The music of Laura Bowler tends to divide opinion. Go looking for reviews and you’ll find some arguing her work is vital, an urgent intervention into social issues that brings much-needed aesthetic experimentation to contemporary music. For others, her work is frustrating: all-too-angry, unenjoyable and ultimately off-putting. For me, her music is both moving and intellectually ambitious. Watching and listening to one of Bowler’s pieces unfold is like precious few other experiences in contemporary music. Her compositions are complex and deeply challenging, from the Antonin Artaud-inflected noise of “Theatre of Cruelty” for string quartet (2010) to the almost-too-much-to-bear emotional intensity of “fff” (2018). In person, Bowler is kind, funny, hospitable and remarkably self-effacing about both her work and her own talent, quick to ask questions and quicker still to point to her collaborators and fellow artists. How to make sense of this composer with a rapidly expanding body of work and a seemingly relentless drive for tackling some of the most urgent social and political questions of the day?
Bowler’s development as a composer follows a familiar trajectory in some ways. She studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Sibelius Academy, before doing a doctorate at the Royal Academy under Gary Carpenter and around luminaries like Harrison Birtwistle. Yet none of this seems to define her: as a working class, Northern artist, raised in Stoke and living in Macclesfield, she always seems somewhat orthogonal to the mainstream institutions of British contemporary music. When I ask what she took from working with Carpenter at the Royal Academy, Bowler gives a refreshingly down to earth answer: “Practicality, especially in relation to orchestration, and to trust one’s technique and what you’ve learned in times of stress and impending deadlines! I’m very grateful for everything I learned from him.”
The aforementioned “Theatre of Cruelty” is perhaps the earliest piece of Bowler’s of which recordings can be found online, and themes and ideas here are elaborated and expanded in later works. The piece begins with dramatic cello plucking as the two violins and viola form an almost overwhelming wall of noise. What’s most interesting is Bowler’s commitment to exploring the full range of voice of the instruments from plucking to smooth bowing, layering patterns and motifs throughout the entire piece. The effect is an assault upon the senses; the link to Artaud in the title shows the effect Bowler is after. As Artaud put it in the Theatre of Cruelty’s First Manifesto, the goal was the “unhabitual”—an art that could “create a metaphysics of speech, gesture, and expression,” in order to rescue it from “its servitude to psychology and ‘human interest.’” Bowler’s “Theatre of Cruelty” is technical, almost impossible to follow in places, and, at least on first listening, jarring to the point of being unpleasant, yet it is also viscerally thrilling, able to bypass abstract aesthetic judgment. Bowler tells me that her interest in Artaud came from “boredom in the concert hall.” “I was seeing a lot of extreme theater in which performers were deeply vulnerable, sharing so much of themselves with the audience, and then I’d go to a chamber concert featuring work from the string quartet canon and be frustrated at the lack of humanity I felt,” she says. “Artaud’s seeking of the ‘real’ in performance continues to influence me especially around the importance of physicality, failure and exhaustion in my work.”
But Bowler also adds levity and some light to this affective shade. Firstly, Bowler’s interest is not just in music and sound but in theater, mixed-media, and performance, as well as an empathetic, collaborative mode of working across disciplines. For pianist and technologist Zubin Kanga, this makes Bowler distinctive. “Her music is inherently interdisciplinary,” he says. “She has a natural ability to combine video, performance art, spoken text and staging to create works that are theatrically rich but still musically intricate.” For Kanga, Bowler’s work is part of a broader move within contemporary music toward media and internet culture or, as it’s been termed, “music in the expanded field” (a term credited to figures such as composer Marko Ciciliani). This productive partnership has led to their shared commission “SHOW(ti)ME,” a work that blends visuals, electronics, piano and new technologies like the sensor gloves Kanga wears to sculpt sound out of the air. “Whenever I needed to request an adjustment for either pianism or practicality (to juggle the many different technologies and theatrical requirements) she could very easily adjust her approach to find a solution,” he says. “She has such a natural instinct for the theater… able to draw together social media avatars, obsessive piano cleaning, vocal sounds and dialogue, live and pre-recorded video, the MiMU sensor gloves as well as a huge range of pianism.” For singer Juliet Fraser, who worked with Bowler on “Distance” alongside the Talea Ensemble, Bowler’s own background as a vocalist allows her to tailor things to exactly what the performance requires and what the singer needs. “Laura has this quite rare combination of a strong creative vision and an open-minded approach to processes,” Fraser tells me. “She is attracted to the difficult questions. She’s not alone in that, but she is justly celebrated for being one of a handful of artists making meaningful work out of that committed questioning.”
