Screwing with your senses

, 13 April 2011

“I’m used to seeing them step over empty beer bottles rather than playing in a place like this”, said an anonymous fan following the second and possibly the last live performance of Micachu & the Shapes with the London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall. In having bagged a Southbank artist residency, band core Mica Levi (aka Micachu), invited a clash of cultures to the cultivated environs of the arts venue. For her latest in musical experiments, she combined her urban sensibilities, with technical expertise and training in classical music, as well as a fan base mostly garnered through the art rock disguised as DIY pop of her debut album Jewellery.

one of their first rehearsals with the London Sinfonietta

In performing the set from what has become Micachu & The Shapes’ second release to date, Chopped & Screwed, their audience comprised a good chunk of people as unfamiliar with the etiquette of classical music-listening as they looked out of place. As a handful of Sinfonietta members –along with Micachu and the Shapes band-mate Raisa Kahn –waited patiently between disruptive entrances of late-comers, the sounds of their difficult-listening experimental pieces fell on a number of empty seats, before the hall finally reached capacity in time for the main event.

Following a brief interval the woman everyone had come to see appeared unassumingly on stage along with her cast of 11 virtuoso musicians. A pair of thick glasses concealed an occasional squinting glance into the audience, as well as a nervous energy characteristic of the shy musical prodigy. Moving around her position front right of stage, Micachu struck an image of an eccentric tomboy startled by the attention, while her physical idiosyncrasies heightened a powerful sense of the surreal that the Chopped & Screwed compositions evoke.

If coordinating an atmosphere of otherworldliness and intoxication –from the disorienting time-lapse projection behind them, down to the tie-dye shirts worn by each member of the ensemble –was the aim, then Micachu & the Shapes suceeded. Meanwhile, in swaying through the ghostly plane of drug use and ‘chopped and screwed’ hiphop, Levi recreated the unsettling sensations of getting high, while literally reflecting the mental state of a person bored with life in titles like ‘Unlucky’ and ‘Average’. In being nowhere without her band mates, one was struck by a unit that are as much friends as they are professionals. Exchanging the odd chuckle and cheeky grin, Raisa Khan briefly commandeered Levi’s ‘chopper’ (the self-built turntable mimicking the changing tempos of chopped and screwed DJ-ing) as she adjusted her mic stand, while percussionist Marc Pell took time-out to lead the Sinfonietta through some of the more demanding moments of ad lib music.

A striking difference of this performance from the usual three-piece was the opportunity for Levi’s characteristic vocals to shine, as she carried the songs beyond the tension of orchestral melancholy through the deadpan moan of “fuuuu-cking sweet” in ‘Freaks’. In using the orchestra to reflect the set up of a live band, where each component of the ensemble represented a certain element of a traditional folk band set up, the violins went so far as to strum their hollow bodies like the guitar section they were emulating. Meanwhile, the soothing signal of what sounds like a distant ship horn on record, revealed itself as the violinists switching their usual instruments for water-filled bottles tuned to different tones in ‘Medicine Drank’.

That’s exactly where the use of other unconventional materials –even within this cluster of technical virtuosity –reveals what is an integral part of the Micachu & The Shapes catalogue. Combining the DIY aesthetic of music where almost anything goes, with the complexities of classical composition, Mica Levi and company made for a truly unique experience rewarded with an ovation that would have been standing, had the audience known of the custom.