I’ve lit a candle that’s guttering frantically as Nico’s Frozen Warnings plays. It’s a song that seems to stop time, that rises and falls in its circling violin intensity. It’s a naff connection, but it makes me think of Iceland and the sense of a landscape that’s simultaneously old and new, of straddling two continental plates that are moving wider and wider apart, of lava bubbling under icy surfaces. “A thousand cycles to come… a thousand ways to run the world”, Nico sings.
Wracked and trembling with anxiety, Maxine Peake is staring straight out at the audience. She wants us to give her something, she tells us. She needs us to reach out a hand to her, to bridge the invisible gap between her and us. We’re giving her nothing, much like the music industry that sidelined Nico after she left the Velvet Underground. And I’m in the second-from-front row, feeling my palms itch at my sides.
“I think you might have to turn off this music, it’s too intense”. My girlfriend comes in. “I mean I like Nico, but it’s a lot.”
Hectic jabs of strings. Saw-like sounds which circle insistently, like a pernicious internal monologue you can’t filter out. Yes, it’s a lot. And every discordant note finds its way into The Nico Project. Created by director Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake, it’s an anxiety-inducingly intense study in the pain of wanting to communicate something unsayable, of sending out waves of feeling and being met with indifference. It’s also yet another example of why Peake is one of the most ruthlessly original, flexible, fascinating artists around; of how she’s a shapeshifter, confident enough in her craft to tear it apart and expose its workings. Written by E V Crowe, this text makes her actor who’s becoming uncomfortably possessed by Nico’s genius, gripped by fright, unwilling, and then vampish virtuosity as a full orchestra of teenage girls bring composer Anna Clyne’s reinterpretation of The Marble Index to juddering life. Wanting hurts.
Everything I can find that’s been written about The Marble Index talks about its darkness to the point where you’d think it’s the audio equivalent of The Ring video, sucking listeners to their doom and yes it’s chaotic evil. It’s jangling and villainous, carnivalesque and worryingly abstract. But it’s also got a gentler outsider-artist spirit to it that makes me think of Ivor Cutler or Daniel Johnston; the way she sings to her son, like she’s crooning the last lullaby he’ll hear as they cling to a lifebelt in a frozen arctic sea.
Clyne’s orchestrations in The Nico Project smooth out these idiosyncracies a little; performed in a gorgeously-acousticked concert hall, it’s finely tuned, planed smooth. Its very un-Nico-like musicians are serious in Girl Scout-like uniforms and plaited hair. Two of them share the vocals, their astonishingly deep voices emanating from opposite sides of the stage. Like Nico, their faces are blank. The chaos comes from their intensity with which they play, and from the way they gradually unloose their hair, stare with horror-movie blankness, turn the concert hall into a space that’s alive.
I bought Chelsea Girls aged 15, an album of covers of songs by men in Nico’s orbit. I loved it, up to and including the way that Nico’s voice cut glass-like through frantic trills of flute and sentimental sweeps of violin. I later read that Nico hated these orchestrations, but still, their spirit finds a dark echo in The Marble Index; her emotionless vocals against lush intense circling orchestrations. That archetypal teenage experience where music can express the feelings you can’t say. Goth before goth was.
Make this show about almost any other female artist and it would have a kind of warmth to it, a kind of passing-the-baton spirit. But Nico’s not a kindly usherer-in of a new era, not a lovely Lauren Laverne-feminist, and definitely not a role model for the teenagers who surround Peake.
‘Newton with his prism and silent face/The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.’ Wordsworth
E V Crowe’s text acknowledges what the two slightly glib essays in this show’s programme don’t – that Nico can’t be scooped up for the cause of women-in-music. She’s a category of her own, drawing on Wordsworth at a time when people were looking to Rimbeau. Her ‘mysteriousness’ also includes troubling gaps: like the fog of silence (this show included) around her likely-racist assault on a woman at the Chelsea Hotel, which caused her to run from New York on the next plane. We’re perhaps at time where people are fixated on creating cults-of-personality around artists, poring over diaries, reproducing their faces, but the kind of formulaic one-(wo)man-show-biopic which litters theatre’s fringes would never work with Nico. Anecdotes about her are unilluminating. What emerges of her story shows the pitfalls of idolising, hero-worshipping. Trying to become her is something that’s questionable, to the point of destructive. The only way is through the music.
The Marble Index/The Nico Project’s success lies in the way it leaves you feeling. A panic attack you somehow don’t want to end. A rising yell of ambition, a rage, an end that comes too soon.
The Nico Project is on at Stoller Hall until Sunday 21st July, as part of Manchester International Festival. More info here.