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Concert review The politics of massed rapping

SIMON DUFF admires new work at the LSO Jerwood Composer + Showcase that employs rap, sampling and live music to explore unashamedly political themes

Politics of the Imagination
LSO, St Luke’s London

ANSELM McDONNELL is an Irish Welsh composer based in Belfast who has composed over 90 works for orchestra, chamber groups and electronics, performed all over the world. 

As curator for the event, he has a wide musical imagination with a vision to match, whose two works are central in an event that features 12 compositions by nine composers, covering a variety of styles, ranging from dubstep to Balkan rhythms, rap and beyond, all designed to stimulate the imagination around themes of playfulness, imagination with political concerns to the fore. 

The core line-up on stage consists of Louise McMonagle (cello), Heather Roche (clarinet), and Matthew Farthing (percussion), working alongside rap artists Barrowclough, Joel the Custodian and Kosyne. 

McDonnell’s work Cross-Purposes features cello and bass clarinet, plus electronics FX of sliced-up vocal samples of then-prime minister Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings taken from Covid lockdown press conferences. Off-centre timing, Steve Reich-influenced pulsating rhythms, comedy, bleeping industrial sounds and jazz leanings all work in the piece’s favour.  

Joel the Custodian’s Holy Bones is an experimental rap exploring themes around the Primal Scream. Rapping in the US and Britain since 1991, he has opened up shows for the likes of Public Enemy and Souls of Mischief. 

Kosyne’s work Whip features an even tempo mix of influences. The piece contrasts cultures such as the Fast and Furious movies and Tesco’s Meal Deals, superbly worked.  

The third rapper on the bill is Barrowclough, whose work The Horologist is a jazz-swing-based varying-tempo track that includes audience participation. Other highlights during the first half include two further exceptional rap pieces from Barrowclough and Kosyne. 

All three rappers on the bill are vital forces who use varying slow tempos to create driving poetic intent, deserving of wide public exposure and new live theatrical avenues. Donnacha Dennehy’s work Paddy for solo percussion ends the first half. Exceptional, hypnotic drum-work conjures up a surreal dream-like mixture of Irish and Indian rhythms.

After the interval Anselm McDonnell’s Politics of the Imagination (world premiere) concludes the show. All the performers are used for the four-movement theatrical piece that explores themes of utopia and political dogmatism, with the three musicians at the front of the stage and the three rappers performing behind. 

The 30-minute piece is set in the fictitious rural constituency of Neither Whittaker, where one local politician believes he has all the answers to the post-Brexit post-pandemic economic slump his town is facing, namely: a government investment in his wife’s tech company to create jobs and level up the area.

After arguments with several journalists at a press conference over the issue, he is accosted by a local activist and old school friend as he enters a lift. Their heated discussion is observed by an enigmatic lift attendant, who knows that not everything is as it seems in this particular lift. 

Here presented as a work in progress, the piece has all the potential to be realised as a full theatrical Hamilton-style British success. These are three exciting rappers and three great musicians at the heart of a hugely memorable piece.

This is a bold evening that fires the imagination.

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