Review: Islander at Southwark Playhouse

Sound is a storyteller. For as long as there have been stories, they have been songs. From the sea shanty to the folk ballad, music has always been one of the most effective and evocative ways to tell a tale. And what better tale is there, than that of a people’s folk history, rich with myth and magic, and linking both past to present in stirring style?  

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Islander is a marvel of expressive yet minimalist theatre. Blending both the traditional and the modern, the musical combines contemporary Scottish folk and vocal loops to create an intimate yet otherworldly story of epic adventure and gleeful mundanity.

Eilidh (Bethany Tennick) is a young woman who dreams of leaving her island. Such a life is both isolating and provincial for Eilidh, where the big story of the day is one man’s missing gnome. She longs for excitement and friendship, and both come in the form of Arran (Kirsty Findlay). A mysterious newcomer, Arran’s arrival (and that of a whale) leads Eilidh to wonder over the existence of finfolk, the shape-shifters of Orkney folklore. 

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

The two performers are fantastic, singing and stamping their way through numbers both lyrical and otherworldly. Two-part harmonies and looping vocal passages create a mesmerising atmosphere, and help take you into the strange and poetic world of the show. Finn Anderson’s music is almost a character in itself, with a recurring motif that will be running through your head well after you have left the theatre.

I was also impressed with Amy Draper’s direction, which made great use of an intimate setting and practically zero props. Islander shows what can be achieved through music and sound, as some of its most vivid moments are created with just a sampler, two microphones, and two very talented performers. 

If there is a criticism to be made of Islander, it is that the show lacks an emotional weight. While tragedy is not always an appropriate mode, there is certainly melancholy to the story, and I felt this could have been explored a little more. Some loss and sadness can be a good thing, and both were missing from a musical that was very enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying on an emotional level.

Islander is well worth checking out. It is a wondrous story of myth and lore, inventively told through music, sound, and performance. A delight to get lost in, like the washing waves of an endless ocean. 

Islander is showing at Southwark Playhouse until 26 October. Tickets available on the website.

Radio Tread: How the Walkman changed our world

Last weekend I stepped outside of my flat and played an entire album. Given how much music is available and my tendency to skip tracks, the only thing about this story that comes close to being remarkable is that I played the album in its entirety. Putting on my headphones and pressing play? That tiny miracle feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Forty years ago, a Japanese electronics manufacturer released a product that not only changed the way we listen to music, but how we experience the world. The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was released on July 1, 1979 ­– a fourteen-ounce portable cassette player that enabled people to listen to music wherever they went. From work commutes to park jogs, we had a new companion to entertain, motivate, or simply drown out the rest of the world.

I have been drowning out the rest of the world for some time. Despite being born nine years after the first Walkman, I have been there for all its children. I remember the cassette player I ‘borrowed’ from my brother, how my discman chewed up CDs while walking, and the long hours I spent recording music onto the short-lived (but much-beloved) mini-discs. Now all my tunes come off my phone via wireless Bluetooth technology. We haven’t figured out how to plug music directly into our brains just yet, but who knows, maybe we will by tomorrow.

What is most significant about the Walkman is not necessarily its technological innovation but rather its impact on culture. Much like the television and radio, the Walkman changed the way humans experience their world, but unlike these earlier breakthroughs the portable music player could reach well beyond the home. The outside world could now be filled with whatever sounds we wanted. A walk through town could be a blistering drum solo, while a lone train journey could become a mournful ballad. If life could be described as a movie, we now had our own soundtrack. 

Listening to music in this way has done more than just make our daily lives less boring. Michael Bull has written of how the Walkman, and portable music players generally, have enabled people to recreate spaces in their own image, stating that ‘[m]ediated sound reproduction enables consumers to create intimate, manageable, and aestheticised spaces in which they are increasingly able to, and desire to, live.’ By playing music, I can project my desires onto an area, change how it looks, how it feels and, in my mind at least, its very meaning.

Most significantly, portable music also enables people to make public space private. This has both positive and negative implications, for while the user can get greater enjoyment out of a location, they can also alienate themselves from the area and its people. This separation not only isolates the individual in a world of their own making but can also reinforce differences, rather than dissolve them.

In Sofia Coppola’s cult film Lost in Translation, its odd couple Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson take a taxi through Tokyo by night. In a now iconic scene, both stars stare out of the window, soundtracked by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’. The music, combined with its neon visuals, show the thoughtful melancholy of two foreigners who feel ‘lost’ in a strange land. Thinking of this scene, I remember playing similar music off my iPod in late-night taxis across Seoul. Back then, somewhat drunk and prone to melodrama, I thought it was meaningful. Now it seems positively colonial.

