Scots skateboarders and opera combine in Grind

Composer Samuel Bordoli. Picture: Contributed
Composer Samuel Bordoli. Picture: Contributed
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OPERA and skateboarding: hardly the most natural of bedfellows, you might think. But Bill Bankes-Jones, director of London-based opera company Tête à Tête, says that’s just the point.

“If you really want to be experimental, then you don’t know what the outcomes of your experiments are going to be – if you do, it’s not an experiment. The arts are often just not courageous enough. This project is exactly that – it’s going to look at what happens if we put these two things together.”

The project he’s talking about is Grind, a collaboration between Tête à Tête, composer Samuel Bordoli and skateboarders from Scotland and England. The show gets its first performance in Aberdeen today , before shooting down to London on 5 July, and spinning back up north to Glasgow on 2 August. “The story,” explains Bankes-Jones, “is that there’s a choir waiting for something exciting to happen, and they’re bowled over when people start skateboarding – but you can’t really call it a story. It’s about the moment you’re in, which is what music and skateboarding are exactly about.”

Grind is the latest in several site-specific works that Bordoli has written for the company: an earlier trilogy of operas drew on the acoustic properties of London’s Monument, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral to provide unique sonic experiences for each listener depending on their location in the structures. Here Grind draws on the resonant acoustics of skateparks and the percussive noises of skateboarding. “It’s a very celebratory piece, very optimistic,” Bordoli says, “and it’s full of rhythmic drive – but I had no idea how it would turn out before I started work on it. It could only have happened through a collaboration like this – you’d never sit down and compose a piece for singers and skateboarders just because you felt like it.”

It’s one of the eclectic set of 20 new pieces commissioned as part of the UK’s first New Music Biennial, to coincide with Culture 2014, the artistic arm of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. For Bankes-Jones, the coincidence of putting on a piece about skateboarding for the Games had a touch of irony to it. “As a surfer, or a skater, you’re quite aware that your sport isn’t recognised by these competitions. There are magnificent skate and surf competitions all over the place, but it’s not even talked about that they’re not in the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games. So this seemed a lovely chance to give the sport, or the art form, or whatever you want to call it, a bit of recognition that it doesn’t usually get.”

But it can’t have been easy selling the idea of an opera or choral collaboration to the skateboarding community. “I think at first they didn’t quite get it,” Bordoli admits, “but that’s because in a way we’d invented something new. But once they did get it, they were absolutely behind it.”

In Glasgow they met an instant convert in Chick Mailey, who runs Dumbarton’s Unit 23 Skatepark, the UK’s largest indoor facility of its kind. “He’s a really inspirational guy,” says Bordoli, “and he was completely behind the project before he even understood what it all meant.” After Bordoli and Bankes-Jones were told that the Glasgow performance had to include a performance in the city’s Royal Concert Hall, there was even a possibility that the cherished music venue might play host to a portable skatepark owned by Mailey. “I went to the Royal Concert Hall to look at where we could put up the portable skatepark,” says Bankes-Jones, “but as we were looking round the big, shiny building, pretty quickly we took the decision that we had to film the performance at Chick’s Dumbarton skatepark and make that work in the concert hall.” So as well as a live performance at Unit 23 in Dumbarton, there will be a film-based outing for Grind in the centre of Glasgow.

For the Aberdeen premiere of the piece, things have been running closer to the deadline. “There’s a brilliant skatepark in Aberdeen called Transition Extreme,” Bankes-Jones says, “which is a large youth community centre based around a climbing wall and a skatepark. But we realised we’d been trying to get people involved too early – to get a really lively community project, you have to enlist people at a late stage – which makes things quite scary. The Aberdeen performance is going to happen almost at the last minute.”

Grind will feel different in each of its three performance locations – with local skaters providing the moves, and Bordoli’s score being performed by three community-based choirs. “In Aberdeen, the project is being steered by the sound contemporary music festival, who are putting together their own community choir. In Glasgow we’ll be working with a well-established choir, and in London it’s the absolutely brilliant Roundhouse Choir,” says Bankes-Jones.

And what will the audience experience? First of all, they’ll have to learn to dodge the skateboarders. “The choir and audience will all be in the skateparks with the skaters,” says Bankes-Jones, “and those places aren’t really built to host an audience – there’s no auditorium from which the public watch what’s going on. You just have to stand around the rim of a bowl and at the top of the ramps – it’s a bit like an obstacle course to get to anywhere where you can stand and watch.”

Once there, though, listeners will experience close links between the skaters’ movements – choreographed locally in each location by skate leaders – and Bordoli’s choral music. “There are clear sections in the music which have certain skateboarding things happening alongside them – there are big choral sections, then solo sections, and that’s reflected in the number of skateboarders doing things. In skateboarding, a lot of the moves are incredibly short, and I’ve tried to work that into the structure of the music, which has got a lot of quick changes and transitions, as well as big build-ups.”

Although Bordoli and Bankes-Jones have stopped short of asking their choral singers to leap on to skateboards and join in the action, they’ve found a musical way of joining the two worlds. “Some of the choir have their own skateboards, which they’ll be using as percussion instruments,” Bordoli says. “We noticed that when someone does a really amazing move, everyone bangs their skateboards on the ground – so I’ve incorporated that into the score.”

To return to Bankes-Jones’s opening comments, it’s a risky project, and it’s not immediately clear how things will turn out in any of the locations. But for him, its experimental nature is exactly its point. “Our job is to make some of the most precious memories that any of us have. Behind it all, there’s the extraordinary power of the lyric stage to implant a memory that you’ll never lose – it’s about so much more than just buying a ticket and watching a performance. And whatever they come out like, I don’t think you’ll ever forget these skateboarding performances.”

• Twitter: @DavidKettle1

• Grind is at Transition Extreme Skate Park, Aberdeen, today; Southbank Centre Undercroft, London, 5 July; and Unit 23 Skatepark, Dumbarton and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 August.