This show was certainly a little out of the ordinary. The Britannia Panopticon is a small, old style music hall, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. In fact, it claims to be the oldest of the few surviving music halls in the world. In its pomp it was a slightly smaller version of Leeds’ City Varieties, but it is in a fairly sad state and in desperate need of funds to restore it to its full glory. For more details visit the Britannia Panopticon Trust’s website. The galleries are in no fit state to house people, so the safe capacity of the venue is only around fifty or sixty. For this reason, there were two shows today – all proceeds going to the Trust.
I attended the first at the disorientatingly early hour of 4.30 (in the afternoon, obviously). The show lasted a little over two hours, but a lot was packed in. Phosphene is Glasgow-based BBC producer and Syd Barrett fan John Cavanagh. His wildly eclectic music could very broadly be described as radiophonic free folk. The first couple of tunes involved clarinet and Delia Derbyshire type analogue electronics, including a bizarre cover of Barrett’s “Rats” that sounded like the Silver Apples on something stronger than cough medicine. The final tune saw Cavanagh singing an old sea shanty accompanied by an improvising guitar, soprano sax and viola trio. It was slightly wayward, and a little awkward, but nevertheless affecting.
Before Nalle’s main set, Hanna Tuulikki, accompanied by Cécile Schott (aka Colleen), performed a short extract from her Glasgow School of Art instillation, “Salutation To The Sun”. The piece involved her gathering recordings of thirty different songbird species native to Scotland. She halved the speed of the recordings and mimicked the birds’ calls, gradually multi-tracking her own vocals into an approximation of the dawn chorus. On paper that may seem a little dull, but to watch her whistling casually into the microphone and hear it build into a chorus of birdsong was impressive.
If that was good, her band were nothing short of awesome. Hanna plays guitar, an accordion-like instrument called a shruti box (I’m told) and recorder, Chris Hladowski bouzouki and clarinet and Aby Vulliamy viola. All three sing. Hanna’s voice is a thing of wonder. It has a rasp to it, with a Scandinavian lilt and as near perfect pitch as makes no difference. Comparisons could be made to Joanna Newsom and Björk, but her voice is just as distinctive in its own right as either of those two. Chris and Aby are no mean singers themselves, and the trio’s harmonies are spot on. Nalle’s music incorporates elements of a lot of different kinds of European folk tradition, but they never sound dry and academic about it. Equally, there is an amount of improvisation and experimentation, but the song always remains supreme. They could improve their stagecraft a little. On several occasions, Hanna was scrabbling around on the floor looking for something whilst still in full song – but off mike! There was one funny moment when she seemed to be desperately trying to communicate something to Aby whilst both women were in full voice. It looked quite comical. Nalle’s album By Chance Upon Waking came out on Pickled Egg last year. It’s very good – but tonight they were quite breathtaking.
A brief three clarinet piece played by John, Chris and Cécile preceded Colleen’s set. She played five pieces – three for a six-string cello-like instrument called a viola da gamba and one each for clarinet and guitar. Her trademark thing is to play short snatches, sample and layer them, building up a constantly shifting whole. The loops may be of differing length, and so they change subtly in relation to one another. Canadian guitarist Michael Brook is usually cited as the first to employ this method of making music. I’ve seen others try it with varying degrees of success. It’s main advantage is that one person can play a complex piece without resorting to using prerecorded material. Everything heard has been played live during the performance. There are those disconcerting Milli Vanilli moments when the performer stops, but the music doesn’t, but you get used to those. One pitfall is the tendency to chuck in too much, leading to a cacophony. Colleen always keeps things simple enough to make it possible to imagine that all this is being played live. It was hugely enjoyable. It just felt like a little bit of an anti-climax following Nalle. To be fair, very little wouldn’t.
It was all over well before 7. I’d have been more than happy to queue for the 7.30 show, but the tickets for that one had all been snapped up. It was a great way to spend two hours. It was thoughtfully programmed, and a lot was crammed into the time. The money raised goes to a very good cause. It will be fantastic to see the Panopticon restored to its former glory.