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Twelve gigs on a boat

For the past year, a boat in the sky has been London’s quirkiest rock venue. The curator was Laura Barton, music writer and IL contributor...

THERE WAS A problem with the spinny horn. Was the boat big enough to accommodate a shellacked double-horn speaker, standing 28 inches tall and with a 40-inch wingspan? And who would pay for its safe passage from Chicago to London?

It was two weeks before the start of Sounds from a Room. The multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird was due to perform the inaugural concert, and suddenly everything was in jeopardy; the elaborate speaker was looking like a deal-breaker. I googled a picture of the spinny horn, pressed my face into my hands, and wondered whether this sense of imminent catastrophe would continue all year.

It had all started with a glass of wine. One warm evening in 2011, Michael Morris, co-director of the innovative arts organisation Artangel, invited me for a drink. We sat outside and sipped rosé while he explained a grand project for the coming year: as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad, Artangel would be placing a boat on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Chiefly it would exist as a one-room hotel, with splendid views over the river—from the Houses of Parliament to St Paul’s. But for ten days each month the boat would host cultural events: a writer in residence, a thinker in residence, and a series of concerts to be live-streamed online, as well as shown on a giant screen in the Southbank Centre. Would I, he gently wondered, consider helping them devise the musical programme?

AND SO, OVER the months, we drew up a list of artists who might want to perform on board the boat—people we loved or admired, people we hoped would give a portrait of the breadth and beauty of music, from classical cellists to popular musicians in Mali, Senegal and Sweden. We wanted to explore the potential of a single room, the echo of wood and glass, the acoustics of its library, observation deck, galley, the influence of tide and wind and sky. The charge of isolation.

Meanwhile, in a shed in Sussex, the boat was being built. Commissioned by Living Architecture, and designed by David Kohn Architects in collaboration with the artist Fiona Banner, it was inspired by the Roi des Belges—the steamer that Joseph Conrad sailed down the Congo in 1889, on the journey that led him to write "Heart of Darkness". Our boat was not intended to float; its structure of steel, aluminium sheet and painted ply would arrive by road, and be winched high up onto the QEH roof one December morning. But until then it remained something of a mystery, a vague sketch of spire and hull and bitter red wood.

"It’s a boat,” I would say down the line to band managers and booking agents.

"A boat on the river?" they would reply, and I would say no, it was a boat that would sit proudly on a roof, unfettered by fish and flotsam and undulating tides. "And where do the audience stand?"

"There is no audience." And there would be a silence, as they tried to imagine a show in a tiny boat atop a large building with no audience.

It is hard to convince anyone of the merits of a project when the venue doesn’t exist and you are armed only with the architects’ plans, giving a misty, pastel-hued impression of what it might look like. You see how people crave solidity—photos, specifications, dimensions, technical necessities, rather than the swan-whoop of enthusiasm. So, in those early months, discussions often stalled. Booking agents stopped answering e-mails; managers fell into long contemplation, or suggested we revisit the idea once the concerts were under way. At times I feared that we might struggle to fill the year-long, 12-concert programme.

But some got it instantly. Artists who had a long-standing relationship with Artangel, such as Laurie Anderson, Wildbirds & Peacedrums and Imogen Heap, all felt at ease with the leap of imagination required, even exhilarated. Others seemed willing to be convinced, and so we told them of the promise of the boat—a chance to enjoy some isolation, two nights far away from tour buses and thronging fans. A chance to write something new, or reinterpret old songs. We told them to think of it like the mountain fire station that inspired Kerouac’s "Desolation Angels", or the Wisconsin cabin that brought forth Bon Iver’s "For Emma, Forever Ago"—only in the middle of a big city, and with a view of the barges and the promenaders and the buses rolling over Waterloo Bridge.

Andrew Bird arrived that January day, spinny horn in tow, but in muted spirits. The air was chill and damp and the colour of porridge, and he was disappointed his wife was unable to join him, having discovered en route to the airport that her passport had expired. He sat bundled in scarves and woollens, skin ashen save for the tip of his nose which was pink with cold.

The day of his performance, the sky hung pale and flat through the porthole window. I sat before the big screen in the belly of the Royal Festival Hall and fretted. Would the weather make for a flat performance? Would the spinny horn turn? Would all the cables and wires and switches and magic needed to let a single person see the show actually work?

Bird strolled onto the screen still swaddled in scarves. He carried his violin, and before him stood microphones, glockenspiel, pedals for looping. I remember the pure burst of joy I felt as his fingers first plucked those violin strings; the sharp, clear sound of them bright against the grey of the city. It had worked. It was working. Music spilled out across the foyer, and people stopped and sat and gawped.

Things did go wrong, of course. A technical glitch cut out Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ performance, and people had a tendency to over-dream and to run out of time: Laurie Anderson had to curtail her sound-piece cum radio broadcast; at points during his stay Heiner Goebbels’s "Up-river Book"—a sound-sketch involving the Senegalese griots Sira and Boubakar Djebaté on voice and kora, the French musician Xavier Garcia on electronics and the actor André Wilms adding narration—threatened to tangle itself in its own ambition.

In June, Imogen Heap brought a "listening chair" into the Festival Hall in an attempt to crowd-source material that she would turn into an entirely new song during her stay. It was a big undertaking, drawing on their testimonies while writing from the perspective of the Thames itself. She named the song "You Know Where to Find Me", and composed it in the middle of a storm, on two hours’ sleep. Her performance recreated its composition—from crowd-sourcing to melody-making, via its mood and themes, and presented the half-finished song. "This is as much about the process as the actual finished article," she explained, and although the song was incomplete, it offered a sharp insight into the process of songwriting. Heap finished it later and posted it on the project’s website.

Source: The Economist
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