It is considerations like these that make me wonder what Charles Baudelaire would have thought of the Walkman. The French poet and critic is well-known for his writings on flâneur (lit. ‘stroller’ in French), a man who wanders amongst city crowds as a ‘passionate spectator… in the heart of the multitude’, who is ‘away from home and yet [feels] everywhere at home’. Listening to music on headphones can make a person feel like they belong anywhere – but it all depends on who that person is and what privileges they are afforded.

When the Walkman was first released it cost $400. Portable music is certainly cheaper now, but just because the technology is accessible that does not mean public space is. The ability to move freely in the city is still limited for people more likely to be policed than those to which our modern flâneur might belong (male, white, upper-class, etc.). Baudelaire not only describes the ‘stroller’ as having an ‘aristocratic reserve’ but also his (and it is always his) ability to ‘see the world, be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.’ Disappearing into a world of music, undetected and unscrutinised by people, police, and surveillance cameras? Not everyone can be so lucky.

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Throughout this article I have used the word ‘we’. But who that ‘we’ is and how it is constituted is important to address if we’re ever going to create spaces where people – all people – can live and listen to music freely. A more just society, free from the violence of law, economy, and prejudice, would be one where everyone can be an audio flâneur, plug in some headphones and go for a stroll. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, the right to the city is ‘a right to change and reinvent the city after our hearts’ desire.’ I think the great promise of the Walkman, and indeed all portable music players, is this very reinvention of space and self through music.  

I listen to music on my headphones any place, any time. I listen to music when I’m going to work, when I’m sat at my desk, when I’m reading a book, and when I’m doing nothing at all. I listen to music on my own, and in company, because that’s how anti-social I am. I listen to music when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m drunk out of my mind. A long journey, a lazy afternoon, a loud café. The Walkman changed my world. I’m just waiting for the world to catch up.   

Gone West: Were the Wyoming Sessions a failure?

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Kanye West is good at getting people talking. Earlier this year, the rapper, producer, and professional agitator announced not one but five new albums. These ‘Wyoming Sessions’ consisted of albums by G.O.O.D Music luminaries Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, top five contender Nas, a collaborative project between West and Kid Cudi and, of course, a solo album by Mr West himself. Most curious of all was the suggestion that these albums would not really be albums. Each album, Kanye announced, would be just seven tracks in length.

However, what was an interesting concept was quickly overshadowed by things that had nothing to do with music. As always these days, what Kanye West says tends to be a bigger story than what Kanye West does, and his support for Donald Trump and the now infamous remarks about slavery being a choice meant that these bold experiments in form and content were somewhat lost beneath the ego of a man who must always be the centre of attention, even if it’s to get pelted with rotten fruit.

So far so what. Enough time and energy have already been spent on this misinformed idiocy, and regardless of how many people try to tell him otherwise, the man already got he wanted – people talking. What he didn’t get however, was people talking about the albums. Kanye West’s antics, coupled with a messy rollout, ultimately cost the project and the sales prospects of one of its stars. Not that it matters of course, for as we enter a new season, the still unapologetic producer has found new ways to piss people off, such as working with actual paedophile Tekashi 6ix9ine.  

Still, let’s forget about Kanye West the person for a moment and concentrate instead on Kanye West as he would like to be known – an auteur. Some might say the Wyoming Sessions were doomed from the start by an erratic and unreliable producer more interested in clicks than credibility. But I think this is a far-too simplistic reading of what is, on balance, a worthwhile yet flawed attempt to challenge the tastes and listening habits of a generation more accustomed to Spotify streams than CD purchases. There’s also some genuinely great song-writing and composition that deserves recognition, too.  

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Expectations were high, and initially, they were met. After the confusing and bloated mess that was the Life of Pablo, the promise of stripped-down, no-filler albums was enticing, particularly given the possibility that Kanye might actually be going back to his roots as a producer, putting aside his unwieldy visions to help other artists with theirs.

In this respect, Pusha T’s Daytona was the perfect introduction to the new project. A critical and commercial success, the album matched Pusha’s typically hard-nosed coke rap with a colourful and eclectic array of beats and served as a reminder (if anyone needed one) of Kanye’s credentials as one of hip-hop’s greatest producers. It also re-ignited a long-running beef with Drake, which was quickly silenced by one of the most impeccable smackdowns of recent history, The Story of Adidon, a track which, while it did not hurt his sales, would nonetheless expose Drake, and force the rapper to reveal that he was, in fact, to quote Pusha, hiding a child.  

Beyond the drama, the album was highly re-playable, and demonstrated that Kanye might be onto something with the shorter format. If streaming has made music more disposable, shorter albums could have more value to a listening public grown used to skipping through tracks to get to one song. The idea was also refreshing given the recent vogue for long-albums, arguably motivated by a cynical gaming of streams to guarantee platinum or gold certification.

