Paraorchestra & Hannah Peel – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 1st October, 2021

My first indoor foray into the hallowed Hall at St George’s since an aborted attempt in the summer where I had a panic attack. At that stage I wasn’t ready to return to the thing I have missed the most. I’m still filled with trepidation going anywhere. I wish masks were mandatory, or better yet, that people would just wear them because they care about keeping others safe, but while they don’t, I remain a bit nervy. I wasn’t one for crowds in the before times if I’m honest, so a year and a half of living alone save for a teenager has made being near even 5 people feel scary, let alone a couple of hundred. I was very firmly not going to go this gig. Even though it was the combination of Paraorchestra and Hannah Peel. Even though sections of the crowd were to be socially distanced. Then I changed my mind. About 50 times. I wasn’t even sure I was going to go on the night itself. Or when I set out to scoot my way there. By giving myself permission to change my mind, by being kinder to my anxious, overthinking mind, I got there.

There were only 3 single seats marked out in the distanced seating area so I tried them out to see which felt most comfortable and ended up sitting above the stage, overhanging the percussionist. I had no-one behind, in front, or either side of me, I was as distanced as could be. I also thought how very Paraorchestra it was to be sat above the stage, looking down on them, seeing the backs of most of the players. Even if I’d felt ok about sitting in the non distanced stalls, it wouldn’t have felt right sitting looking at them play in a conventional fashion. They are just not that sort of orchestra. I’ve danced with them on stage at the Old Vic and in the streets of Knowle West. I’ve raved with them in a warehouse. I’ve seen them deconstructed over the Beacon’s foyer. I couldn’t possibly have seen Paraorchestra play at St George’s any other way.

I could listen to Charles Hazelwood talk about music all day, so having him introduce the new works and chat to Lloyd Coleman about his new work which was inspired by algorithms and digital photography, made me feel at ease right off the bat. As did the music itself. A three part sound exploration that began gently with the resonance of a single cello and ended in a cacophony, well a gentle one. It all unfolded, like the petals of a flower, or the pixels of an electronic painting, or even the coding of an algorithm. An excellent opener.

Paraorchestra and Hannah Peel are both seekers of truth and love in their music so it seems obvious that they would collaborate, although that they have is still a wonderful surprise to me. Paraorchestra fill me with joy; I love everything they do and stand for. Hannah Peel is responsible for the most emotional reaction I’ve ever had to live music. I know I cry at pretty much everything, but she broke into my grief and pain, dragged it out until I was keening and couldn’t really breathe for tears. What would they combined, do to me?

The Unfolding takes a cyclical journey from the very atoms of human existence and the awakening of life, through to our eventual re-folding back into the elements.” And it did. Gently, slowly, atoms began to form and group and build until life emerged and then that grew in aural swell until we reached a noisy and thundering place. To my ears it sounded as if we arrived in the age of Enlightenment and then into the Industrial Revolution and then our modern day world of technology. All achieved with a mixture of orchestral instruments, electronics and superb percussion. Perhaps it because I was sat right above her, but the percussionist was amazing. Everything from wine bottles to a vibraphone got a look in. Added to drums, cellos, wind, brass, electronics and the astonishing soprano voice of Victoria Oruwari, it was quit a powerful mix.

There was a section where it felt so powerful that I sat back, eyes closed, and allowed the music in to fill me with warmth and love and emotions, that, yes, did overspill out of my eyes. It felt like I was flying. A little later, when the crescendo of drums and percussion kicked in Hannah went woo and punched the air at the end, prompting spontaneous applause and laughter from the audience. From my vantage point I could see Hannah’s face and in it her joy and love of music; everything that connects me to live music. Everything I love about Hannah and the Paraorchestra. There is nothing greater in the universe.

I would have come to say all of this in person but the acoustics of the bar are nowhere near as beautiful as the hall, and the cacophony of chatter hurts my ears, so although I tried to stay, I had to go.

Thank you Paraorchestra for, well, being. Please keep making and sharing music in innovative, creative, exciting, beautiful, life affirming ways because I love all that you do so much. Thank you Hannah Peel, a gentle soul who makes powerful music that has taken me across time and space and now through the journey of human existence. Please keep being too.

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