- Northumbria University
- North East England
This is my first review, ever.
On the day of the performance, my friend asked I wanted to buy his ticket for Glorious from him because he could not make it. As one does, I Googled ‘Glorious Rajni Shah Review’ and read some glowing reviews of the show. I had unfortunately made the elementary error of not noticing that all these reviews were on Shah’s own website – of course we all create our own realties – and that’s fine. What self-respecting, professional artist would put bad reviews on their own website? That being said, maybe I would – for the sake of irony. Maybe people would come and see my work just to see if it was as awful as people say, like the singer of old who got such terrible reviews that people flocked to see him, making him a success, or some of our modern day popular-because-they-are-abysmal X Factor short-lived stars such as Wagner, Jedwood and many a Youtube hit more. Anyway, I had a listen to a snippet of the music which would be used in the show and I thought it didn’t sound too bad so decided to give it a go.
As Iris Priest points out in her quick review (http://schediosunrehearsed.blogspot.com/2011/11/gl…) it did start off well. I was quite impressed by Shah’s perfect-diction vocals and accompanied very well by the musical director Suzie Shrubb on the piano. Whilst it was too polished and had something of an air of self-aggrandisement for me it was evidently well-practised, decently tuneful and without a wrong note. There was still time and space for it to become good art if the right elements came in. Unlike Iris, I was not so annoyed by the school assembly feeling of the music at this point. One by one, edited versions of letters, edited by Shah, were read out by 6 participants interspersed with (in total) 6 songs. Things were still going well enough.
However, soon the piece faltered. Repetition of the songs alongside slightly longer versions of the same letters addressed to the same people read out by the 6 same participants galled. It succeeded in underlining the fatalistic and reductive idea that despite what we do, and despite our individual experiences and concerns in our own locality we are all part of the same, well-trod, we’ve-seen-it-all-before story of humankind and it did so in a way which was now annoyingly grandiose, decidedly self-aggrandising and prescriptive. It made the very personal contributions of the participants seem impersonal and insignificant. Touching stories of love, loss, friendships, grief, of neighbourhood, transport, home, and all the things in people’s lives become sanitised, dulled and reined in to fit into Shah’s soundtrack of humanity which plays, as represented by Shah’s slow and measured monastic walk off stage, unamplified, at the end of the show, for the rest of humanity’s existence.
To alter Iris Priest’s metaphor of Shah having been ‘parachuted in’ I would say that perhaps she could be seen rather as the ‘goddess’ or ‘champion of the locals’ who wings in herself and recruits the locals as the paratroopers who are drafted in to fight for her and also to shield her. The locals serve as an unwitting shield from criticism to a degree, i.e. if you think the work is bad, then aren’t you denigrating and offending the local people and their involvement? Therefore doesn’t that mean you don’t think much of the locals and think that they shouldn’t be involved in art? Therefore aren’t you obviously a middle class sociopathic bigoted art snob? Also one might think the reverse applies – by advocating the work, you celebrate the local people – so doesn’t that mean you are a philanthropist, and support and take active interest in the voices of the people? And as such an altruist, are you not beyond criticism? If it was not obvious, I absolutely do not think this is the case.
To take the metaphor further, I do believe that whilst Shah’s integrity as the paratrooper commander stays intact – the goddess/deity/priestess in the work is invincible as a part of human nature – it is the paratroopers (locals) who are risking their lives (integrity) more by having their parachute fall direction (individual talents, skills and voices) commanded by an unwavering, unflinching, inhuman monumental deity figure and a dehumanising system. The work put too much emphasis on and had its main voice in the polished nature of delivery by Shah and her musical director on piano, and through sheer force of repetition rather than a combined, blend of qualities of Shah, the local musicians and the letter-writing /speaking participants.
Then in Act Two the local musicians came on. Guitar(electric), bass, drums, percussion (congas,shakers,etc), an extra singer and keys supplemented the original pianist. I keep wondering whether or not the band could have saved the day. I appreciate the difficulty of what the band were called upon to do. They had only about 7 practices altogether. As a decent enough drummer and having just about passable skills on the guitar and piano (see http://vimeo.com/19192597 for me as a rather amusing attempt as a one-man-band) – and being able to do a good rendition of Debussy (you just play the black notes in a cascading fashion) I tried to put myself in their places, especially the drummer’s. How to play the drums tastefully alongside Shah’s unwavering, unrelenting delivery of humanity distilled into song form and make it sound appropriate is a tough challenge. That being said, one would not necessarily have to play tastefully to improve the work. I was expecting and hoping for something which would act as a counterpoint to the divine messenger figure’s cloyingly sentimental edicts to
‘Hold the weight of knowing people,
Hold the weight of staying true,
Place your body in this landscape
Know your body in this place
You’re a mine of hidden stories
On the lashes of your mind
Stay alive with hopeful hopeful..’
