Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Theatre of the Weird

The other night, I went to see a young Brit called David Thomas Broughton - 'experimental folk singer', crossing over into performance art territory - appearing as part of the Bookworm International Literary Festival (and a joint event, I believe, with the concurrent Jue Festival of art and music organised by Splitworks).

Alas, Mr B doesn't seem to be well enough known - or, what is known of him is not sufficiently appealing - to have attracted a paying audience: a large proportion of the few dozen people in attendance on Sunday night were Bookworm staff or, like me, the recipients of giveaway tickets.

BeijingDaze's Badr was there, and I'll be interested to read what he made of the show. I rather feared it would only serve to further prejudice him against Xiao He - Beijing's nearest equivalent, and an artist whose style Badr has been largely resistant to in the past. However, in fact he was grinning good-naturedly throughout, giving every appearance of enjoying the show.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard not to keep looking at the nearby laptop on which the Bookworm staff were recording the performance, and making a note of the elapsed time it was displaying. "Is he really going to keep this up for a whole hour? Has it it only been 20 minutes so far??"

For one thing, Broughton was straying too much into the wanky 'performance art' sphere for my taste (it was an ominous sign to me when he began his show by ritualistically taking off his shoes). He's got quite a good falsetto-ey voice, and he's adept at looping diverse samples together in elaborate and often quite effective ways (there was a kind of '50s doo-wop sequence at one point that actually sounded quite pleasant). The prowling distractedly around the room, and challenging his listeners' personal space by loping up to them and rearranging items on their tables in would-be significant ways, was much less winning.

His improvised (?) 'lyrics' were the worst element to cope with, though; just excruciating. I was soon reminded of Vogon Poetry*; in fact, I was reminded of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings (who was, according to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, the worst poet in the entire history of the universe, whereas the dreadful Vogons were only responsible for the third worst poetry).

Xiao He mostly sings in a deliberately indistinct style, or uses a made-up gibberish language. Hence, his vocals just become part of the music, and you're not distracted by whether his lyrics are actually any good, or have any worthwhile meaning. I think Mr Broughton would be well advised to cultivate a similar technique.

The other big advantage Xiao He has is masterful musicianship: music just drips from almost everything he does; and he can play the ass off his guitar, when he chooses to. Broughton didn't make that much use of his guitar, and although he had quite a nice sound when he did play it, he didn't exhibit much of a technique with the instrument.

I hope Badr, and other experimental music sceptics, will not be put off trying other gigs of this kind. Mr Broughton, I fear, is really not one of the best examples of this type of performer - certainly not in the same class as people like Xiao He and Li Tieqiao.

*  I see the BBC's HHGTTG page has a 'Vogon Poetry Generator' - quite a fun way to waste 5 minutes!

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