Sadly, it was not to be. Taken together, the albums that followed reflected much of Kanye West’s current output – occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, but above all, inconsistent. The much-anticipated solo effort, Ye, was a mess of corny bars, half-baked concepts, and often barely coherent rambling that showed an artist struggling to articulate himself, perhaps due to his own issues, or perhaps because he just doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say anymore. This lack of focus and poorly conceived content made the shorter format utterly superfluous. After all, why bother limiting an album to seven tracks if those seven tracks sound unfinished?

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Compare all that with the exceptional Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative effort between Kanye and Kid Cudi. The album perfectly paired the two artists, and somehow managed to successfully blend hip-hop, rock, psychedelia, and a Louis Prima sample in a collage of sounds that should not work but totally does – a truly unique project that was inventive, exciting, and concise. One of the strongest albums in the series, Kids See Ghosts may have been enough to justify the whole project, but then came what was probably the biggest (and surprising) let-down, the Nas album.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Nas album is definitely not done. Or if it is, Nasir certainly isn’t it. A long-running criticism of Nas’s post-2000s output has been his choice of beats, and that all he really needed to produce another classic comparable to Illmatic would be working with a superstar producer who could provide sounds that would fit his peerless ability at lyricism and storytelling.

How odd then, that on a collaboration between Nas and Kanye, Nas would be the one not to show up. There are definitely some misses production-wise – the brain-numbing Cops Shot the Kid or the needlessly long Everything – but overall this album found a master craftsman phoning it in with some of the most lacklustre and questionable bars of his career.

From the conspiracy theorising of Not For Radio, where Nas asserts (among other things) that J. Edgar Hoover was black, wondering whether girls masturbate before going on dates, to questioning the side effects of vaccinations, the lyrical content of the album was bizarre and below par, particularly for an elder statesman of rap. Add to that a botched release, helped in no small part by accusations of plagiarism, and what should have been a triumphant return became a missed opportunity.  

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

By this point, the Wyoming Sessions had been defined by ups and downs – greatness one moment, mehness the next – as well as increasingly poor management on behalf of its curator and mastermind, Kanye West.

The final work in the quintet, Teyana Taylor’s long-teased G.O.O.D. Music solo outing Keep That Same Energy (K.T.S.E.), was both well-produced and well-performed, but ultimately let down by yet another haphazard release. As mentioned above, this cost Teyana a full day and a half of streams and sales – crucial to a performer still trying to find a footing in the industry as a solo artist.

K.T.S.E. also showed Kanye’s lack of commitment to his own vision. Unlike the other albums, K.T.S.E. broke the seven-track formula with the addition of vogue-house Work This Pussy, which, while admittedly brilliant, was a jarring contrast to the laid-back R’n’B of the rest of the album.

Perhaps that’s the point. The Wyoming Sessions were never supposed to be a cohesive project led by one singular and disciplined visionary, but rather a collection of odd sketches, collaborations, and ideas. Hits and misses, so to speak. But it does appear a strange occurrence in the career of a producer who, up until the past few years, has been known for high-concept work that not only sounded good, but confidently delivered on the ambitions of its creator.

So, is it right to call the Wyoming Sessions a failure? Not entirely, but I suppose that depends on what the aim of the Sessions was. Despite presenting a compelling argument for a shorter format, the trend of stacked albums does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Time will tell whether or not Kanye’s decision to release albums as short as these had any impact, but so far it’s difficult to see why any other mainstream artist would take the risk, particularly when there is money to be made from lengthy track lists.

In terms of content, the Sessions boasted some of this year’s best releases. Daytona and Kids See Ghosts can both be ranked as highlights in the catalogues of Pusha T and Kid Cudi, and while not as strong as either of these albums, K.T.S.E. was still a fine entry for Teyana Taylor. These albums demonstrated that, with discipline and focus, Kanye can still do wonders for other artists, and remains one of the most versatile and imaginative producers working right now.

Other work however, showed that his seven-track format was a superfluity or worse still, a gimmick. Ye sounded anything but complete, while Nasir was a mismatch, arguably hampered by a lack of effort on Nas’s part, but perhaps also a producer unable to inspire a good performance from his star collaborator.

Life goes on. New music keeps being churned out by an industry desperate to sate the demand of people used to having infinity at their disposal. Next year one wonders if anyone will remember Kanye’s experiment, for by then who knows what will be taking up the news cycle. Still, while his public persona continues to shock and offend, the Wyoming Sessions prove Kanye is an artist willing to take risks, willing to experiment, willing to invent. Kanye will always be good at getting people talking. Let’s hope next time it’s just for the music.