Launching this year's City of London Festival, Cityscapes brought together the musicians Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard, the poet Bernardine Evaristo, the photographers Fabian Monheim and Thomas Napper, numerous workers taking their own photos, and a team of supporting technicians to create a contemporary "diary of the City". The festival seemed unsure whether this self-styled flagship event counted as installation or contemporary music. It gave St Bartholomew's the small capacity and uncomfortable seating of the latter, but there was enough of the former to keep you inquisitive until the performance started.
Six screens on the floor showed low-key, real-time scenes: water, pigeons, two red cranes, crowds walking across London Bridge. Not quite street life, but familiar enough imagery. Loops of gull-like sound came softly through the system. A piano stood at one end, below the organ, with a keyboard and rows of laptops at the other. The church's Norman arches enclosed it all. A low, sustained organ-pedal note settled the audience and the main screen began to show, fourfold, the rising sun behind Canary Wharf. Phrases on Sheppard's soprano sax drifted out of the apse.
It was a preludial moment of some beauty, yet as the sax began to perambulate around the aisles, the modal musings built up, the pictures changed to speeding cloudscapes, and another kind of familiarity crept in. Godfrey Reggio's cult film Koyaanisqatsi, about civilisations going out of balance, mixed accelerated vistas and the music of Philip Glass to cumulatively devastating effect some 20 years ago.
Cityscapes took a different direction without throwing off the memory. It moved on to Smithfield meat market, just opposite the church, for some shots of butchery and the first poem, which was read from the aisles until Evaristo, like Sheppard, presented herself at the centre. Descriptive and laconic, with occasional asides, it was read in a tone of heavy, world-weary irony.
The format continued, with MacGregor wandering between piano, organ and keyboard as more episodes unfolded: rush hour below ground and above (ant-like people and speeded-up cars), a poem on St Paul's ("a quiet place"), plague allusions, photos of flower shops, building work (a diverting ballet of traffic arrow signs), and later on a steady drift away of the audience. The pleasantly ambient music indulged in several static interludes before it rose to a climax of clusters and a Sheppard top note, which drew applause: they thought it was all over. It was soon.
Did this piece have a point of view? The words left their irony opaque, the visual subject matter might have been picked up by a tourist in a day. The key to it appeared to be its avoidance of individual people, faces, voices. The City was a chilling, anonymous and rather dull workplace. But there was no labouring either of the greed, plunder and crime on which it is built. Just a generalised urban ennui, and if that's what you are after, Koyaanisqatsi did it with more bite, and the 90-year-old London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams with more local understanding.
For this was a City unrecognisable to somebody with inner-London roots. There is vitality feeding off the ill-gotten gains. Outside the church on a square of grass, two children played around a slide and a swing. A walk back to London Bridge was full of life and sound: pairs of men walking dogs, the sound of Bow bells ringing, little traffic, relaxation in pubs, the view of Blockhead in front of Tate Modern, the usual surge of joy crossing the river. That's more like it.Reuse content