What does a performing musician really do? Is the player of a potentially pre-written text an interpreter, and a reader? A psychic mediator perhaps, a steward, a preacher, even? In the theater, those who have first interpreted a character have been considered as “creators” of certain roles? Can the same be really said for music? All these questions started to surge in me during a recent screening of three up and coming artists in Cascada’s Bar ( Ferdinandstraße 12, in the vicinity of the famous Thalia Theater at the Alster), on 16 February 2015, (but more on that later):
The evening was rather chilly and it was a relief to enter a cozily decked out venue, sporting comfortable leather seats, asymmetric furniture of dark wood, and a longish bar on the right side of the room, dimmed light emanating from behind the sizeable selection of spirits on jagged shelves of wood. Furthermore, the candles on the guests’ tables provide just enough light to feel comfortable. At the rear end of the room, a slightly elevated stage, along with an old piano and a small selection of percussion and two studio monitors (ie speakers) provide musicians with a good environment for intimate performances (in principle, at least). The acoustics of the room are pretty good, meaning that there are enough odd objects to diffuse sound and minimize reverberation, an advantage which is improved via a small curtain installed in front of the entrance. Behind the stage, the bar’s logo is installed. The entire interior takes up the earth tones of the logo, from the dark pine of the furniture, over the black and chocolate leather seating to the medium beige wallpapers. It’s a rather comfy place, imbued with its own charm and well-suited for musical performance.
Onto the performances of the aforementioned artists: First Hamburgian newcomer Louisa – a young (18 year-old) self-styled singer-songwriter – took to the stage. Having recently done her Abitur, she’s been playing piano since childhood, but, having experimented with various styles, only recently committed herself to classic pop ballads. She offered even, repetitive melodies, yet a few cracks of the voice slipped in, and the cross-coordination of piano and voice wasn’t without errors. I might further quibble about the overwrought repetitions of the ever same codas within songs or the English lyrics not being pronounced correctly, but then the unlikely genius of her performance hit me (as hinted at in the beginning of the article): I began thinking about Roland Barthes’ distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts: Taken from Barthes’ neologisms lisible and scriptible, the terms readerly and writerly texts distinguish traditional literary works from those which violate traditional precepts.
The writerly text operates perpetually in the present, since no consequent language can be superimposed on it: Every reader or “performer” writes and composes himself, spawning and discovering new layers of meaning in texts. Readerly texts, by contrast, do not locate the reader as a tool for the production of meaning, but only as a receiver of a fixed, predetermined meaning via a superior power structure (a perennial, expert performance for instance, as in acting). Barthes takes most literary texts and music to thus indirectly further human ideologies like (neo)liberal capitalism, for example, since fiction offers a transparent mode of constructing reality. Rather than literature and/or music remaining a product to be consumed passively, Barthes calls for writerly texts to self-consciously refer to their artificiality via rhetorical techniques, authentic, if imperfect performance styles etc., which produce only the illusion of reality, but make the reader productively involved (cf. Readerly and Writerly Texts).
This jives with the aspirations of early modernist artists to boldly and authentically break away from past conventions, even at the risk of appearing unpolished, ridiculous even and give themselves completely to the moment of artistic conception (Impressionism).
I feel that my initial reactions and the audience’s silence during the performance is a testament to the tyranny of mainstream melodious riffs, perfected in the studio, overtaking our capacity to perceive imperfect yet authentic music in the way that it should be perceived: As just another mode of expression, a separate rendering of a mere template, thus spawning an entirely new text. And then I could happily gloss over the fact that there were some imperfections in her musical style, that she displayed all too tense body language and so forth, in what was, it has to be noted, her first ever performance.
Though devoid of explicit improvisation, on later reflection her pieces, even the quirky renditions of Sia’s ‘Titanium’, struck me as deeply impressionistic, which was, to say the least, a breath of fresh air. The lyrics are perhaps the strongest point of her creations: Veering between heartfelt, almost exaggerated exhibitions of human sorrows following a breakup to encouraging motivational pieces, beckoning herself and the listener to continue shining in life. Though one might decry this as trite and superficial, it nonetheless elucidates what is so crucial to the human condition: Overcoming fears and obstacles in one’s quest to grow and find satisfying relationships.
Given that Louisa is at the initial stage of her career, and given the scientific fact that a large part of musical virtuosity (not necessarily authenticity or originality!) stems from hours and hours of practice, and less so nurture (absolute hearing and the like), I hope she will, as she wishes to in one of her songs, indeed “find herself” and “shine”.
