Review: Tin Men and the Telephone

Bruce Lindsay and the rest of the audience got involved in the creative process at Tin Men and the Telephone's Snape Maltings residency

Audiences are important to live performance. They offer immediate feedback to musicians - polite applause, whoops and hollers, the occasional boo - and on a good night they can drive a soloist to greater and greater things. Amsterdam-based piano trio Tin Men and the Telephone (pictured right) take things further. Without audience input there would be almost no performance, because the central feature of a Tin Men concert is that the audience creates the fundamental melodies, harmonies and rhythms upon which the trio improvises.

The three musicians - Tony Roe on piano and electronics, Pat Cleaver on bass and Bobby Petrov on drums - have spent the past seven years or so developing the technology behind this audience involvement. The band spent the week preceding this performance working at Snape Maltings with theatre director Owen Lewis to explore further their approach to live performance - the first in a series of six residencies at different venues across the next three years. The performance itself, which was free, was the culmination of the week’s activities but is still a work in progress, to be further refined at succeeding residencies.

The basics of a Tin Men show remain much the same as when I saw them at the 2016 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Audience members are invited to download the Tinmendo app to their phones before the concert begins and wireless broadband is provided at the venue so that the audience can log on and use the app during the concert. Throughout the performance the audience is invited to use the app, either by pianist Roe or by text on the large screen at the back of the stage.

There was plenty to get involved with including a “name that tune” quiz with the band improvising on a popular tune as people tried to identify it, our answers appearing on the screen until the correct answer is given (songs at this gig included Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun and Wannabe by the Spice Girls). However, the main narrative thread of the night was World Domination - a theme that ran through a series of races, announcements by an alien observer from the Federal Union For Restoring Intergalactic Equilibrium and the composition of an anthem. The announcements moved the story along, the races (involving a selection of world leaders including Trump, Putin and Kim Jong Un, plus Nigel Farage) exercised our fingers as we swiped our phones to propel images of the politicians across the screen.

The main aim of the night was the creation of a "world anthem" based on melodies, harmonies and rhythms which audience members composed on the app before uploading them to Roe’s piano-top technology. The audience responded enthusiastically to the challenge, especially the younger members (and most of the audience in the Peter Pears Recital Room was young). I have to admit to feeling strangely proud when my minimalist melody formed the basis for a short improv (each melody was shown as an image on screen, along with the name of the “composer”). The three musicians really showed their jazz chops as they constantly responded to new patterns of notes projected on screen every few seconds - Petrov’s imaginative percussion was particularly enjoyable, so much so that during one quiz tune an audience member stopped trying to guess the tune’s origins to message “He’s well good at them drums.”

Things weren’t perfect. Some audience members had problems uploading the Tinmendo app, some had difficulties using it, at least initially (operator error on my part - I hit the wrong button when opening the app - meant that it took me a good 5 or 6 minutes to move from faffing with my phone to starting to engage with and enjoy the show) and the white lights on stage were rather too bright. However, this was a fun way to spend an hour in the company of three talented musicians with a real appetite to innovate. A short post-performance Q&A with the band was informative and the many questions from the audience made it clear that a large number of people wanted to know more.

The next residency is in Oxford in early 2018. For more information about the band, the residencies and the forthcoming album, World Domination: Part One - FURIE, please go to the Tin Men website or the band's Facebook page.

Photo by Bruce Lindsay

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