Category Archives: Music

Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Barbican Centre

You arrive at the first room of the Gaultier installation in a room full of mannequins under blue light. They’re grouped into visual themes that echo the key motifs in his work: the sailor stripe, the mermaid, the Virgin Mary. Seeing the detail of the designs, is mesmerising enough – but then you realise the faces of the mannequins are moving, their lips are pursing, and their eyes are darting. That strange siren soundtrack? It’s being mimed by the collection of Virgin Marys on the left. Centre among them is a mannequin of Gaultier himself, riffing in English and then French about his work. It’s unearthly and entirely hypnotic. (I uploaded a ten-second video here. I don’t want to sound like Upworthy, but you won’t believe she isn’t real.)

Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a dingy Parisian suburb, but the sea looms large in his creative vocabulary. Well, not the sea per se – he’s not exactly big on boats or starfishes – but the liminality of those associated with it, since the sea has always allowed for reinvention of identity. Gaultier’s sailor stripe is inspired by Fassbinder’s Querelle of Brest, itself based on Jean Genet’s novel, a celebration of an aesthetic of homosexuality and criminality, in which ports are full of outcasts and improvisers. The mermaid is half-woman, half-fish, and Mary, star of the sea, is both mother and virgin.

The Barbican exhibition, which features photography and video as well as 140 designs, is a theatrical staging that underlines the extent of his collaboration with unconventional models and muses and how how street fashion has informed his couture. You’re reminded of his creative partnerships with Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson; there are works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Avedon. In this context, Madonna is merely a bit player. Gaultier has always acknowledged his debt to London street fashion, but the parade of mannequins in tartan bondage don’t, I think, represent the best of his work; it feels more like tourism. Neither, I think, do his raiding of ethnic motifs.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s celebrity, via appearances on Eurotrash or as a prepackaged caricature on Absolutely Fabulous , can obscure the extent of his influence. But his alliances with Madonna, or Marilyn Manson, or Kylie Minogue, with their global distribution, have changed our visual language. As an enduring image, the conical bra takes some beating, though the exhibition quietly points out that Madonna wasn’t the first to wear his cone design. That prize goes to Catherine Ringer, the lead singer of left-field French band Les Rita Mitsouko, who wore a Gaultier cone dress in the video of Marcia Baila, easily my favourite French song of the 1980s – not that there’s a whole lot of competition (click here  for the song and video: it’s insanely catchy, and Ringer looks fabulous).

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier


But Gaultier’s more than a dressmaker to pop stars. His mantra is simple, but challenging: “Les vêtements n’ont pas de sexe.” It’s hard to credit this happened, but when he first showed the man skirt in the 1980s, the Vogue team got up and walked out of his collection.

Over the years, Gaultier has always been pushing gender boundaries, but there are other instances where the playful meshes with the uncanny. His work with milliner Stephen Jones on reinventing a fez is particularly arresting, taking an etiolated Western cliché of the other into something genuinely disturbing by using fetish imagery. Those fez tails pouring out of eyeholes inevitably remind you of Stephen Jones’s Blitz club mate Leigh Bowery and underline Gaultier’s affinity not with punk but with the gender and performance experimentations of David Bowie and his New Romantic descendants.

Most striking throughout the Barbican installation is his rethinking of the dress back into its basic principles. This stunning version below looks like an abstract, a sketch, the bare bones of a design.

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

It is a red-carpet evening dress reduced to its constituent parts, a dress made not of yielding silk but consisting of rods and joists. Like a skeleton, it’s a dress that has to be filled with flesh to be worn, but it also nods towards the industrial construction of the crinoline, a structure that simultaneously constricted women but which also gave them physical heft to dominate a male-centred space. It’s a contradiction that Gaultier revels in.




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Tallis, In Jejunio Et Fletu

With fasting and tears the priests prayed: ‘Spare your people, Lord, and do not give your heritage over to destruction’. Between the porch and the altar the priests were weeping, saying: ‘Spare your people’.

Schola Assumptionis sang this text yesterday at a Latin mass (old rite) at St Anselm and St Caecelia in Holborn. It’s a setting by Thomas Tallis called In Jejunio Et Fletu, and it’s suitably Lenten. The rest of the music was solid Byrd – the utterly sublime Mass for Five Voices and a Gaude Virgo that is so little known you can’t even find it on YouTube.


I suspect In Jejunio Et Fletu is not sung very much because of the voicing; the one mezzo line is more of an alto part really, and there are two tenors, a baritone and bass lines. On first hearing it I didn’t much take to it, but by the third time I sang it in rehearsal the big sombre slabs of sound locked in my head and wouldn’t let go. There are a few versions available on YouTube, but some of them are a bit over-ponderous. I like this recording best.

In Jejunio et Fletu was first published in 1575 as part of Cantiones Sacrae, a large collection of sacred motets composed by Tallis and his pupil William Byrd. Tallis and Byrd dominated sixteenth-century English music, not just artistically but commercially; Elizabeth granted them the joint monopoly on music publishing. Of the Cantiones Sacrae, Tallis’s O Nata Lux is probably the most often programmed, but the other pieces haven’t quite made it into choral consciousness in the way that the Byrd masses have.

