The Riot Ensemble

The Riot Ensemble: Champions of Contemporary Music

On the premise of their fire-hurling, weapon-wielding photoshoot, you could be forgiven for having some apprehensions about the Riot Ensemble. They look like the last ensemble left after the apocalypse. In reality, this twelve-member cast of artists serve as champions of contemporary music, whether it’s performing it live or spreading its word. Between their interviews with collaborating composers, a monthly radio show about working in their field and their concert series with Breathe AHR, the Riot Ensemble’s only determination is to communicate their sound world as transparently as they can. They come in peace.

The Riot Ensemble is eight years old, but they’ve spent only five as a professional entity. They founded at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2009, but delivered their first concert in 2012. Their initial season together took place in 2013, and since then their exemplary work has been rewarded with a handful of commissions and a host of concerts. With an amorphous line-up and the creative versatility to perform works ‘from Bach to Birtwistle’, their approach sees them doubling down on composers’ whims, whether it’s strategising performances on toy pianos or ‘playing cello with an electric razor’.

Recent performances have been current and perceptive. At hcmf// 2015, they premiered works by Polish composer Jagoda Szmytka, marked by the stresses embedded into modern digital communications. Skype, online socialisation and long virtual lists of emotional information served as themes for pieces that spoke to Szmytka’s unexpected shift into a life that had become physically nomadic and virtually overinvolved. It seems fitting that the Riot Ensemble, who describe themselves as ‘modular and elastic’, would take on these tensions. As both artist and listener attempted to readjust their headspace to a changing world, this ensemble were grabbing megaphones and making it reality.

In keeping with the spirit of that debut visit, the Riot Ensemble’s performances at hcmf// 2017 feel politically vital. Their repertoire here focuses on modern gender discourse, with Laurence Osborn’s new song cycle Ctrl both examining and subverting masculine identities through the lens of Grayson Perry’s writings on normativity. The piece’s contrasting themes require the Riot Ensemble’s brand of self-professed adaptability. It ‘deals with power, entitlement, fear and loneliness’, says Osborn, ultimately shifting focus between types of harm both outward and self-inflicted. Osborn’s decision to use autotune on the piece, as a representation of entitlement and a perceived ‘invulnerability’, layers the complexities of the patriarchy into the music; his character thinks they cannot be stopped, and never suspects they could get hurt.

By now, the Riot Ensemble are quite used to Osborn. Having met simply through being at the same shows, they soon became collaborators. In 2016, the ensemble performed the world premiere of Osborn’s commissioned work Micrographia, metamorphosing to perform the piece for two sopranos and six players, magnifying his tribute to scientist and natural philosopher Robert Hooke. Ahead of the performance, the group interviewed Osborn and found an open mind with ever-expanding pursuits: at the time, he was writing an opera based on the work of Polish playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz while listening to Danny Brown’s existentialist noise-rap record Atrocity Exhibition.

Osborn’s curriculum vitae is just as impressive, adventurous and all over the place. He read music at Oxford and studied composition at the Royal College of Music before writing for a plethora of performers and groups, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Mahogany Opera Group, CHROMA and the English National ballet. With a keen interest in the combinative power of music and theatre, he’s written five versatile operas and scored for the stage numerous times. Black Snow Falls, his new work for strings, premiered earlier this year – a piece that meditates on mental health, clinical depression and powerlessness, it feels distantly related to the consequences of systemic masculinity written about in Ctrl.

Between studies of physical phenomena (Micrographia), a bleakly toned opera about an imaginary pop band (Narkissus & The Reflekions) and his recent rework of an avant-garde Polish play (The Mother), Osborn’s worklist is defiant and diverse. His focus on identity politics for Ctrl is something new, but it should come as no surprise – least of all for the Riot Ensemble, who are ever shifting their shape to get us listening.

The Riot Ensemble
24 November @ 7pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)

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hcmf// mix tape
25 November @ 10pm
Bates Mill Blending Shed
Free Event

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Book tickets online