“The music looks unusual. You’ll be hearing unusual sounds. I’ll be using a fiddle bow, paperclips and a chisel.”
Music fans turned out in force on Thursday night to see the last of Neil’s performances as part of the 2016/17 classical season; packing out the auditorium for a concert that promised to marry sound and image in new and exciting ways. They had little idea what they were in for – Pictures was a mind-bending bit of experimental art, and an unforgettable experience.
Concert-goers were met with footage of the view outside Mareel being projected across the entire back wall of the stage – an attempt to “remove the wall” as Neil put it. Against this visual backdrop, he started off with two short Preludes by Debussy.
These, along with George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas AD 1979 (accompanied by the 13th century frescos that inspired the music) and Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage, set to genuinely evocative videos of London housing estates) were the closest the concert came to the orthodox.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was an obvious highlight. Each of the 10 pieces is based on a painting that Mussorgsky saw at an exhibition, with a promenade piece connecting them (as the viewer of the paintings ‘walks’ between them, the promenade plays, different each time as the viewer is influenced by the painting they have just left). These paintings were projected on the wall – although as four no longer exist, their respective pieces went visually unaccompanied.
The suite was originally written for piano, and Neil showed why. Truly stunning in their own right, the experience was only enhanced by being able to see the paintings along with the music they inspired – a strange picture of a man in a chicken costume was met with a flighty and jittery tune, an image of two top-hatted tourists in the Paris Catacombs had a contemplative and sombre air, while the image of the Kiev city gates was a noble and grand piece.
Showing these pictures invited the audience to imagine the lost painting behind each of the other four pieces, as they listened to sublime music with a black screen; a brilliant, thoughtful touch.
Graphical notation – where the sheet music is itself an image, without any recognisable “notes” – featured heavily, projected on the wall. For one of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces, where the quick, fiddly notes were reminiscent of knitting needles hard at work, he had turned the music into a genuine knitting pattern that was displayed for all to see. More Couperin pieces were set to architectural drawings of Mareel, diagrams of the inside of a piano, or a map of Aith.
Another Crumb composition, The Magic Circle of Infinity, was a wonderful smudging of the line between audible and visual art. The Magic Circle of Infinity, inspired by the constellation Leo, was an appropriately twinkly, uncomforting piece. The real beauty of it was the sheet music, which was set in a circle, so the end of the music met with the beginning, looked very much like an old-fashioned map of the night sky.
A series of graphical notations by Cornelius Cardew was particularly mesmerising. The audience was left gawping at music that was little more than abstract shapes – masses of overlapping circles, or parallel, slightly quavery lines, or a circuit board designed by a lunatic. These were played alongside audio recordings of fences in Sandwick, where the wind had turned them into a sort of aeolian harp. The music sounded as odd as it looked, courtesy of Neil playing the lidless piano’s strings with the horsehair from a fiddle bow and a dragged chisel at various points.
Surely the most hallucinatory part of the evening was the UK premiere of Øyvind Torvund’s Abstraction in Folk Art. In brief – Neil was triggering a series of coloured boxes from a projector with a pedal, and a series of folk art (mostly Norwegian textiles and details of church paintings) with a button.
They were ‘played’ as part of the music, so the visuals changed with the notes. The sound was unorganised audible squiggling, and as abstract as music gets. There was a great deal of wild electronic notes, like an Atari 2600 being tased. At times there was a sampled fiddle. At others, Neil played slightly-out-of-time with recordings of himself playing the same piece.
As the busy auditorium emptied, the crowd were buzzing, eagerly discussing the spectacle they’d just seen. There’s little doubt that Neil was trying to make an impression on the audience – confronting them with the wildly unfamiliar and, in some cases, not very pleasant to listen to, in the hopes that they would think about it, talk about it and remember it.
Wonderfully performed classical music was merged with starkly avant-garde, audio-visual art to create a vivid and indelible memory that was not wholly enjoyable, but entirely brilliant.
Neil will be returning in September for another classical recital; by then the audience might have stopped talking about Pictures at an Exhibition: Island Life but they definitely won’t have forgotten it.
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