Why performed on 11th May last year, and I jumped at the chance to see and hear it again. It is like nothing else I’ve felt musically. Scored by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, based on an old BBC interview with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, intercut speech with performance that takes place in and around the audience with free-flowing dance movement and singers it is an almost indescribable premise that may seem strange, but trust me is simply extraordinary.
The audience enter the performance space. Conductor Charles Hazelwood introduces the concept. The first audio/visual of the interview cuts in. Then, slowly, the musicians and dancers’ parade in, taking up their first positions among the audience and begin this extraordinary show. As the performers move, so do we as an audience. Standing still is very much not encouraged! We entangle and entwine ourselves with the performers, sometimes literally, and at each turn there is something new to discover and delight in. The percussionist lifted into the air like an arabesque ballerina, continuing to play as she does so. The horn player blowing as he dances and spins in his wheelchair with the dancers. The harpist, with instrument strapped to her like a babe, dancing and playing at the same time. The lines between dance/music/art and even science begin to blur. As do those between audience and performer. We are as integral to the performance as every musician and dancer. Slowly, ever so slowly tonight, people begin to get it. Hips sway, arms move, contact is made, hands are held and dancers encourage the flow of movement from our limbs until the knots and tangles are all merging.
I stood right behind Charles as he conducted. Where else would you get to experience what that feels like? To have the violins and cellos so close to you that the air vibrates? That you can focus in on the sound of a particular instrument as it plays right next to you. Or strain to hear the one on the opposite side of the room. You make your own sound mix as you move around. Your ears. eyes and emotions all working together to create an experience unique to you. For a few glorious moments I was stood right in front of a violin, bursting with life and fire and energy. It was thrilling and sent shockwaves through my system and set my synapses on fire.
It was intense and overwhelming and I shed a few tears, more as release and relief than anything else. Or because I was listening to Richard Feynman’s words about how ‘why?’ is a question that begets another question. That so many things are given as mutually understood until you ask the question why and that when you do all you can do is ask more questions, chasing answers into infinity. He found that quest stimulating. I find that quest, daily, to be both liberating and constraining. I felt at once, both understood and confused.
A dancer, deliciously and invitingly close, held out a hand, I slid mine into hers for a brief moment of connection before the ebb and flow of human movement inched away to another corner. I noticed the dancers more tonight, it felt as if there were more of them, they were more dynamic and fluid and beautiful this time. Rugged and strong with gentility and purpose too, like waves or links in a chain, or even electrons transferring energy. The symbiosis of music and movement was perfection.
The joyful, climactic ending saw me, and many others, joining the dancers, holding hands with strangers to connect in the beauty and joy of human movement. In the fluidity and incongruous nature of why. I felt as if I may explode with happiness with a grin a mile wide as I twirled and span around the stage. I felt rooted, connected, loved even. In a room full of strangers. This is what the best of human endeavour is for. Be it art, music, dance or science. It is about bringing us together, whoever we are and celebrating life.
It was wonderful, magical, exciting, thrilling, emotional, complex, intellectual, stunning and very, very moving. It was immersive and inclusive and I delighted in every single second.
I cannot wait to see what the Paraorchestra do next. Whatever it is, it will be like no other orchestra before or since. I love what you do, I love the boundaries you push against, I love the creativity you bring to music. Paraorchestra you continue to be extraordinary. Thank you.