Michelangelo is an iconic figure of the High Renaissance, whose profound – and possibly unparalleled – impact upon western art continues to resonate down the ages. Together with Leonardo, he epitomises the “Renaissance Man”, more a concept representing a creative ideal than a mere colloquialism for “polymath”. How better, then, to explore Michelangelo’s creative process than through a new piece of music theatre incorporating a wealth of multimedia in film, choreography and music both live and pre-recorded?

Michelangelo Drawing Blood © Sound Affairs
Michelangelo Drawing Blood
© Sound Affairs

That is exactly what Sound Affairs set out to do in their latest, quietly absorbing production, Michelangelo Drawing Blood, here performed at the Cheltenham Music Festival 2013. Based on sketches Michelangelo left for his unfinished fresco The Battle of Cascina (1504–06), the heart of the work comprises a loosely palindromic score in seventeen sections by composer Charlie Barber, utilising an ensemble of Renaissance and Baroque instruments with voices and contemporary percussion. Stage left are bass recorder, theorbo, viola da gamba and countertenor (the impressively clear-toned James Hall), whilst stage right are dulcimer, timpani, tubular bells and tambourine; together, these set the performance space for Michelangelo (dancer Aaron Jeffrey) to engage with a statue-made-flesh (actor/model Stefano Giglioni), through whom the artist wrestles quite literally with his own, devotional battle to release the sculpture from the stone.

The work pivots around concepts of form and artistic “seeing”, exploring Michelangelo’s fascination with anatomy and the male nude on many levels – as well as forming an hommage to his creative genius in a period which saw an extraordinary, innovative flowering across the arts including music, through composers from Dufay to Josquin via Ockeghem and Obrecht. Visually, Drawing Blood is drenched in chiaroscuro lighting and rich colour, with a simple mise-en-scène pointing the contrast between stillness and movement embodied in Michelangelo’s flowing lines, both drawn and sculpted. Another successful visual idea combines elements of camera obscura with contemporary technology, as video images (by filmmaker Barnaby Dicker) are projected onto a suspended bas-relief, affording filmic glimpses, as it were, into the heart of the stone itself.

Given the depth of concept and visual design, however, the choreography between the artist and his sculpture felt too reliant on contemporary dance gestures rather than real dramatic insight into a conjoined, stylised physicality and spirituality; the kind embodied, for instance, by the fine, lithe contrapposto of Michelangelo’s celebrated sculpture David, dating from this very period, 1501–04. Indeed, the interaction felt stiff at times – for, whilst Giglioni may conform to certain current ideals of male beauty, his physique seemed too muscle-bound (ironically, too artificially “sculpted”) to express the more fluid strength of a Michelangelo model.

Undoubtedly, the strongest element in Drawing Blood is Barber’s music, which is compelling enough to stand alone in concert. Deceptively simple yet richly nuanced, it evokes a subtle, inner world of active contemplation in a way which honours Michelangelo himself – who not only inhabited both sacred and secular worlds, but who had planned, in his projected fresco, to depict intimate portraits of soldiers caught off-guard whilst bathing in a river, rather than more predictable fight scenes from the Battle of Cascino. Barber manages to maintain his own, unique voice whilst combining compositional devices (with those aforementioned early instruments) found in music from a broad period, spanning from the date of the battle itself (1364) to the early Baroque, within a familiar, post-minimalist idiom. Hence, such devices as ground basses, antiphonal writing and Baroque dance forms (notably the passacaglia) sit comfortably alongside texts set from as widely ranging sources as Michelangelo’s own sonnets and the Roman Catholic Requiem mass, within a contemporary style featuring the repeated motifs and gently unwinding lines found in composers as diverse as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt – but in a way entirely apropos Barber’s own compositional vision and integrity. Moreover, his sensitive use of multi-tracked voices – and trombones in particular – affords the production an important spatial depth as well as sheer sonic beauty. On this occasion, the balance between acoustic and electronic sounds was perfectly judged within the performing space and, together with an ensemble that played altogether superbly, it made for a hauntingly atmospheric evening.

Regardless of the less-successful choreography, Drawing Blood achieves an impressive integration of multimedia overall into one distinct vision, with various visual, textual and musical elements all deeply considered and executed with feeling as well as attention to detail. Sound Affairs should be congratulated – rare is the company that manages to find musicians who can make excellent chamber music whilst also convincing on the theatrical stage as part of the dramatic experience. Authentic, grass-roots music theatre, it seems – with Sound Affairs at least – is happily alive and well.