Ode to Variety:
In Praise of Wellington’s Old Hall Gigs

ARTS, Features, Music
img_oldhallgigs1Reflections on the musicians, artists, and communities behind the unique Old Hall Gigs project.

Thomasin Sleigh[1] and Sarah Smythe are the creators and curators of Wellington’s Old Hall Gigs, a series of bimonthly shows featuring a variety of performances held in old community halls throughout Wellington. The gigs are BYO and $15 a ticket. Community halls are, of course, traditionally where people of all different stripes gather based more or less solely on proximity for celebrations, meetings, weddings, dances, and other kinds of socialisation. Many of these halls have fallen into disuse over the decades. Old Hall Gigs exists in part to revitalise these special places. There have been four gigs thus far and they’ve taken place at Vogelmorn Hall in Vogeltown, Dom Polski Polish Association Hall in Newtown/Berhampore, St. Anne’s Hall and Church in Northland, and the City of Wellington Pipe Band Hall in Newtown. These halls range in size, context, and atmosphere. The Vogelmorn Hall is one great, deep hall perched high up amidst a community of families and seniors, while the Pipe Band Hall is a mid-sized, plaqued and plaided hall which holds bagpipe and drum classes and is set on the periphery of a diverse community.

If you click on the ‘About’ section of Wellington’s Old Hall Gigs website you’ll read the following: “Whilst the title of the series implies music events, we enjoy a lot of different types of art, so each evening will be a carefully calibrated couple of hours of visual and aural activity.” The four gigs of 2013 included poetry, prose, textiles, solo violin, jazz, pop, folk, multi-instrumental experimentation, dance, classical piano, and a short film. If you came to see the Glass Vaults, you also heard poet Hera Lindsay Bird recite, “You roll down my stockings like the sun peeling ocean from a soviet globe.” If you came to hear Tina Makereti read from her poignant forthcoming novel Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, you stayed to witness the stunning instrumental compositions of the Joyless Orchestra. If you attended any of these gigs you came away having experienced something new and just maybe revelatory.

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The Glass Vaults performing at Old Hall Gigs #1, Vogelmorn Hall.

For the second half of the third Old Hall Gig at St. Anne’s in Northland, Sarah directed us from the hall into the church with its celestial acoustics. Filing into matai pews under intimate yellow lounge-light, we first listened to Rhydian Thomas’s captivating variety of poetic compositions: a grotesque monologue, a poem set to white noise and broken birdsong, and a sectioned, quietist meditation on Wales.

Next, and last for the night, was my personal favourite performance in the series to date, and so I’d like to linger on it for a moment and move from there to a general discussion of the gigs. The Joyless Orchestra is a quintet comprised of Wellington multi-instrumentalists Nell Thomas, Gerard Crewdson, Erika Grant, Chris Prosser, and Daniel Beban. Their name derives from the 1925 Weimar era German silent film The Joyless Street, for which they had composed and performed a live musical accompaniment earlier in the month. Tim Wong, in a review of the film’s screening and accompaniment, notes the group’s deftness in echoing actor Asta Nielsen’s “minimalism in their composition, which is largely pared back in service of the film’s sobriety… the introduction of haunting vocals made this a distinctly tonal treatment divorced from the driving rhythm of the usual centrepiece of silent accompaniment, the piano.”

It’s hard to overstate the Orchestra’s range. An inventory of instruments played: viola, violin, cello, tuba, trombone, trumpet, accordion, flute, clarinet, percussion, drums, guitar, and assorted electronics. And let’s not forget that organic instrument, the voice. They also employed another medium, poetry. Gerard Crewdson, over the jagged introductory tonal remarks of accordion, strings, and keys, opened the thirty-odd minute performance with a feverish, stylised beat monologue as a kind of mise-en-scène to frame the musical journey to follow, a wonderfully effective and congruous device in lieu of the original cinematic dimension.

Writing this in mid-December, I’m straining my memory to recall the details of a performance from three months ago that by its nature—experimental, quasi-improvisational, asymmetric—resists easy categorisation and recollection. Some brilliant elements come to mind: the volatile blurts and squeals of Crewdson’s horns, especially the tuba; the tense purple, pre-storm atmosphere of tremolo violin in coordination with taut Theremin manipulations; an organal throng of held vocal notes in strange harmony.

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The Joyless Orchestra performing at Old Hall Gigs #3, St Ann’s Hall and Church.

This performance, as I’ve said, was for me the best of many excellent ones I’ve witnessed in the Old Hall Gigs. The skill and passion of the musicians was pre-eminent. The serious and salvific relationship of these artists to their art is not something that can be counterfeited. This can be said for several of the artists we’ve seen in this series. But the talent displayed at the Old Hall Gigs is only one reason this movement is vital for the arts.

