The Albion Project: Fretwork

The Albion Project
Gabriel Prokofiev, Nonclassical
Kings Place, 12 November 2021

The Albion Project is an initiative from the viol consort Fretwork. They commissioned composers to arrange a wide range of significant works of British music for viol consort. This was performed in Hall 2 (a black box studio) of Kings Place as part of their 2021 London Unwrapped series of concerts. The new arrangements and remixes were performed with and together with a digital narrative from Gabriel Prokofiev (assisted by Blasio Kavuma), who linked and underlay Fretwork’s live music for five viols with extracts from live recordings, computer beats, loops, audio manipulation and various other technical wizardries. It was an attempt to answer the question – what is British identity, and what is that in music?

The music played by Fretwork ranged from the 13th-century song Worldes Blis to Sailing By, the piece played every night on BBC Radio 4. It has become known as a Radio 4 theme tune, although it is actually an aid to sailors to help them tune in to the station for the late-night weather forecast for shipping. Other arranged pieces included the ‘traditional’ composers William Lawes, Handel and Elgar, along with Napalm Death, Sugababes, Annie Lennox, The Clash, Radiohead, Kate Bush. Arrangers and remixers included Orlando Gough, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, Blasio Kavuma, Genevieve Murphy, Talvin Singh, Sarah Dacey, Gabriel Prokofiev, Ewan Campbell, Yfat Soul Zisso, Max de Wardener, and Sally Beamish.

Many in the UK would have trouble correctly identifying the definition of words like Britain, British Islands, British Isles, Great Britain, Britannia, United Kingdom, so a definition of the word Albion is a tough ask. Dating back to a possible Celtic root via Greek sources in about 400BCE, it was one of the very first names of what we now call Britain, although it soon came to refer only to the Scottish part of the Isles. It fell out of use in Roman times. It is perhaps only remembered nowadays from the description “Perfidious Albion”, a term first used, not surprisingly, by the French around 1800 to describe the broken promises, duplicity, diplomatic trickery of the UK. It is a term that can be used with justification by many in the UK today.

Of course, any notion of British identity is a very personal thing, and Gabriel Prokofiev was clearly aiming his interpretation towards the audience he has built up through his nonclassical music promotion group, of which this event was part. It seemed clear that the bulk of the audience came from that group rather than any traditional viol-consort audience, who might have been a little surprised at what they heard. The sound of a viol consort is one of the most sophisticated of all ‘classical music’ genres, the delicately keen edge of the viol seeming to resonate in a very personal way. Sadly the use of amplification and added reverberation produced a sound that was very far from delicate and sophisticated. Even when sitting close to the stage, hearing the sound through two loudspeakers removed any sense of identifying any specific lines of music, as they all sounded as if from a single source, rather than five separate instruments.

That said, and the fact that several of the pieces played were new to me in their original form, let alone through these arrangements, put me at a disadvantage. This was not helped by the fact that there was no programme notes or any other information other than what was on the Kings Place website – not good for a reviewer. The names of the pieces were projected onto the curtain behind the performers.

Despite some of my own reservations, the event was well received and attracted a good sized audience. I just hope that people who were experiencing viol consort for the first time get a chance to hear the distinctive sound of one without amplification or added reverb.