The interest in the theatrical aspects of music, and the draw toward the “difficult questions,” can be seen in Bowler’s work as far back as 2014, when she performed in Jennifer Walshe’s “Training Is The Opposite.” Bowler, a talented mezzo-soprano in her own right, performed a solo role as boxer, and was so committed to the necessary physical transformation that she ended up taking on a now-professional boxer in a fight, earning a very respectable draw. The links with Walshe are well worth highlighting as Walshe is perhaps one of the most high-profile composers drawn—like Bowler—to what Alex Ross calls the “sordid, semi-sublime texture of modern digitized life.” Working with Walshe was clearly highly generative for Bowler’s own compositions, which have increasingly turned toward high-concept political theater. Bowler explains that working with Walshe “led to a new understanding of my body and what I could do with it in a performance, that I didn’t need to be clean and perfect, that I could be raw, vulnerable, and most of all, exhausted.”
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Bowler’s “Fff,” in which she is both performer and composer, showcases this evolution, presenting a deeply political engagement with the simulacra and simulation of the social media landscape and the increasingly fragmented, tribalistic politics of the present. It is also directly influenced by her work with Walshe. Taking its title from the flight, fight or freeze response, the performance juxtaposes Bowler’s vocals with a dense and threatening score and repeated media imagery of protests from across the political spectrum and around the world. Five minutes in, there’s a genuinely jaw-dropping moment as Bowler moves seamlessly across her vocal range from a high opera scream to a guttural metal roar. The piece circles around the repeated phrase of the “arc of tension”: the interstitial space between what is and what is not that structures society all the way down to the core of subjectivity. This is embodied in Bowler’s performance, which combines her vocals with a physicality that grows ever more tortured as the score ramps up in sonic complexity. The score and lyrics repeat and then almost stutter, before building to something so intense as to be uncomfortable. The score includes typing on keyboards, and at one point the entire musical ensemble covers their face with blank smiling face masks, matching Bowler’s own rictus grin and costume covered in bright emojis. This piece is, in a sense, the sound of what it feels like to live in a hypermediated social environment, constantly policed for what you are, or were; always unable to escape into something new, endlessly fighting the same invisible enemies online, “tumbling face forward into the twittering machine.” For Bowler, the piece marked a change in approach. “I decided to be less preachy, less slacktivist and to try and actually make change more actively in the real world and in my work,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve completely succeeded but I’m definitely better than I was.”
What is perhaps most welcome about Bowler’s interest in affective intensity and performance is the degree to which she avoids didacticism, preferring instead to—forgive a somewhat old-fashioned term—aim at the raising of consciousness. She is skeptical of imparting straightforward moral or political lessons. “It is incredibly important to try and avoid teaching your audience,” Bowler tells me. “I want to make offers, with room for conversation—I prefer this kind of work from an audience perspective too.” The imaginative opportunity given to the audience makes her work compelling. “Antarctica” (2018), a multimedia piece, could well have lapsed into moralizing or lecturing the listener on the necessity of environmentalism, but uses its autoethnographic approach to construct a series of beautiful and striking soundscapes, drawing off the noise of penguin colonies and the sonorous cracking of ice. As Bowler put it in an excellent piece for The Guardian: “Making a work that is in some way a political or social commentary is about probing and provoking questions.”
“Houses Slide” (2021) brings together Bowler’s collaborative nature, political interests and dedication to the intensification of affect. A work for the London Sinfonietta, composed by Bowler to a libretto by Cordelia Lynn and conceived and directed by Katie Mitchell, the piece marked the world’s first bicycle-powered classical music concert. All of the required power, from the projection to the lights on the music stands for the ensemble, was provided by specially adapted bicycles, powered continuously by volunteers. What could all too easily have come off as a gimmick instead resolved into a powerful aesthetic experience. As Bowler explains, the bikes were “not just a provocation to consider power usage in arts performance but also to build a narrative that goes beyond the music.” The video of the concert starts with Bowler sharing her love of hedgehogs and describing how human development and climate change have impacted their environment. In the background, the listener can hear what could be insects, but is instead the noise of the bikes endlessly cycling. Then, the bike noises herald the opening of the piece, as the lights flicker on and fragments of members of the public discussing the changes—the new absences—they’ve seen in the natural world are overheard. The initial instrumentation is almost imperceptible: gentle scrapes across strings, brushed percussion and intermittent electronic buzzing, like the feedback from an amp. Then, at ten minutes in, a beautiful imitation of the dawn chorus erupts, the sounds of now-dead songbirds provided by the woodwind and string sections. Jessica Aszodi, the mezzo-soprano who leads the piece, is also riding her own bike, adding an extra dimension of physicality (and echoing Bowler’s own performances in “fff” and “Training Is the Opposite”). The emotional journey of the show is deepened by video segments of the creative team in between acts. Act I, “Epiphany,” ends with Lynn talking about how difficult it is to know whether writing about climate change can make a difference anymore, and with Bowler explaining how impossible it is to even think of having children in a world of climate catastrophe.