The other is the integration of art subcultures it fosters. As a poet, I have to face reality that there are few readers of poetry outside of poets themselves. Dana Gioia, in his now 15-year-old controversial essay, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ deems poetry “the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group.” Many of the statements he makes in the essay have been fiercely debated, but I can’t really argue with this particular assessment. Most of we poets—as if the word poetry signified one thing and its practitioners all wrote that one thing (one might as easily refer to ‘musicians’ as a homogenous group)—can’t easily and spontaneously break out a poem at a party or gathering, let alone in more public contexts, without feeling at least a bit of categorical concern over how it will be received. By ‘categorical’, I mean that we are concerned that the act of reading a poem in itself, regardless of its quality, will not be appreciated or really listened to.

I generally work hard to carefully orchestrate the conditions in which I’ll read out poems; the audience, the other readers, the venue all factor into the successful reception of poetry. But then again, I’ll foist poems on groups of friends and sometimes in less propitious circumstances because I genuinely believe people will enjoy poetry if only we give them the chance. We must not passively consent to the alienation of our art form.

Other artists, to varying extents, experience similar kinds of restriction or confinement. The various arts, artists, and their audiences have become increasingly isolated from one another over the last few decades for reasons obviously and generally to do with culture, society, and technology. Before this relatively recent process of isolation had become predominant, artists of different mediums had more to do with and exerted more influence on one another. The following instances are among the most eminent that suggest themselves. I mention them to emphasise not a particular milieu or zeitgeist but the much more general tendency of communication between arts.

The most renowned example that comes to mind is the so-called New York School, with its poets, painters, musicians, dancers. Pollock influenced Ashbery, Cage collaborated with Cunningham, and so on. Modernist artists before them, albeit in a global (or Western) rather than strictly local community, exhibited the same tendencies of cross-pollination. Stein, Matisse, Picasso, Schoenberg, Eliot, Apollinaire, Marinetti, and others exerted mutual influence and developed techniques such as atonality, cubism, and collage.

Obviously artistic communities can now be far more global than those of the 20th century. On the other hand, the virtual anonymity of artists in relation to their numbers, the speed of the virtual world and corresponding shortness of attention span, and fragmentation of culture have arguably created a desire to reclaim a sense of local community, and physical proximity. The community hall has long represented a place for the community to gather. Sleigh and Smythe recognised this need and the corresponding space to fulfil it. Furthermore, they recognised a vacant niche once filled by the variety show. The enthusiastic reception of Old Hall Gigs and the willingness of audiences to make their way to venues off the beaten path when they could more easily spend the night in town seems to confirm the desire for dynamic, multi-faceted/multimedia art shows. Old Hall Gigs is unique. Nothing quite like this is happening here right now.

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Thomasin Sleigh and Sarah Smythe.

When the applause for the Joyless Orchestra died down and Thomasin thanked everybody, I hung around, inspired and yarning with a friend. Dan Beban of the Orchestra passed on his way out and I let him know how much I enjoyed their performance. He generously stopped to talk and within minutes we were discussing the possibility of collaboration. I mention this as an example of just the kind of thing that can happen when artists and audiences of various arts are brought together.

The conception of holding these gigs in old Wellington halls is a lovely touch. The aesthetics, acoustics, and mana of the places are perfect for engaging seriously with visual and aural arts. These are places that have served a very special communal role for many years and through many changes in the world. There is something moving and atmospheric about these halls; they exist in a way outside of time. Their hardwoods and warm lights are suffused with history and an almost Dionysian spell that kneads out our feelings of individuation.

Many of these classic kiwi halls are seldom used. As explained on the website, “Old Hall Gigs hopes to reinvigorate some of the community halls around Wellington and to encourage each local community to take part and share these events with their families and neighbours.” The gigs, insofar as they take place in neighbourhoods, in out of the way places, generally attract audiences who are really invested in art and especially want to be there (as opposed to passersby and scenesters) and members of the local community (which are not, of course, mutually exclusive groups!). I remember arriving at the first gig at Vogelmorn Hall which teemed with an excited audience more or less evenly split between local families and seniors and extra-local show-goers and artists. I imagine that for older locals the gigs hearken back to earlier community hall days. The gigs have serious social import in mixing young and old and disparate people connected by nothing but proximity. This is critical in an age of sharp social differentiation and virtual rather than physical socialisation. Old Hall Gigs represents an important movement.

Upcoming Old Hall Gigs include Aro Valley Hall on Saturday, March 22, and Tararua Tramping Club on Saturday, May 24.
Lee Posna grew up in New Jersey and moved to New Zealand in 2008. He writes poems and essays, many of which can be read at leeposna.com.

Main Image: Dom Polski Polish Association Hall, Newtown.


[1] Full disclosure: Thomasin Sleigh is a regular contributor to The Lumière Reader.