Arts: Incredible string band

Classical music with dance and mime? Meet the Gogmagogs, where virtuosity gets physical.
From time to time, the arts and sciences experience a "paradigm shift", a fundamental change in the way things are experienced and practised. This can be caused by a technological phenomenon, such as photography, or a perceptual, aesthetic one, such as abstraction in the visual arts. I think another paradigm shift is happening right now in the actual physical performance of music. And in this country, the eccentric seven-piece string group Gogmagogs may turn out to be the prime movers.

When Nell Catchpole and Lucy Bailey put the group together in 1995, they began to explore an entirely new form of "music theatre", based on the movements and drama that can be made by musicians playing instruments. Instead of the static positions of conventional musical performance, Gogmagogs' young, athletic string players leap, dance and run around the stage while they play. They change costumes, grimace, grunt and sing. They collapse in tangled heaps of bodies and bows and mime a shaking bus or the back seat of a flea-pit cinema. Each work has a distinct dramatic and musical character, and is a collaborative creation of the composer, the musicians and their director.

Their object is to create pieces that, in the words of their company credo, "re-invent the role of the classical string player by removing the music stands, memorising the music and releasing the physical expressiveness of their ensemble playing". They create a whole show which they prepare, rehearse and promote in a way that's more like a theatre or dance company - playing a residency of several nights or weeks at one venue - than a conventional straight-music ensemble.

There have been three big shows to date: "Introducing the Gogmagogs", "The Gogmagogs gigagain" and "The Gogmagogs a'go-go". A fourth, "The Gogmagogs gobbledygook", for which they are still raising money and support, will run for five nights at the City of London Festival in June this year. This is the first show to incorporate words, and they have commissioned pieces from writers and composers such as, Caryl Churchill, Gerard McBurney, Zinovy Zinik and Neil Innes.

The Gogmagogs comprise double bassist Lucy Ward, 'cellists Chris Allan and Matt Sharp, violist David Lasserson and violinists Matt Ward, Alison Dods and Nell Catchpole, who is also joint artistic director with Lucy Bailey. Catchpole grew up in a musical household: her stepfather, Hugh McGuire, was involved with Aldeburgh and the Britten-Pears school. As a teenager she attended Pro Corda courses at which "young string players from all over the country... hang out together and get very over-excited and play Mozart quartets".

She lived in this classical world, comfortable in a clear perception "of what good music was", until her mother bumped into her art-school contemporary Brian Eno in a supermarket. So when Eno needed violin overdubs, the 16-year-old Catchpole went along to his home studio, eventually playing on albums by Michael Brook, John Cale and U2 (Achtung Baby).

"That was a completely new experience for me," says Catchpole "having a studio and being able to just create new music. I began to improvise. Suddenly being told there's a lot of other stuff worth listening to - that was a real catalyst for me."

She then expanded her listening and performing further by reading Social Anthropology at Cambridge and travelling, violin at the ready, to the Middle East and Africa, establishing collaborations that continue to this day with Madagascan musician Hanitra Rasoanaivo (with whom Catchpole plays in the trio Weave) and Said Murad of Palestinian group Sabreen.

Bailey is a director with a background in classical music and a theatrical track record that includes the world premiere of Beckett's Lessness, work at the RSC and Glyndebourne and music-theatre by modernist heavies such as Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle, whose work she directed at an impressionable age. "I remember going to a lot of contemporary concerts and being very distressed by the lack of communication. Music-theatre was a way to make music accessible through telling stories." But even then, she realised that such events drew only a tiny group of people from a small world, and that many people were alienated by the music. "I knew I had to find a way of working with musicians, to extract something of the excitement I felt in trying to make music and theatre work together."

The Gogmagogs idea came into being when a bunch of string players, Catchpole's Pro Corda friends, worked with Bailey in workshops which explored playing and moving involving the whole body and personality of the performer. "All the Gogs have been drawn towards playing chamber music, rather than being a soloist or in a symphony orchestra," says Catchpole.

"I remember one residential workshop which included a lot of improvisation," says Bailey. "One night the string players sat down and did a Mendelssohn octet. These people had known each other for years. I couldn't believe the level of communication that was going on beyond the music, but within the music. They had this extraordinarily sexy chemistry!" Bailey's vision was that if they could shift that quality to an "equally sensitive physical chemistry between the players", they could make something very special.

And this is exactly what they have done. Through hard work, talent and an inspired choice of collaborators, they have created their own, remarkably flexible genre. "In any performance, even if you are just sitting in a chair playing, the audience is affected by everything you are giving out physically," says Catchpole. "I was brought up to believe that only the sound matters."

"I was astonished," says Bailey, "when Nell said that in classical training the optimum point of playing was to be actually still." Catchpole has left this aspect of her education far behind: "You start to accept that your whole personality and way of moving feeds into the performance."

"We try to make the performer responsible for actually communicating the music," says Bailey. "What we're doing, rather than make `music-theatre' pieces that might be profoundly untheatrical, is saying that the very act of playing can itself provoke and become theatre. If you find a composer who understands spatial ideas and working off bodies in space, you've got something that's really exciting... and quite rare." Among the composers who have taken the Gogmagogs challenge are John Tavener, Mike Westbrook, Jane Gardner, Errollyn Wallen, Said Murad and Haukur Tomasson.

Gogmagogs have done this so well, and to so much acclaim, that it is easy to forget how revolutionary they are. There is no real precedent for what they are doing. "I don't think there's another model of a theatre director working with musicians," says Bailey. "But we want to pursue it beyond just choreographing movement to music. My interest has been to somehow express the movement within the music."

Perhaps Gogmagogs are an example of the "destructive minds" Walter Benjamin said were needed for the development of culture. They may seem jolly and accessible, but they are on a serious mission. Bailey muses: "somebody said that when we look back on this period of `classical music' it will be a kind of blip in time that meant nothing to the overall movements of music: one tiny fraction of the population had this thing called `classical music'. Now the hierarchies are breaking down, becoming more organic, hence the mixture of different artforms and people seeking collaborations rather than a kind of tight structure. Music is about music-making and performing - not about studying hard scores!"