There’s a famous phrase in theatre – the show must go on – which was beautifully illustrated for me at a recent concert in Buenos Aires.
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Late in 2012, I visited Argentina with the composer Steve Reich and Synergy Vocals to do a series of workshops and concerts with local musicians. We arrived in torrential rain which was soon followed by an unusual spring heatwave of 35 degrees….and a cleaner’s strike – not a happy marriage. We were due to stay for about ten days which was a long time. We have performed the music many times and would usually only arrive for the final days of rehearsals. To make up for this, we had been promised a very nice hotel with a swimming pool on the roof. Unfortunately that was changed by email at the very last minute – the day before we headed for the airport. When we arrived in Buenos Aires, the replacement hotel was really quite bad (and I’ve stayed in a few dives in my time). To add insult to injury, our luggage had been lost by Iberia on the quick transfer at Madrid, so we had no clean clothes to change into after 16 hours of flying…….
We were a rather tired and grumpy group of singers but after some food and beer our usual good humour prevailed. The next day, after considerable tenacity from Micaela, the very kind team at the British Council (who were paying for some of the workshops) came to our rescue and eventually found us some better accommodation.
By contrast, when we went to the first rehearsal the musicians were very welcoming, well prepared and enthusiastic. Pablo Druker, our conductor for Tehillim and Proverb was excellent – Tehillim particularly is notoriously difficult for the conductor and he took our first rehearsal with organs and woodwind with ease.
I had been to Buenos Aires a few years previously and was pleased to meet some familiar faces, particularly the composer and conductor Santiago Santero who had performed in Berio’s Laborintus II with me.
During the break, I was offered some Jerbe Mate, a traditional drink of Argentina. The dried leaves and twigs of the yerba mate plant are infused with hot water in a small cup, usually made from a gourd, but also from bone or horn. We were told that the drink is sipped through an oboe reed – this was a joke as it is actually a metal straw called a bombilla.
Seeing people on the streets clutching a thermos flask and mate cup became a familiar sight during our time in the city, as the Argentinians love nothing more than stopping to chat with friends and sharing this strange tea.
Sadly, I don’t feel we saw the best of this famous city as it was incredibly hot and very smelly….the rotting rubbish was piled up in the streets. One thing that did impress me though was how people sifted through the rubbish at night and claimed every last thing that could be recycled and sold.
Buenos Aires is a very interesting place. You can see from the scale of the buildings what an immensely grand and wealthy city it once was.
Unfortunately since their financial crash which started in 1999, it appears as if nothing has been fixed or maintained. Once beautiful houses are now dilapidated and the pavements are a death trap.
The people are amazing though, resilient and motivated. Our final hotel was near the cathedral square and every day there was a demonstration of one kind or another. I asked a local what they were demonstrating about and she told me that the people demonstrate when they are angry about something but also when they’re happy too. Every day there was a new demonstration.
The riot police lined up in front of the crowds were a scary sight for me but I was told they were only there for show.
She said that she doubted if a riot broke out, they would actually do anything.
We were working every day except Sunday, so on our day off, a few of us took a trip out to the Tigre Delta. The hot and sticky hour on the packed train was a really eye opener. We traveled through very poor areas of the city with shacks made from corrugated iron and then, in contrast, past grand country clubs and race courses. Tigre is a place where all walks of life can escape from the heat and grime of the city and take a picnic with friends. We took an amazing boat trip around the Delta to see the summer houses on stilts – both grand and very basic.
Here’s a picture of the the colourful local supermarket:
The concerts and workshops went well and Musical Director Micaela Haslam and I waved off the rest of the group. We had to stay for an extra day on our own, as we had one final concert of Drumming which only needed two singers.
There was a dress rehearsal with the band in the morning which contained the excellent Uruguayan percussion group called Ensamble Perceumand. Then we headed back to the hotel on the ancient wooden subway.
I was reading in my room and suddenly the air conditioning went off. It seemed that there was a power cut and this carried on for a few hours. Just as it started to get dark the lights came back on. What I didn’t know, was that the hotel had a generator and it was this that was working – the whole of the rest of Buenos Aires was completely without power. The unusual heat for springtime had caused everybody to turn on their air conditioning and the power stations weren’t prepared for the unexpected surge.
It was my turn to come down early to order a taxi to the hall. (We used the underground for rehearsals but as it was very dusty and extremely hot, we took a cab to the theatre for the actual concert). Micaela joined me in reception and told me that she’d just received a phone call telling her that the concert was definitely cancelled as the theatre had no power. She had double checked that there was no chance that it would go ahead and they confirmed that the sound crew had been sent home so no, it would NOT happen.
I did what every self respecting singer would do and ordered a Spanish style gin and tonic and an Argentinian beefburger…..just to ease the disappointment you understand.
No sooner had I drunk my G & T and my plate of food had arrived, when the front desk called Micaela over for a phone call. It was the tour manager asking how soon we could get to the theatre. The power had been restored in that part of the city and they had found a local sound guy to put together a makeshift sound system. The audience were all patiently in the bar waiting for the concert to go ahead.
Micaela rushed upstairs to get changed again and I asked for a paper bag to put my delicious burger into. We hurried out into the dark streets and tried to hail a cab. As we were dressed in our ‘concert blacks’ and there were no streetlights, this proved not only difficult but rather hazardous. The taxi drivers in Buenos Aires drive like maniacs so to venture to the middle of the road and try and hail one is a dangerous sport. In the flurry of running and dodging cars I suddenly noticed that my bag was rather light…..the bottom had opened and there was my burger lying on the road, ready to treat some lucky rat.
