As part of the //Backstep// project, today's performance combined the forces of champion beatboxer Bellatrix, the eight-voice vocal ensemble Backstep, rap trio Strangelove and Mowgli to perform Chris Lewis' Backstep, alongside other new compositions combining the exciting and unusual talents of today's performers.
We started with a short introductory solo from the world-renowned champion female beatboxer Bellatrix, which led smoothly into the first piece – Sweet Stuff by Bellatrix – which used the combined vocal styles of the Backstep ensemble. In an antagonistic and improvisatory manner, the male and female vocalists seemed to compete for supremacy, using extended techniques and some scat-like vocalisations over the powerful beatboxing.
Chris Lewis' Binaries followed, performed by Backstep. The jazz flavour of the opening chords faded into abstract meanderings around dissonant, constantly shifting chords. These were fed into an electronic mixer and modified, creating a surreal mix of the acoustic and the electronic. As the singers walked offstage, this transformed into a pulsing, percussive loop of vocalisations, over which rap trio Strangelove laid down a layer of impressionistic and colourful lyrics, against a repeating "1, 2, 1, 2" riff. Giving the piece a palindromic structure, Backstep then re-entered, the modified vocals fading back into a sea of shifting and sliding chords.
Bellatrix took the stage once more for a more subtle, jazz-based close harmony piece – Oliver Leith's I Will Wade Out, a setting of a poem by E.E. Cummings – in which the beatboxing seemed almost like a heartbeat underpinning the chords with a low bass grounding. This led us into another rap piece, this time a duet between Mowgli and Bellatrix, harking back to the more traditional rap sound with sampled vocals interspersed throughout.
The final programmed number was Chris Lewis' Backstep, once again combining the choir with Bellatrix. It started in unison, slowly bending the pitch until strong, pulsing beats were created. Extended techniques and beatboxing-type sounds were layered one on top of the other in a huge crescendo, with constantly shifting time signatures and smooth jazz chords juxtaposed against staccato vocalisations, all the time fighting the strong beats of Bellatrix.
For the encore, we were taken back to Binaries, but in this rendition, the rappers used the shifting electronic background to improvise over, adding another layer of complexity to this already multilayered composition. The fascinating combination of acoustic, electronic, rap and beatboxing found in this performance was an intoxicating one, creating a shifting world of sound in which several genres competed for the limelight, and providing unexpected context to the juxtaposed styles.