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May 27, 2008

Forget concert halls, the Clerks are singing in a sewage works

The Times (UK):

The most damning word in the modern workplace is “inappropriate”. It's the euphemism used to cover everything from sexually harassing the managing director's pet gerbil to running off with the proceeds of the Derby sweepstake.

But in the arts, inappropriate is good! The incongruity that jolts us into looking at the world in a different way is one of the most potent weapons in the cultural armoury.

And there can be little dispute as to the most incongruous thing to hit the musical world this summer. The Clerks are an excellent singing group, specialising in medieval and Renaissance anthems. Their director, Edward Wickham, has put together an intriguing tour of music from the 15th and 16th centuries marking the transition from life to death. It includes Dufay's sublime Ave regina coelorum, which he wrote to be performed around his own deathbed, and various other wonderful laments from an age when death tended to come so unexpectedly that it was wise always to be prepared for it.

So far, however, so expected. One of the great glories of the British musical scene is the plethora of stunning choirs - The Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, the Monteverdi Choir - touring this sort of repertoire. But it's where the Clerks are performing over the next two weekends that makes their project so eye-catching. Rather than going to cathedrals, they have chosen four venues where the acoustics are just as reverberant, but the ambience very different. A coalmine. A swimming pool. A sewage pumping station. And a waterworks.

All, however, are architectural glories - and from their own era, which is Victorian. The coalmine, where the music will be sung more than 400ft underground, is Caphouse Colliery in Wakefield, which stopped producing coal in 1985 and is now the National Coal Mining Museum. The swimming pool is the lavish Victoria Baths in Manchester, replete with stained glass and terracotta decorations, which is getting a £3 million facelift after winning the public vote in the BBC's Restoration series.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette's magnificent Crossness Pumping Station in Bexley, Kent, is the sewage pumping station being used, though concert-goers will be relieved to hear that its mighty engines haven't pumped any sewage for 50 years. And the final venue is the equally imposing Engine House at Kempton Waterworks in Hanworth, West London - which, in its heyday, used to supply thirsty Londoners with 86 million gallons of drinking water each day.

What fascinates me is the symbolism of the event. As Pevsner gasped when he first saw Bazalgette's sewage works, these huge Victorian edifices were the “cathedrals” of their day. They may be dead, in that they no longer play any part in our industrial life - what remains of it. But they are now rightly celebrated as the engineering marvels of their age. In that sense, they have been reborn. Where better, then, to hear music that so beautifully celebrates what its composers believed to be the rebirth of the soul?

So, it turns out, the project isn't really incongruous at all.


Posted by acapnews at May 27, 2008 9:43 PM


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