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Century Song review at Zoo Southside, Edinburgh – ‘classical technique mixed with rawer vocal colours’

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song at Zoo Southside, Edinburgh. Photo: John Lauener Neema Bickersteth in Century Song at Zoo Southside, Edinburgh. Photo: John Lauener
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As a classical singer, one’s agency is limited. Immersed in the canon of Western music, one’s voice is trained and disciplined, taught to sing within parameters defined by centuries-old men. A black female classical singer, Neema Bickersteth attempts in Century Song to reconcile her profession with her identity in the 21st century.

A proposition ripe with avenues for innovation, the show instead ends up feeling disappointingly conservative. Taking the form a recital of wordless songs, the material is all from canonical 20th century repertoire – Rachmaninoff, Messiaen, Cage. Bickersteth and co-makers Kate Alton and Ross Manson cite an Alice Walker essay on the overlooked and forgotten black poet Phillis Wheatly as an influence for wanting to explore the historically stunted potential of artists of colour. Why do that by singing the canon?

Costume changes and video projections accompany the music, with Bickersteth donning the guise of black women through history – a maid, a glamorous 1920s singer, a sharp-suited businesswoman. But it doesn’t do quite enough work to recontextualise the songs.

Only in the last piece, a beautiful original song by Reza Jacobs, is classical technique mixed with rawer vocal colours and extended techniques, and we begin to get a sense of Bickersteth as a multi-faceted human being as well as a consummate musician.

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A classical recital which underexplores its themes of black history and Western canon