For those of you who have visited Buenos Aires, you will know that the roads are famous for being very wide with multiple lanes. The drivers swoop from one lane to another with no indication or apparent awareness of the other cars or buses. The previous night, on the way to the theatre, our taxi driver had pulled out across a six lane road. With a horrible grinding noise the clutch failed (or dropped off) and we stalled conveniently in front of a massive truck. The singers in the car all prayed in unison with the driver’s frantic Spanish exhortations to ‘Our Lady of Ignition’ as the lights changed and an enormous wall of cars moved towards us and the truck let out a mighty horn of protest. Right at the last moment our prayers were answered and the battered taxi limped on.
So…..after about fifteen minutes we did manage to stop a taxi and we zoomed to the theatre through a strangely dark city. We headed down to the stage through the audience, who were waiting in the lobby, clutching their beers, seemingly undaunted by the wait.
The musicians were sitting shell shocked on the stage and a single sound engineer was busily wiring up a makeshift system using what seemed to be a couple of guitar amps for speakers. The Swingle Singer’s famous sound engineer, John Milner would have famously described such a task as “hewing a sound system out of the living rock”.
It wasn’t just a case of turning things on. When the city was lunged into darkness, whole electrical circuits would have been tripped and we were told a specialist technician would have to reset everything the following day – but he had been sent home. Usually for Drumming, every instrument has a microphone in order to adjust the balance, but for this performance, only the singers and piccolo would be amplified. The lighting was down to the minimum and it was a good job we knew the piece so well as it was very difficult to see the music in the gloom.
Another hour went by and eventually we got the go-ahead and trooped off to the dressing rooms while the staff let the very patient audience in. Steve Reich was sitting anxiously at his usual place, behind what was left of the sound desk.
Drumming starts with four drummers playing on tuned bongos.
I’ll try to explain the concept. A single beat is gradually added to, until the whole rhythmic pattern is built up. The drummers phase. This is where one stays constant and the other one slowly speeds up. There is a moment where the drumsticks buzz in tension as the speeds collide and then there is a marvellous moment where the speeding drummer emerges into the constant speed, but one quaver beat displaced. If it’s a really good phase it can last for a while and you wonder if they’ll make it. This movement is done in both directions. A very complex rhythmic pattern results. One drummer then starts to pick out the simple resulting patterns that emerge from the complex rhythms.
When the drummers have finished they are joined my marimbas and the whole process is repeated with pitched instruments. That’s where the singers come in. We sing the resulting patterns, fading in and out, so it’s hard to know whether we are singing or whether what you can hear is a tune made by the marimbas. We suggest the various simple melodies that can be picked out if you let your mind and ear wander.
In this performance, just as the glockenspiels faded in to start the next section, we put our microphones down, stepped back and suddenly all the lights went off in the theatre.
In any other country, that event would have signalled the end of the concert, but the players, not knowing what to do and also knowing their music by heart, carried on playing the glockenspiels. The green emergency lights did come on over the exit doors, so as our eyes adjusted it wasn’t complete darkness, but very close. Some stage hands were ready with small torches and after other audience members shushed the concerned murmers which were rippling around the room, it became clear that the show would indeed go on.
This is the point in Drumming where I do the whistling part.
I should explain that I’m not the loudest or best whistler, I was just the only person on one particular rehearsal who could make any sort of noise at all. As a result, I accidentally became the whistling soloist. I realised the microphone was now silent and I also knew that the four glockenspiels make a deafening noise as their harmonics build up, so I was in trouble.
We once did a Drumming Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. The Health and Safety people measured the sound levels of the piece and deemed the glockenspiel part to be dangerous for people’s hearing. Every member of the audience was offered earplugs.
I asked Micaela if I should go to the front of the stage to whistle but she didn’t think they would even hear me there, so I went through the motions of whistling and quickly cued the piccolo player to do her part. Then I waved my arms above my head madly signaling the players to move on to the last section.
Happily somebody conveyed the message and the drummers and marimbas carefully felt their way to their instruments for the final section. At this point the emergency lights also failed but members of the audience jumped up to point their mobile phone lights at the instruments.
Voices and piccolo usually do a final round but it was pretty pointless as they couldn’t hear us over the din. In rehearsals, the amazing Uruguayan percussionists had decided to finish the piece by some imperceptible cue which relied on all the players seeing each other. How they all finished together in this state of darkness I will never know. I always think that one of the best parts of Steve Reich’s Drumming is the moment of silence when the very loud instruments all suddenly stop together. There is usually a short moment before the audience break into hearty applause.
This particular night, it was as if the whole room realised what a special and unique musical moment had taken place. There was. what seemed to be an endless silence. Then the loudest, most euphoric reception I have ever experienced. During that rapturous mix of shouting and applause, Steve Reich was slowly guided down the steps from the sound desk by the light of phones and torches. As he joined us on stage he was visibly moved and moved along the line of musicians, kissing and hugging each in turn. We all bowed and as we stood up, all the lights in the hall came on. The whole theatre laughed hysterically.
I certainly won’t forget that performance of Drumming and I’m sure that the composer, the musicians on the stage and every member of that extraordinary audience won’t forget either.
Ps… My luggage also got lost on the way home too. I had guessed it might as the rest of the group emailed to warn us. I took everything vital in my hand luggage. As I had to go straight from the airport to a rehearsal for my next job, I was secretly pleased. It meant that I wouldn’t have to struggle on the underground with my suitcase and it was delivered to my home in Brighton the following evening.
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