Tête-à-Tête is branching out ever further into new venues. Having been to a dance theatre and a nightclub, we now found ourselves in a school theatre. Fittingly, the evening’s programme was academically focused: Llywelyn ap Myrddin’s Sonata for YouTube, inspired by John Cage, and Jonathan Man’s Turandot Reimagined, which seeks to take Puccini’s orientalist opera back to ancient China.

<i>Sonata for Youtube</i> © Claire Shovelton
Sonata for Youtube
© Claire Shovelton

John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape no. 4 (March No 2) 1951 is a work for twelve radios, worked by musicians who swivel the dials through the airwaves to a fixed pattern laid down by Cage. This means that the actual sound and content of the piece is forever entirely unique, constantly random and unpredictable, although sadly, when the FM radio signal is switched off, Cage’s piece will become impossible to play. Accordingly, composer Llywelyn ap Myrddin (whose name seems picked from the pages of Mary Stewart’s novels about King Arthur) has sought to refashion Cage’s work using a medium which today is just as universal as radio was in the 1950s: YouTube. Instead of twelve radios, we have three musicians (Detta Danford, Joseph Wills and Natasha Zielazinski) sitting at smart Apple laptops with a large screen behind them, conducted by Timothy Burke, with ap Myrddin himself at the side, mixing sounds and controlling volume. In keeping with the general atmosphere of randomness, ap Myrddin introduces his piece in a series of phrases on torn scraps of paper picked out of a bag like raffle tickets. The actual performance adheres to the structure of a sonata: it has three movements. However, the sheer randomness makes it impossible to distinguish one section from another: there is no narrative, no thematic linking, no character to any part.

Because ap Myrrdin’s piece will, like Cage’s, always be a unique performance, it’s hard to criticise it – whatever you see will be different from what I saw. But it provoked three separate reflections. First: there is a lot of rubbish on YouTube, from utility demonstration videos (brain-searingly dull) to videos of video games (which I never imagined anyone would even bother to upload). Secondly, the “scrolling” aspect is absent: as a lifelong fan of FM Radio, I have always loved the mystery of scrolling through the dial, overhearing little scraps of different channels through the crackle and squeak of static. YouTube entirely lacks any such charm, flicking on and off at a mouseclick. Third, the randomness, in this version, is a manufactured randomness: because YouTube doesn’t lend itself to scrolling, ap Myrrdin had previously downloaded numerous clips from YouTube which were then randomly picked by his musicians. Altogether, it lacked a sense of excitement. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting exercise in keeping Cage’s idea alive.

<i>Turandot Reimagined</i> © Claire Shovelton
Turandot Reimagined
© Claire Shovelton

Jonathan Man’s reimagining of Turandot traces Puccini’s icy feminist princess back to her historical roots: she was inspired by the real-life Mongol princess Khutulun, niece of Kublai Khan, who was a skilled and fearsome warrior in her own right, according to Marco Polo. Khutulun did not question her suitors, but rather wrestled them into submission, losers of her bouts having to pay her 100 horses: legend says she amassed a herd of 10,000 horses. Man suggests Turandot’s famous three questions recall the tenets of Zen Buddhism, and working with ethnomusicologist Dr Hwee-San Tan, Music Director Ruth Chan and several Chinese opera experts, he retrojects Turandot into Chinese musical history, using traditional instruments played by the SOAS Silk and Bamboo Chinese Instrument Ensemble. What we get is not so much a performance as an interesting and highly educational evening, incorporating demonstrations of Kunqu and Beijing Chinese opera singing techniques (mainly a dreamily high, nasal falsetto decorated with swoops and yelps which sound fairly difficult to the unfamiliar Western ear) and Buddhist chanting. After Jonathan Man’s friendly, engaging welcome, all the musicians on stage introduce themselves by name and part, and we have two separate small performances, each a skeletal selection of arias rather than a full opera. The first is sung in Chinese, Man narrating between arias to give us context. The second is sung in English, but with more overtly Chinese orchestration. The Chinese zither, steel guitar and dulcimer all sound exotically atmospheric, supported by powerful percussion, and a strange dome-topped triple pipe which looked such fun to play, I was secretly dying to try.    

Christine Allado makes a glamorous Turandot, with Henry Ka-Lok Ngan a strangely appealing Prince Calaf despite occasional tightness in his voice. Allado, when singing in Chinese, creates a sound which sneers, purrs and soars, employing bird-like and flute-like sounds to achieve unusual effects. The Chinese orchestration regularly finds Puccini’s familiar harmonies, but the methods it takes to get there are refreshingly unexpected. Our singers don’t always make it across the instrumentation, and any drama or tension is punctured so often by explanation that this remains very much a demonstration, an academic exercise. Nevertheless, if you know Turandot well, it’s intriguing.