‘Star-shaped Biscuit’ – not a review.

‘Onibaba’. Frame from opening sequence

Devised, written and composed by David Toop. Performed at Snape Maltings, Suffolk (Latitude 52.1631, Longitude 1.4967), 19.30 – 21.00, September 15th 2012.

In the pre-performance talk for his kind-of opera Star-shaped Biscuit, David Toop expressed his frustration with the concert hall as a venue for live music. He made this statement in a beautiful cubed rehearsal room with a pyramidal roof. Just a few metres away were numerous custom-built concert halls. Outside to the south of the complex of buildings that make up Snape Maltings are the reed beds that stretch along the River Alde. As well as his antipathy to the concert hall, Toop remarked on the particular sound of the wind in the reeds and related that sound to the film Onibaba (Kaneta Shindo, 1964). In fact the sound of the wind and the reeds had been the first thing I had noticed about this place too. As we sat in the late afternoon enjoying the unexpected gift of mid-September sunshine this sound was so striking that I felt we were already in hyper-listening mode.

After the talk the audience were led out past the car park and the building site where new apartments are being built towards Derelict Building no. 9. The route took us down an alley with a series of detached arches at its end making a Piranesian space that was in contrast to the finish of the rest of the complex. Turning left we were led through a doorway underneath six bays of a factory structure of cast iron columns with two floors above us. Beyond this space was seating and above that, where the roof should have been, there was just the still-light early evening sky. The space was enclosed by high walls but most of the floors were gone and the ground was scattered with detritus – stacks of felled timber, pallets, two rusting cars, ruined agricultural equipment. In contrast to the stark tranquility of the reeds this was more like the territory of Tarkovsky and Stalker.

Now I know that the siting of the work is not the work itself. This was the first and only performance of this piece so far and it was made for this location. (Though it will, no doubt be remade for other places.) The work/the composition/the opera consisted of an electronic track (dubbed “the Tape’ by the performers), 5 improvising multi-instrumentalists playing live, 3 singers, minimal costumes and staging, a few props, lighting. I found the sound of the piece completely mesmerizing but I was also mesmerized by the particularity of that place and that time. The sky darkened and stars slowly became visible above our heads. Bats wheeled in and out of the space swooping low over the head of one of the singers. Large moths moved around in the lights, sometimes fluttering slowly through the space and sometimes moving with astonishing speed from one side to another in front of the performers. Near the end of the piece there was the single audible external intervention of an aeroplane passing high overhead. So these were unplanned parts of the work called Star-shaped Biscuit; weather, animals, technology all conspiring to work alongside or against the work, further opening out the possibilities of the experience. Of course it would be possible to reproduce at least some of these effects but this would change their nature…turning chance into the design. So the work was not just a fragmentary sung text and was not just a series of overlaid and unexpected sounds. Instead it was these things plus those unique events in that space – extending upwards into Space like Powers of Ten in reverse – and at that specific period of time.

Singers: Lore Lixenberg, Elaine Mitchener and Jamie McDermott.

Musicians: Martin Allen, Simon Allen, Hélène Breschand, Sylvia Hallett and Jan Hendrickse.

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