And the over-ingratiating :
Here’s to all the people here
Here’s to those who cant be here
Its for us right here right now
It’s for us right here right now
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious
However the musicians were not much more than accompaniment to Shah despite one section where they did a slightly more improvised-sounding piece of music reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig in The Sky’ – an instrumental passage without words but complete with vocal, wordless wailing (by the local singer) – and a few linking sections of slightly jazzy, flowing bits provided by Newcastle’s own favourite bassist busker. There was no room for the musicians to really express themselves fully in true glorious fashion because Shah and her musical director completely took precedence and the band were reduced to merely playing along. Despite what incredible things they (or future local musicians) could have been playing underneath Shah’s songs, it is still the vocals, lyrics and repeated melodies of the score that take centre stage.
One got the impression – you could hear it – that they knew they were really playing third fiddle to Shah and Shrubb, both musically and conceptually and that they accepted this role, a role which completed an impotent framework – a framework which did not succeed in exemplifying the magnificence of place and of people and where they sat in the story of humanity.
Their musicality was stifled whereas it could have been let loose for real creative purpose. That is the problem – the only real creator in the piece was Shah and what had been created had been prepared in advance. The shame is that, despite their individual talents, the band ended up sounding like amateur session musicians. However, I don’t blame them for this – the musicians from The Academy of Music and Sound, Gateshead were young, and perhaps naïve, and who would pass up being involved in an interesting sounding project like this? I got the feeling that if I were them, I could have accidentally found myself playing in it, not quite knowing what I had gotten myself in to. I recall my few times playing drums for my brother-in-law’s Christian Rock band years ago, standing in for the usual drummer as a favour, and having the strange task of justifying my playing to myself when I was not really playing to spread the Good Word Of God through funky rhythms. Once I found where my heart lay – playing for the sake of good music and the enjoyment of it (a higher god?) – I could play well. Nevertheless, I could play the non-Christian cover songs with that much more musiciality than the Christian Rock songs penned by my brother-in-law (sorry Martin!). In this way I think the band in Glorious did not find a true heart or unity of purpose so it became weak.
At times Shah’s vocals were in danger of being drowned out by the slightly heavy-handed young drummer and the rest of the band. If the band had gone further with this and deliberately portrayed even more conflict and supplied contrast to the stylised vocal line and really got into ‘the zone’ where they felt like they were really expressing themselves within something which they had their hearts in, it would have been much more interesting and would have had a better chance of achieving something glorious.
When I spoke to Shah last Thursday 3rd November at Newbridge SPACE gallery after a performance by Andy Ingamells (see http://thenewbridgeproject.com) she said that now they [her and the musical director] had really gotten to grips with the work she had given the music completely over to the musicians. That may have been so, but the score was still kept rigidly to and the way in which the musicians left the stage one by one at the nod of the musical director who obviously commanded their exit exemplified a system and formula which was too controlling, and stifling – too tight a grip. Also it seemed that whatever the band played, Shah was not really paying attention to them – like she was disconnected, and without rapport with the locals.
My Inner Monolgue (inside my braintank):
Whilst at the brilliant ‘Workathon for the Self-Employed’ on the same Thursday 3rd November – (see http://www.wunderbarfestival.co.uk/programme/2011/…) – I was going to post a reply to Iris’ critical review of ‘Glorious’, agreeing with her main points. And then Shah walked in. But then another friend who I knew had seen the show walked in. I managed to have a quiet conversation with this friend who agreed with my main criticisms of the work whilst Shah was standing nearby. I felt slightly guilty but I needed to find out what other people thought.
I had that strange sense that by talking to Shah I might end up not writing this review the way that I would have written it, so I decided not to go and strike up a conversation despite my interest in talking to her to fully and correctly form my own opinion of the work. Also, because I was going to be writing a critical review of her work I thought it somewhat unfair that I should go and talk to her to clarify some of the technicalities of the work and what they were supposed to mean, simply to make sure that I hadn’t missed something incredible that would change my mind about the work completely….and then go and write a critical review anyway but informed with a brief encounter and chat about the work without telling her that I was going to write a review. That being said, I don’t need her permission. Perhaps she would take this criticism on the chin so to speak anyway. So, later I regretted my decision and decided that I must talk to her and ask her a few questions just to see what she said at the next opportunity, if there was one.
So, later in the day at Newbridge, with her response to my opinion that I thought it would have been better if the band had really let rip and ‘really go for it’ to offer a contrast to her very measured vocals being that ‘it was a matter of taste’ did not satisfy. And, if one follows logic (I am a logical man) this means that essentially, I think the work was in bad taste.