Underneath the shimmering steel and glass of Spitalfields Market, East London, two metres below surface level, a small group of urban explorers is gathered in the ruins of a medieval charnel house: a repository for bones that was once attached to the great Priory of St Mary Spital. This subterranean space – intimate enough to be a shrine – is surrounded by thick sandstone walls and the stumps of decorated columns. There is a strong smell of smoke or, maybe, of incense. Fine pebbles underfoot give it the impression of a beach, somewhere that might just vanish on the next tide. You could squeeze a volleyball court in here, I think.
Images appear on a small TV screen at one end. The screen is surrounded by flowers in two glass vases. This is The Charnel House, an installation by musician/artist Gazelle Twin, and it is the unsettling centrepiece of her curated walking tour of Spitalfields, Flow Forms – part of Scanner’s experimental music programme at this year’s Spitalfields Festival. The video is composed of slow motion footage of a Hindu cremation, a ceremony – shocking to many Western eyes – in which the dead is encircled three times by his or her eldest son before the pyre is lit and the corpse is left to burn in the open air. This is the kind of work that demands patience and consideration, but which was both beautifully paced and placed.
Death and the underworld were strong threads throughout this unorthodox event – a cross between a local history tour and a series of bijou concerts, and inspired by John Dowland’s Flow My Tears (though knowledge of this was not necessary). My group, one of several crisscrossing Spitalfields that evening, started at Dennis Severs’ house on Folgate Street, whose grand black door concealed a candlelit interior little changed since the early eighteenth century.
Into this dusty time capsule came juice, a trio of female vocalists whose repertoire spanned traditional English and American folk songs but whose techniques were decidedly experimental. Clothed in ethereal white dresses, and between songs leading us slowly from room to room, the singers appeared as ghosts, or perhaps young girls celebrating their First Holy Communion. The atmosphere they were able to generate was one of intense stillness, the audience slowly becoming part of the still-life of the house itself, although there were also moments of playfulness that raised a smile and warm applause at the end.
The crypt of Christ Church – the gleaming stone edifice on Commercial Street dubbed by my friend, the poet Tim Wells, as ‘Hawksmoor’s towering prick’ – was discovered intact during restoration work in 1984. Descending into this space we discovered the experimental cellist and vocalist Laura Moody (a long-standing member of the Elysian Quartet). Whilst one cannot fault the invention of her technique, the melodrama of her songs – all plaintive wailing and chopped rhythms – served to block out any of the more powerful resonances of the site itself. Moody introduced her performance as a set of songs from her latest album which, she said, explores ‘issues around loss and grief’. This might work fine at a gig, but completely undercut the theatricality of the experience, something the other three acts did well to avoid.
The final performer, Anna Meredith, was bent over a laptop in the basement of the Water Poet pub. The basement has been rebranded as a ‘hidden cinema’, or somesuch, and we had to squeeze through the throngs of after-work drinkers to find it. Perhaps the least responsive to the site itself, Meredith’s was nevertheless a tour-de-force performance of ominous electro-pop: throbbing baselines giving way to intricately patterned harpsichord, jaunty chiptune and atmospheric live clarinet. A celebrated electronic musician and composer, Meredith was accompanied by grainy footage from the 1970 film Space Amoeba, a classic of the Kaiju (monster movie) genre in which a gang of hideous Leviathans emerges from the sea and is eventually destroyed by local villagers. As throughout the two-hour experience, themes and linkages were suggested and then faded away: bone, fire, death by drowning, underground or underwater menace. I began to think that perhaps Flow Forms was a kind of dirge or reliquary for the death of Spitalfields itself, increasingly encroached by the City; whose historical peculiarities and unique dynamic are in danger of being erased both by big business and the unrelenting party scene. As one of my fellow walkers commented, it’s fast becoming ‘the new Soho’.
The Spitalfields Festival is to be commended yet again for ambitious and risk-taking programming, as is the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music scheme for funding an all-female line-up. As I walked home from the heaving Water Poet, past the towering headquarters of law firm Allen & Overy, I felt both invigorated and despondent. Death is change, after all, and in this place, Spitalfields, the sinister energies of lives beyond the present can always be sensed bubbling up beneath the surface.