Like much of Bowler’s work, “Houses Slide” tries to stage an encounter with the unthinkable. Climate change is a hyperobject, a phenomenon that is impossible for the individual to grasp. As “Houses Slide” details through the various voices, we can only glimpse climate change in absences, in the ways our own lifeworld has changed. “It’s so big,” says one of the vocal samples in Act II, “how do you feel that?” Before “Houses Slide,” Bowler composed “Wicked Problems” for soprano and flute, the text of which is taken directly from a short work by philosopher of ecology Timothy Morton (who coined the term hyperobject). Again, Bowler links the challenge of thinking through the climate crisis and the responsibility to not impart a slogan but to provide an imaginative space—theatrically and musically—in which it becomes possible to think about new ways of living.
“The Blue Woman,” Bowler’s latest and highest profile commission so far (for the Royal Opera House in London) also has a hyperobject at its center. The piece, again directed by Mitchell, with a libretto from Laura Lomas, explores something far more personal than climate change: the struggle to make sense of the aftermath of a rape. Timothy Morton and Dominic Boyer, in an essay for the Society for Cultural Anthropology, suggest a term for modern subjectivity: “hyposubjects.” This, they write, is the “abject condition of being forced to endure and suffer the effects of viscous forces like climate change and capital.” As “The Blue Woman” demonstrates, these forces include patriarchal-sexual violence which is both deeply personal and depressingly universal. The piece details unflinchingly what this feels like to live with and live through. The protagonist’s subjectivity is shattered into a libretto that is both allusive and fragmentary, owing much to the theater of Sarah Kane as well as composers like Philip Venables.
Musically, Bowler’s composition matches the shattered and incomplete nature of the lyrics. The atonal shrieks of the quartet add beautiful intensity, generating exceptional tension in the opening half of the piece, and harking back to some of Bowler’s earliest compositions, the technical experiments with the music of cruelty. As one of the vocalists recounts a dream—“I’m buying a coffee and inside I am drowning… I put my hands to my chest and it’s swollen and filling up and filling up and I am drowning, here on dry land”—the music wrings every ounce of tension possible out of the moment. Driving this tension is the fact that both staging and sound refuse to allow the audience to engage with the material in a straightforward way. The musicians are all on stage, but other sounds emerge; a voiceover layers and loops, intercut with electronic manipulation and ambient field recordings that follow the woman—unnamed and standing in for the far too many women who have lived through sexual violence—as she walks through south London. In the video, the women is following the route Sarah Everard took when she walked home on a March evening in 2021 before she was abducted, raped and murdered by a police officer. The noises heard could be trains in the distance, a crackling fire, or even gunshots. As with so much of Bowler’s work, there is violence here, just on the edge of hearing, suffusing everything with the urge to look over your shoulder. There’s a remarkable coldness to the music, a kind of barely contained fury that forms the auditory counterpoint to the images on the screen. The woman is often shown crammed into a box, punching outwards at invisible barriers in a desperate attempt to get out.
The great tragedy though, is that there is no outside. We are unable to stand outside of the hyperobject to see it clearly. There is an undeniable pessimism within the concept, a pessimism that runs through so much of Bowler’s work, but can be seen perhaps most clearly in Act III of “Houses Slide.” The sound drops in volume like the sound of the sea on the edge of hearing. The section tries to represent the existential panic of climate grief, a vision of the future where all of us might end up “down here, in the country of bleached coral.” For Morton, the hyperobject is something almost Lovecraftian, and it’s easy to see our horror and despair as ultimately disempowering. But, in an interview for Wired, Morton says they never wanted to just induce despair. I’m convinced Bowler would agree. “Houses Slide” doesn’t end in the still dark silence of acid seas, choked under an endless swarm of plastic, but with something more ambiguous. The fourth and final act , “Resolution,” opens with Bowler’s own voice: “Try to change. Pretty pessimistic… The world feels a happier place when the planes aren’t flying.” The score is so simple in this final act, the sound and rhythm of the bikes forming a background to the singer. As Azodi sings “Every day I try to do what I can,” Bowler’s voice cuts back in: “Every day I try to throw another deck chair off the Titanic.” A dark joke, but the world is ending. Perhaps it always was. In the theater/music of Laura Bowler we hear what that sounds and feels like, and even, if we listen closely, the first sounds of what might come next. ¶
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