Second in the sequence came Irish-born multi-instrumentalist Oisín Morris, who under the name Proofreading Your Mind has published numerous original songs in recent years. Morris devotes his free time to churning out songs, which draw from a wide array of sources, from Rock to Electro; it is apparent that all of his songs have been conceived on the acoustic guitar, though. Recently he has expanded the band, welcoming Tammo Ballantyne (percussions/drums) as well as Ben Christian (base) for live events.
In my view, this was a step up from the previous act, lyrically: It suffuses innovative storytelling about fascinating, sometimes unseemly topics such as the experience of a lethal car crash (‘Slow Motion’), with the emotional trials and tribulations people face: There is the boxing trainer in “Better Than That”, who sees himself unable to convince his protegé of applying a certain technique, and who tragically goes on to see him crushed. “I Never Wanna See You Again” tells the refreshing tale of leaving a love-interest who one is not supposed to be with, an antidote to some of Louisa’s lyrics of sorrowful heartbreak.
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Instrumentally, and technically, this was also a step up from the first act: The musicians were well-coordinated, but the sudden changes in pitch and sometimes too loud (I guess the word I am looking for is rocky) guitar-solos dampened my experience a little. My new revelation from above also applies to these artists.
The 3rd act, by comparison, blew me away and is almost entirely responsible for me leaving the venue in a rather positive mood: Though not (yet) a professional singer-songwriter, Jonny Bix Bongers from Hamburg has a penchant for catchy melodies and pensive lyrics, communicating the sensual lightness of being, by his own admission (via his website). He shows extreme promise, apparent by his admission to the highly selective “Hamburger Popkurs” (in 2013) and the fact that he was one of the (few) winners of the “Treffen junge Musik-Szene” of 2014, at the Berlin Festival of Music.
Even a cursory sampling of his songs, both lyrically and musically, gets the gist of his art across: Distressing, sometimes embarrassing, often beautiful facets of the human condition are juxtaposed with seemingly beautiful descriptions of Northern German scenery, spanning from a frozen Alster in Hamburg to the windy shores of Sylt: ‘Marie’ narrates a whimsical recollection of the lyrical I’s (supposedly) brief amorous encounter with a girl in Norderney and his/her ardent wish to be reunited with her so that they may relive the riveting times spent frolicking at the harbour around an enchanted Northern German island. ‘Ich würde dich noch gerne sehen’ (ie, I would like to see you again) covers pretty much the same topic, in similar fashion. ‘Fallschirm’ (ie Parachute) describes the perennial whirlwind of feelings involved when asking someone out: The lyrics jump effortlessly from evocative figures of speech (battling tigers, for instance, or jumping with a parachute) which serve to communicate all the things the lyrical I would rather face than what he both dreads and longs for most: the honest exposition of genuine love to his/her object of affection. All the songs offer a seeming contradiction in terms via the light upbeat jazzy melodies and swift drums which accompany the a tad sad lyrics.
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Execution-wise, the singer hit it out of the ballpark: Though I listened attentively, he hardly made any mistakes and combined a flawless, even singing-style without even the hint of cracks or tonal impurities with effortless playing, while the drummer (who, it was revealed, is studying to become an actual professional,) accompanied the lead brilliantly (his name seems to have escaped me). Even the 6/8 beat, which is sometimes thought to be quite difficult, was executed with precision.
Food-, or rather snackwise, the Cascada’s Bar fares well, too: The Coxinhas, a popular Brazilian food consisting of diced chicken or vegetarian filling, enclosed in dough, and molded into a shape vaguely resembling a chicken leg, battered and fried. Being half-Brazilian myself I can attest to the accuracy of this pastiche; these are indeed delicious at that place.
The Cascadas’ Bar is a more than decent place for a quiet evening with friends. The venue requires an adventurous spirit, a willingness to potentially have one’s (musical) sensibilities and preferences skewered. It’s about enjoying an (in this world awash with ever new talent,) increasingly unpredictable ride, I guess. And precisely therein may lie the fun.
by Marcelo Diez
While composing this review, the author listened to the Main Theme (or Flying Theme) and Brent Smith’s Don’t let me be misunderstood, both on the soundtrack to the film Birdman. Some Bach and Schumann was also thrown in for good measure, as is the author’s wont.