Nu:BC Collective unmasks madness fit for a king

There’s a long tradition of on-stage musical instrument destruction in rock circles, but watching a violin smashed to pieces on the concert stage right in front of us seemed downright pornographic. 

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“Sometimes he howled like a dog.”

Singers, unlike musicians, are expected to be able to act and sing and all the rest, and for this performance, singer Will George was at his best. After the performance, Will described his preparation for the role: “When I started preparing the piece, I wasn't sure how I was going to produce all the sounds and extended techniques required. As I started listening to modern recordings and watching YouTube videos, I noticed that almost none of the performers were attempting these techniques, much less the pitches. This took a little pressure off, but I did want to be as faithful to the score as possible.”

Will George as Mad King George. Photo courtesy Alex Waterhouse Hayward

Will George as Mad King George. Photo courtesy Alex Waterhouse Hayward

During the performance, Will took some opportunity to interact with the audience and particularly with the musicians, but otherwise his actions all seemed to precipitate from his inner mental anguish. Perhaps the blocking was a little jerky but I hardly noticed that for the fact that Maxwell Davies’s music is so endlessly interesting. 

From the opening chords—a rhythmic unison that disassembled beautifully into chaos—to Corey Hamm’s rapid transitions from harpsichord to piano (a few baroque flourishes here followed an instant later—and several decades along, musicologically speaking—by a Mozartian classical flourish there), Peter Maxwell Davies’ brilliant score provided us with all the context we needed to appreciate the unfolding drama.

“Poor fellow, he went mad.”

There’s a long tradition of on-stage musical instrument destruction but they’ve occurred mostly in rock and jazz circles, not so much on the classical concert stage. In fact, Eight Songs may be the only such work. In last Thursday's performance, most audience members would likely have known of this scene, so as Will George snatched Mark Ferris’s violin and then smashed it to pieces on the stage right there in front of us, there was an air of quiet that seemed downright pornographic. This sort of behaviour is to chamber music what CGI is to the movies—both for titillation and expense.

Sadly, there was only one performance of Eight Songs but, hey, if you’ve got an spare violin you'd like to sacrifice, Nu:BC and company might be willing to mount Eight Songs for a Mad King again.

Smashed violin. Photo courtesy Adam de Ros

Smashed violin. Photo courtesy Adam de Ros


Nu:BC Collective’s performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King is part one in the Radius at the Telus Studio Theatre series of new music concerts called Masque. I can’t say for sure if any violins will meet their end, but the line up is otherwise very promising.

Upcoming in the Masque series:

  • Apr 17 & 19 - Turning Point Ensemble – featuring works by Benjamin Britten, jazz artist Tony Wilson, Bradshaw Pack, and arrangements of medieval and renaissance music by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
  • Apr 24 & 25 - musica intima – featuring music befitting a Venetian Carnival — masks, theatrics, salon-style seating, along with vocal works by Adriano Banchieri, Orazio Vecchi, Giovani Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

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