MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

Artist’s website:

‘Strange Sky’ – official video: