Classical Perspectives

‘A Particular Anarchic Brand of Music Theater’

Bastard Assignments: creating complex musico-dramatic impulses from commonplace sources


By Robert Hugill



Bastard Assignments


The composer/performer group Bastard Assignments (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cape and Caitlin Rowley) has released its first album, titled quite appropriately Bastard Assignments, featuring five pieces performed by members of the group: Caitlin Rowley’s “dot drip line line 8918: EDGE”; the group piece “PrEP”; Timothy Cape’s “Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I’m Pretty Good”; Edward Henderson’s “Hold”; and Josh Spear’s “Comedown.” The disc gives those who haven’t witnessed one of the collective’s live shows a chance to know and appreciate the group’s particular anarchic brand of music theater.

Bastard Assignments iwas formed at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2011 (where all four trained). I first saw them live in 2015 at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival and have caught a number of their live programs since then, most recently at Mountview in Peckham last year [see my review] in a show spotlighting material developed during the group’s residency at Snape Maltings, where this album was developed and recorded.

‘Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I’m Pretty Good,’ Timothy Cape, from Bastard Assignments

Bastard Assignments performances tend to be highly visual events, with the musical element shading into theater and creating a complex form of music theater. Their material is often the stuff of everyday life: I still vividly remember a solo piece from Caitlin Rowley, “Thing I Found in Boxes: Opening,” which, deceptively simple, involved her opening a cardboard box full of wadded up paper, in what was an idea inspired by her recent experiences in real-life packing. Yet the result was a carefully calibrated audio piece using the percussive qualities available, ranging from the sound of a hand running over corrugated paper, to cutting paper and wading it up. And there is often reference to pop culture too. I was very much aware at the Mountview show that we did not “get” all the popular references in the pieces.

What intrigued me about this debut album was quite how the group’s visually oriented works would transfer to disc. In fact, the repertoire has been chosen carefully to focus on pieces with a strong audio component. Though with a work like “PrEP” we have to imagine the four performers’ devastatingly deadpan performance style, which produced humor thanks to the contrast with the highly anarchic performance material.

The disc opens with Caitlin Rowley’s solo piece “dot drip line line 8918: EDGE.” When I heard this live it felt rather disturbing, perhaps because of the seriously intent way Rowley created all the sounds just with her mouth, wordless yet vividly articulated. On disc, it takes on a more abstract quality that heightens the sheer bravura of Rowley’s performance. This is followed by the group improvisation, “PrEP,” for prepared brass (brass instruments with woodwind mouthpieces on). The result replaces the slightly deadpan humor of the piece with the seductive quality of the variety and texture of the sound created, though I did miss the sense of group dynamic that came over live.

‘PrEP,’ a group improvisation from Bastard Assignments

Next comes Timothy Cape’s “Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I’m Pretty Good,” performed by Cape with audio playback. A largely spoken piece, it’s mre about the way Cape creates a quietly fascinating audio sequence with a blend of the spoken text, percussive live actions and music. There is a thoughtful, contemplative, stream of consciousness feel about this piece, yet Cape articulates everything to create a subtly rhythmic pulse. Cape then tricks our expectations by allowing the work to develop into a vibrant audio collage.

Edward Henderson’s “Hold” is a four-part piece performed on two pianos by Henderson and Spear. The piece starts very much as one of those minimalist phase pieces, with two similarly but subtly different lines drifting in an out of phase. However, there is something slightly more compelling in the quality of the playing; gradually it becomes apparent that Henderson is more intent on exploring the different sonic possibilities offered by a pair of pianists playing repetitive chords. The result is hypnotic, but at nearly 20 minutes it rather outstayed its welcome as the hypnotic shaded into insistence.

Finally, there is Josh Spear’s “Comedown,” performed by Spear with the other three members of the group playing glass bottle percussion. This is one of those pieces where there is a clear reference to elements of popular culture in Spear’s vocals in a performance overlaid with all sorts of other aural effects. Short and to the point, it leaves you wishing for more, which is perhaps the point.

Promotional video for Bastard Assignments, the London-based cross-Arts collective whose debut album is now available

This debut disc successfully showcases Bastard Assignments’ collective creative impulses and should certainly make anyone who hears it want to experience them live. Being a purely audio experience, the album sometimes deprives the listener of the humor and drama of the collective’s live performances, even as it demonstrates their artistic daring in creating complex musico-dramatic impulses from commonplace sources you might not normally associate with being musical.

For those interested in catching the group live, they will be appearing with flautist Kathryn Williams at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge on 11 June 2020, in a program that promises to mix Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule from Williams with Bastard Assignments own material. Full details from the Kettle’s Yard website.




Published at Planet Hugill, 14 January, 2020, reprinted here with permission. Robert Hugill is a singer, composer, journalist, lover of opera and all things Handel. To receive Robert’s lively monthly This month on Planet Hugill e-newsletter, sign up for his Mailing List. (Robert Hugill photo by Robert Piwko)

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