Perverse Choreography and Virtuosic Lip-Synching: Who Are Performance Collective Bastard Assignments?

The group, who will perform at London’s City Lit this week, push experimental composition to its limit

Bastard Assignments, 2019. Courtesy: Max Colson

Bastard Assignments, 2019. Courtesy: Max Colson

There is no such thing as a typical Bastard Assignments performance: on any one night, you might find the performance collective wandering through a house, fiddling with change purses, marbles, kazoos and brushing their teeth so that paste dribbles onto the floor. They might be miming to sound effects of a vending machine, stripping a house track for parts and scoring it for viola, or stuffing their faces with nauseating amounts of condiments in a particularly perverse bit of choreography. Their performances combine everything from sound poetry and extended vocal techniques to deconstructions of pop songs and the amplified gestures of mime and drag.

The group began around 2012, as an amorphous collective of composition students at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire. Centred around Edward Henderson and Tim Cape, they put on a series of ad hoc events and club nights in friends’ houses, abandoned churches and anywhere that would have them. Josh Spear and Caitlin Rowley, Masters students at Trinity with Henderson, showed work at some of these earlier events before officially joining the group the following year. Since then, they’ve performed on Radio 3’s Late Junction and at festivals across Europe, and their works have been performed by the London-based Plus-Minus ensemble, devoted to contemporary and experimental music, among others.

Bastard Assignments will be performing new works at London’s City Lit on 10 and 11 October, including Henderson’s compositions Will (2019), and Hey (2018), Cape’s This (2019), for the ensemble and The Poisoned Glen (2019), played with guest violinist Mayah Kadish. Spear contributes Tro//ing (2018), performed by the group, and Quiet Songs (2019) by Rowley is a new one-person performance for viola, video and voice. Rowley is also the group’s vocal virtuoso: in her Cake Piece (2014) Henderson cuts a cake onstage, and Rowley vocalises as if she’s the one being sliced. ‘We put this on at my parents’ house, and it was so upsetting and overwhelming for everyone involved,’ Henderson says, ‘And that’s always been in my mind, that this unbelievable power is there.’

Josh Spear’s Tro//ing (2018) is not entirely new, but will be performed for the first time in London as part of City Lit. It begins with all four Bastards in a line, miming making phone calls to a score that fills with more detail as they repeat the sequence again and again. ‘We’re not making any sound on stage. It’s with a back playback,’ explains Henderson. ‘We’re doing these actions along to a Foley soundtrack [the everyday noises and sound effects in films] that he’s made, which is basically us as kind of noir-ish detectives in phone boxes on a rainy night.’ In its earlier iteration, the piece then transforms into a ghostly Euro-dance party, complete with synchronised dance moves and strobes. ‘It’s a bit filmic somehow. A bit mysterious,’ Henderson says. Spear is interested in the extremes of lip synching, Henderson explains: ‘[Spear] likes this guy John Moran, who works with broken loops of banal bits of audio, like people at a bar, ordering drinks. It’s kind of virtuosic but totally boring as well. He’s interested in that stuff, and also the slightly kind of camp drag thing. The Foley comes out of that, weirdly: it doesn’t come out of the film side, it comes out of doing stuff along with fixed audio.’

Caitlin Rowley, Cake Piece, 2014, performance documentation. Courtesy: Alexandra Waespi

Caitlin Rowley, Cake Piece, 2014, performance documentation. Courtesy: Alexandra Waespi

Henderson has also been working with quoted audio, but his approach is more about decontextualization, fraying and transmogrifying samples beyond the threshold of recognition. On a trip to Germany, he was intrigued by the sound of a rotating drill. ‘I went and recorded it on the balcony, and I sent it to Caitlin to imitate those sounds on viola,’ he says. He combined this with a ‘very abstracted buried version’ of the clubby chord sequence from Lindstrøm’s 2006 house track I Feel Space to create some kind of hybrid postcard of his trip.

Tim Cape’s works can be more direct, often emphasising the original sound source, even when mediated through film. His Sugar Cage (2018) focuses on mobile phone gestures. It’s a claustrophobic video piece concocted from selfie footage of himself singing and tapping the screen. These percussive swipes and re-takes come across as increasingly harried and desperate, Cape’s trapped hand reaching out and out again toward the audience. You might imagine the residue of these bursts of activity as an interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) set to a visual score based on one of Petra Cortright’s touchscreen paintings.

For the new show, Cape has prepared a ‘tin whistle and violin duo, which mixes some very distant shadow of Irish traditional music and experimental music. Then I have another piece which will use language rhythmically, taking language as musical material,’ he explains. It’s a technique he’s returning to after a few years, but for Bastard Assignments, anything can be material: the group is open to developing any ideas its members come up with. Henderson agrees, and says that some of their best compositions develop while ‘working with the group as instrumentalists over the last few years of writing for them…and just kind of letting them do whatever they want.’ It’s a strategy that’s worked so far, with some bizarre, compelling and truly unexpected results.

Bastard Assignments will perform at City Lit, London at 7.30pm on 10 and 11 October.

Emily Bick is deputy editor for The Wire Magazine and a writer on music, art and technology, based in London. 

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