The nice thing about London is that at any moment you could be within 10 feet of anything at all. Standing outside the mighty 12th Century exterior of St Bartholomew the Great church in Smithfield on a balmy Wednesday evening, all seems peaceful. You’d be given no cause to imagine that behind those stone walls a bearded man in a hat is dancing at the alter, to euro-pop tune about masturbation. “My sheets are like papadums” sing two cheerful vocalists, as hat-man jerks wildly in a frenzy of interpretive dance. An audience sit silently rapt. I think I see the priest cringe slightly.
This is just one performance in a hugely diverse programme of ‘musical miscellany’ from the Plural Music Collective (or PluMu) – a group of composers and performers hell bent on subverting expectations and unsettling their audience. A mish-mash of orchestral folk, pop mutations, choral, classical and comedy, PluMu move between styles with a crooked and captivating elegance.
The first act of the night, Light Falls Forward, bring a gentle folk vibe which – in combination with the Church’s impressive interior – sedates the audience into fluffy surrender. As their last song ends, a raggedy looking bearded man staggers onto the stage, spluttering out a confrontational, semi-coherent, filthy, chain-of-thought monologue which wouldn’t be out of place in Withnail & I. Half way through a particularly vehement sentence he stops and stares at the back of the church. Following his gaze, we see a woman walking towards him, staring back with stricken eyes. Clutching at her long skirt, she begins to sing. The piece she performs, written by Dominic de Grande, is somewhere between Andrew Lloyd Webber, Pink Floyd and Weill/Brecht. The lyrics describe bloody remnants, ‘wriggling aprons’ and other horrors to be found in Smithfield Meat Market – minutes from the venue. It’s all wonderfully weird.
In the interval, punters drink expensive ale – ‘brewed by monks’ – the church’s bar and eye each other suspiciously, trying to work out who is engaged in undercover performance art and who is just a plain old-fashioned weirdo.
Highlights form the second half include a frantic a capella ode to the inevitability of work, a sprawling experimental jazz piece exploring obsessive compulsive disorder and a sublimely beautiful choral work, played completely straight and invoking a sense of electric melancholy in the gorgeous venue.
Like most miscellanea, this is a hit-and-miss affair. Some items sit awkwardly in the programme, and leave the audience wondering what the hell they’re watching. But this kind of adds to the effect. A common feature of the night’s performers’ is a quizzical, challenging gaze directly back at audience members. “What are you doing here? What do you want? Who Are You? What do you expect?” they seem to ask. There are awkward silences. Every shuffle and cough echoes in the space. The scent of incense hangs in the air.
You can hear some music by the Plural Music Collective performers and composers here.