Two centuries apart, George Frederick Handel and Jimi Hendrix changed the course of music history. They both chose London as their spiritual and creative home, and by a stroke of serendipity, their legacies will forever be intertwined. Separated by time but not space, the two musicians occupied adjoining residences on Mayfair’s Brook Street: recently amalgamated as “Handel and Hendrix in London”, the double shrine has become one of the capital’s – if not the world’s – most prestigious musical landmarks where visitors can view the original Handel House museum and the rooms where the master lived and worked, as well as Hendrix’s restored 60s pad next door, complete with authenticated décor and rock paraphanelia.
That Hendrix himself was intrigued by his illustrious connection comes as no surprise: tales of jamming sessions to recordings of Handel oratorio and baroque-inspired guitar riffs are typical of the artistic curiosity of a true ‘crossover’ musician. A similarly eclectic spirit continues to infuse the ethos of music at Handel Hendrix: one which embraces the contemporary alongside the historic, and which recognises live music as a way of bringing a building to life. May 19th sees one of the venue’s most provocative and cutting edge events to date: the culminating performance of the enigmatically titled “Rituals to Mould Her With”. The multimedia work fuses music for harpsichord, electronics and percussion with theatre and movement and unites “Britain’s most progressive harpsichordist”, Jane Chapman, with up and coming stars of theatre and dance, actor Esme Patey-Ford and dance artist Harriet Parker-Beldeau.
The composers of the work, twins Litha and Effy Efthymiou, are fast becoming names to watch. Although they have devised and directed it, their artistic approach exemplifies an interdisciplinary, theatre-based model, and as Litha explains, “the work is a truly collaborative effort which continues to evolve each time we prepare it, whereby each art form and practitioner has affected it at each stage of its development.”
Based on the ritual that celebrated the Virgin Mary in Medieval Spain, the piece draws on 1500-year-old manuscripts which reveal how male clerics of the time used the ‘Mary Ritual’ to impose their authority. Throughout the development of the show, the team has grappled with the tensions which still exist between patriarchal control and female emancipation. “We have discussed ways in which to extract modern resonances of the gender ideals communicated by this liturgical celebration, and explored the impact that the paradoxical paradigm of Mary continues to have on women today. The idea of a group of men crafting a female ideal is something we see everywhere, as women make the best for themselves of the situation they are given.”
Part of the work’s progress as a collective, evolving performance is its physical adaptation to exploit the diverse spaces of various concert venues. The team has some exciting ideas for the smaller and more intimate space of HH, including using adjacent rooms throughout the house, affording the dancer an unusual brief; to not only produce choreography for herself, but to create movement for harpsichordist and actor, thus contributing greatly to the fluidity of the piece, with the harpsichord as a sort of mainstay for the action around it. The composers have enjoyed exploring the potential of the harpsichord’s unique qualities. “We have found it to be an instrument full of exciting possibilities. Through working with it, it has influenced other pieces, especially as we each begin to think of different approaches to texture and volume.” Naturally, for many concert-goers to HH, the harpsichord symbolises the historic and musical provenance of the house. Seeing and hearing it in a more ‘extended’ performance context promises to be an intriguing, not to say edifying, prospect. Jane Chapman sees the piece as “building on the harpsichord’s traditional legacy and the inventiveness of great composers like Handel who wrote so much rich music for it.” She describes how the instrument has actually been given a character, becoming a focus for the actor and dancer, and how as a player, she takes on her own persona, with the music becoming far more than just accompaniment. “The use of electronics – a lot of which was originally generated by the harpsichord – moves the instrument into another soundscape, creating startling contrasts. Not as extreme as Hendrix, but certainly pushing the boundaries.”
Pushing boundaries is key to Jane’s role as ambassador for the contemporary harpsichord as she constantly seeks to challenge mainstream expectations of the instrument. Parallels with Hendrix’s musical thinking spring to mind, as does the potency of the relationship between the two iconic instruments of rock and baroque. “For me, both the electric guitar and harpsichord are strong cultural symbols, and immediately trigger images which signify a particular time or era, and a certain flamboyancy. The harpsichord is an incredible piece of kit. Architecturally, it’s perfect as a frame or structure for a dance or theatre piece, and we make the most of this, as it becomes an icon to be adored and worshipped. It’s going to be very interesting using the space in HH, and creating a drama which hopefully engages the audience in such a way that music and theatre become one.”
Handel and Hendrix would surely approve.
Rituals to Mould Her With: Friday, May 19th at 7:00pm. Handel and Hendrix in London: 020 7495 1685
– Pamela Nash