Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: PSB - A Man From The Future

There are few reviews of this performance from last week. A couple I read were written by persons who have no idea who Alan Turing was, or who Pet Shop Boys are.  I found this one to be the most fulfilling, musically honest, and firmly grounded in the essence of the project. It's a 50 - 50 decision here, I think.  But she does know her stuff. The reviewer complains of not enough of Chris Lowe’s synth input in the piece. I’ll wait and see/hear for myself. The fact that the piece was celebrated at all is indicative of the Brit’s love of PSB musically.

I do hope this performance (on my birthday) was recorded for later release, but with PSB, that’s always very iffy, indeed. From The Guardian:
Nomenclature can get tricky when you think outside the box. What are we to call A Man From the Future, the Pet Shop Boys' tribute to mathematician Alan Turing, elegantly premiered last Wednesday at the Proms? A pop oratorio? A classical audiobiography? 
It is narrated by Juliet Stevenson, unkindly housed in a shonky-looking plywood box behind the orchestra. Her steely, authoritative tones remain purposely impassive, a judge passing harsh sentence on an era, even when they describe the death of the Bletchley Park code-breaker's first love from tuberculosis. A lonely bell clangs for this boy called Chris. Later, it clangs for Turing himself, as the piece in eight movements draws to an intense close. We pop heathens do know not to clap in between them. 
Turing died young of cyanide poisoning, an assumed suicide, after the innovative mathematician suffered chemical castration and lost his security clearance in the wake of a conviction for gross indecency. (Some do wonder whether his death was in fact suicide .)  
His tale works as an operatic tragedy and this piece is extensively sung: by the BBC Singers, augmented by Neil Tennant, who frequently refers to a score housed in a large red folder. They function like a Greek chorus, repeating Stevenson's words theatrically, picking out phrases to drum home. "Can you feel what I think? Do you feel what I feel?" they demand, teasing out the elements of Turing's outer and inner lives. The Enigma code-breaker imagined a "universal machine" that could compute, as far back as the war; boxes, now called computers, that could think outside the box. Turing's innermost feelings, of course, ran painfully counter to the law of the day, and the discussion of his gay leanings gets a breezy, almost swinging treatment, full of longing. 
Mainly, though, this tribute is lavishly orchestrated. The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Dominic Wheeler, is doing the heavy lifting tonight. As the piece is often stirring or sad, the strings out-rank the brass and woodwind; I would have liked to hear more from the less strident corners of the ensemble. PSB synth jockey Chris Lowe is hidden at the very back beside some sound guys, identifiable only by a pair of fat red headphones and a baseball cap. Magnificently diffident, clad in shades and jeans, he comes down at the end and doesn't bow. 
Turing's story is deeply affecting, and the telling of it by an establishment organisation (the BBC, which runs the Proms) in an establishment venue (the Royal Albert Hall) in an establishment idiom (classical) is cause for celebration. We have come far since sodomy and treachery were felt to be synonymous by the state. (Or have we? Gay men who weren't Enigma code-breakers remain unpardoned.) 
But we really could have done with more from Lowe, and modernity more widely. Turing was, after all, a man from The Future. Even given the operatic nature of his tale and the rarefied Proms setting, wrapping this man up in strings seems a contradictory impulse. The very best passages here recall Giorgio by Moroder, a terrific electronic narrative from last year's Daft Punk album, such as when Lowe's vintage analogue sounds, laptop emissions and some unexpected beats (from a man hitting his cello, an excellent touch) penetrate the swell of the classical players.

And so it goes.

Note: One of the two birthday gifts to arrive without the gifter’s name is a DVD recording of the Pet Shop Boys “Cubism” concert. A gift that I will be viewing this evening for the first time. The first of many more to come, I am sure.

Again, thank you, who ever you are. 


  1. You are the first of the bloggers whom I follow to mention this event - and it especially surprises me that none of my British blog-pals have done so. I too haven't got round to listening to it (the actual performance, broadcast live by BBC, only started at 10 p.m. on the day.) I do/did love PSB from their very beginning but I must say that the reviews of this have turned my original enthusiastic curiosity into more of a 'duty'. But listen I shall.

    Btw: I too shamefully hadn't been aware of Alan Turing until I was cajoled to go to London, accompanying a friend to see the Hugh Whitemore play, 'Breaking the Code' with Derek Jacobi back in 1984, (the play about to be resurrected on Broadway, I hear). Mind you, some of our ignorance may have been due to an embarrassment on the part of the establishment of the whole sorry case so it was hardly well-known by anybody, which I'm pleased has since been corrected by the rare granting of a Royal pardon to Turing (for his then 'criminal offences') earlier this year, and now few people do NOT know of his case - which will be given a yet further boost in a few weeks' time with the cinema release of 'The Imitation Game' with Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Looks promising..

    1. I reemember the play well. It was brought to Broadway for a short run, but played to packed houses every night. Jacobi was on fire in that role. A while later, the production was made for TV and aired here (as usual) on PBS during June, PRIDE month, again with Jacobi as Turing. It was stark, cold, and mesmerizing. I remember it to this day.

  2. On Saturday, I had the good fortune to see a magnificent production of "Breaking The Code" with the actor playing Turing, giving a bravura performance -better theater I probably won't see for the rest of the year. The play is still with me.. What perfect timing to read your post about Turing. I have bookmarked the concert and will watch it tonight or tomorrow evening. After that, I shall reread your post.

    Last week, Raybeard and I discussed Turing in detail. I was delighted to read his comment here. One thing disturbs me about the 'Royal Pardon'. A pardon implies forgiveness. To my way of thinking Turing did nothing wrong. The wrong doing was done by an ungrateful nation.

    1. Paul, thanks for the visit. I am not sure if a pardon is anything like forgiveness. We forgive to free ourselves from whatever we've held on to. Still, I see you point. And, as PSB pointed out so well, what about the almost 2000 others who suffered similar fates?


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