Historic Spitalfields @ Charnel House, Raven Row Gallery, Wilkes St., Dennis Severs' House

Historic, melodic, majestic

photo: James Berry

I was appointed Runner at this year's Spitalfields Summer Music Festival; which does not only mean I get to run around carrying flyers and mic stands. I also get to sneak into crypts and travel in time capsules! Well, sort of...
The idea behind Historic Spitalfields was to set up a series of miniature concerts at historic places which lay within a few steps (around... or down under!) the market. These five inspiring, time-defying destinations were chosen to welcome the Royal Academy of Music students and composers, tonight's music makers:
photo: James Berry
Charnel House. The crypt of the chapel of St Mary Magdalene and St Edmund the Bishop, built in 1320 and rediscovered during excavations in 1999.
Raven Row Gallery.  A contemporary art space constructed in Artillery Lane (known as Raven Row until 1895) within 18th century domestic rooms.
The Andaz Hotel Masonic Temple. A century-old, Grecian-style temple with marble columns, a zodiac ceiling and throne-like mahogany chairs hidden behind its studded doors.
Dennis Severs' house. The unlikely lair of an artist dedicated in providing his visitors with the unique experience of stepping into a still-life 18th century painting. A time capsule in disguise!
Number 14 of Wilkes St. The old house came to offer an atmospheric replacement to the Routemaster bus that... run out on the festival the last minute.
My Runner duties keep me mostly under the Bishops Square canopy (and, occasionally, under the rain), but I do get to have a lucky sneak preview. 
photo: James Berry
Accessed through an almost imperceptible door on the wall, Charnel House is game in all its' historic significance! Classical guitarist Manus Nobel has already taken a seat on the gravel, a few steps further down through the debris. You could easily spot him through the glass-and-steel skylight, if you happened to be passing by. He's warming up for some classic Dowland, as well as Laurie Bamon's world premiere of Charnel House; a contemporary piece which borrows the name, as well as the mysteries of this otherworldly place.
Slightly jealous of the steward staying behind, I make my way towards Dennis Severs' house - which is an even bigger treat!
I simply can't get enough of this time-resistant ambiance. Packed with 18th century paraphernalia, the rooms behind the enigmatic front door don't give out a clue as to the modern routine going on in the surrounding Spitalfields streets. The smell, the dim light, every carefully designed detail travel me to an unknown time and place; a voyage that breaks by the fact that I brought a flimsy stand to baroque cellist Emily Smith... I have to leave this beautifully absurd three-dimensional painting behind, but I still got to walk it. Your "Still-Life Drama" is so full-on Dennis Severs!

photo: James Berry

My tasks, eventually, bring me to the Raven Row Gallery, where I happily get to see composer Phil Dawson and saxophonist Daniel Czwartos in action. Raven Row comprises two modern art spaces disguising their 18th century past behind immaculate white paint. It's there, in room one, that the musicians set up their gear to play a traditional VS contemporary cocktail uniting the gallery's past with its' present: Thomas Arne's flamboyant 1756 Keyboard Sonata in F major (he was a popular British composer at the time, thanks to his operas and songs like God Save the King); and Dawson's own On Tenterhooks - another world premiere.
As the latter comes forth to present his piece, we find out that tenterhooks were used to stretch woollen cloth first; and then... to torture people! His goal was to recreate feelings of stress and angst that connect both with the phrase on tenterhooks, as well as with the Spitalfields riots of 1769 (which were partly cause by the demise of the silk-weaving trade). Czwartos' saxophone plays the role of the machine evoking sounds from an 18th century trading house, while Dawson keeps busy stretching these sounds with electronics - 'like a sonic contortionist", as he puts it. Metaphor and resonance at their fullest, with time and sound interweaving in one eloquent music statement.
photo: James Berry
It's with great pleasure - and a historic riot still on my mind - that I wait for the two musicians to gather their gear, in order tow lead them towards 14 Wilkes St. ...Unfortunately, not in time for the concert, as we hear the last notes from Rehana Browne's flute on the hallway between the kitchen and the stairs.
While, ten minutes later, the Historic Spitalfields wanderers meet in the street with the Jack the Ripper tour fans (it is his old neighbourhood after all!) we say goodbye.
It's the majestic dusk - and it's full of history, music and food for the mind and the heart...

photo: James Berry

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