Cantiones Sacrae was an expensive product and the pair lost money on the printing. Buyers tended to be private individuals rather than institutions such as cathedrals. John Milsom has traced some of the motets in cathedral manuscript collections, and the Latin is almost invariably translated into English for consumption at Anglican services. Then again, Cantiones Sacrae wasn’t just a purely musical venture; it was a bit of cultural flag-planting and a deliberate act of ingratiation by two Catholic composers with the Protestant monarch. Byrd and Tallis each contributed 17 motets to mark Elizabeth’s 17th anniversary on the throne and her accession on 17 November.  Numerology aside, the coding isn’t hard to crack. The text of In Jejunio Et Fletu is taken from Joel 2: 17, Joel being a post-exilic prophet who writes about living under the heathen. For a Catholic living under the new Protestant settlement, the meaning is clear.

For more on this, check out Mathew Lyons’  fascinating review of God’s Traitors,  a new book by Jessie Childs on Catholic lives in Elizabethan England.


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The People’s Passion, Union Chapel, Islington


Is it just me, or are Passion performances suddenly back in vogue? There was Michael Sheen’s celebrated version in Port Talbot and this year there is a Passion in Trafalgar Square. The Union Chapel in Islington has also got in on the act with the People’s Passion: a version of Bach’s St John Passion in English for Good Friday, sung by Highbury choir Eclectic Voices (directed by Scott Stroman) and the Sweelinck Ensemble.

I sang the St John Passion for the first time last year with my own choir, Collegium Musicum of London, as part of the St Stephen’s festival in Kensington. It’s a gruelling piece – even in the first chorus there’s no let-up, and the long lines of quavers means it’s really easy to gallop ahead of the band. You need to concentrate a lot.

This gig was determinedly congregational. All the chapel hymn-singing I did in my childhood means I’m an absolute sucker for a chorale, and the tone was set by the fact that the entire audience had to stand and sing the wonderful Hassler/Bach hymn O Sacred Head before the start of the performance. In this context it was absolutely the right decision to sing the Passion in English; after all, Bach himself composed in the vernacular. The original 1954 translation by Imogen Holst was refined by Peter Pears with Holst’s help,  as Pears thought the English text not singable enough. The woman next to me had brought along her own score, but it was in German. I don’t know what she made of it.

Anyway, I enjoyed it hugely and had to stop myself from trying to hum along with the alto line on the chorales, which Scott Stroman took at quite a lick. That surprised me for about five seconds, but it meant the pace never flagged. A good lively choir and a splendid performance by Aidan Coburn in the punishing role of the Evangelist (and perfect diction, too) rounded everything off.  As the light faded on Good Friday afternoon and the last chorale came to an end, it felt like a properly communal experience. I think Johann Sebastian would have approved.

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Choral Vespers, St Anselm & St Caecelia, Lincoln’s Inn Fields


One of the choirs I sing with is Schola Assumptionis, which comes together to sing polyphonic music at masses and evensongs wherever we can get gigs. It’s mostly centred  on St Anselm & St Caecelia’s, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but we’ve also sung at St. Mary’s, Stoke Newington and other C of E churches around London, so it’s nicely balanced in terms of the confessional divide. Singing at both RC and Anglican services means we can do a variety of music; at evensong it’s inevitably Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and so on and at vespers we take our pick from the vast repertoire of Continental polyphony.

Last Saturday we were at choral vespers at SS Anselm and Caecelia. For anyone not familiar with the vespers service (and as I am not a Catholic I count myself among that number), it’s structured as chant, hymn  – not a hymn as in Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer but more chant interspersed with a choir setting – Latin psalms, reading and the Magnificat as a motet. Then yet more chant, a choir motet, benediction and the whole thing is over in three-quarters of an hour. Anyone familiar with evensong will see the structural similarity, but at vespers the whole thing is in Latin, and there’s a lot of incense.

Getting to grips with chant is hard. The notation is crazy.  Look at the example I’ve uploaded; it’s nowhere near as easy to read as normal music. Modern chant notation is simplified, but they’re pretty hardcore down at SS Anselm & Caecelia and this older style is used.

It’s the polyphony I turn up for, though; we sang Tomas Luis da Victoria’s A Patre Unigenite, a Lassus Magnificat and ended up with a Hassler motet, Cantate Domino. If you’re a novice to this sort of music you’ll probably be told to go away and listen to Tallis’s Spem In Alium or anything by Palestrina, but I don’t have it within me to love the glacial spikiness of Tallis and I find Palestrina just too pretty-pretty. The best introduction to Renaissance polyphony is the glorious, terrifying Victoria Officium Defunctorum (or requiem) of 1605 and the Byrd mass for four voices, thought to be written in the early 1590s.

And there’s a back story to them both that illuminates the music – Byrd, as is well known, was a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England, which explains the plangent, yearning quality to his music. As a singer I particularly like Byrd because he gives the altos a lot of good lines – we totally take the lead on the mass in four parts. There’s nowhere to hide:

By contrast, I like to think you can really hear the fervour of the Inquisition in Victoria’s work; his Tenebrae Responsiores narrates the Passion and is sung in Holy Week. Turn the light down low, turn the volume up and listen to O Vos Omnes, and see if you don’t shiver.

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