The New Experimentalists

Live: The New Experimentalists @ Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, 14/01/2014

I walk in, and the atmosphere of a performance in progress swallows me whole. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is unquestionably an auditorium – luxury tiered seating, low lighting, a high sloped ceiling somewhere up there in the darkness – and its formidable call for silence is a roar in itself. But it’s the performance itself the renders the atmosphere truly pristine: a cluster of female voices, asymmetrically arranged both in terms of their physical position (sat on a fractured grid of cushioned stools) and in terms of the tonal totality; slanted chord formations licking at the gateway of resolve, rotating and shifting in and out of line with eachother. There’s something incredibly fragile about Lina Lapelyte’s work, like a sculpture suspended from a solitary human hair – whistles mimic the loose congregation of birdsong set in glass, melodies swerve and shimmer like malleable sunbeams.

“It’s like that”, declare the voices in smooth, drawn out breaths. It’s a strange right-angle of a sentence; meaningless and sort of unnecessary, cast within melodies that float and refuse to come down, while a synthesiser bobs like a buoy on a gentle sea, warm and vocal in tone. A few further phrases sit uncomfortably with me too, and it isn’t until the explicit reveal of the dénouement that I realise why: “I’ll take you to the candy shop / I’ll let you lick the lollipop,” comes the serenade, pulping up 50 Cent’s misogynist rap chorus into a syrupy nursery rhyme. It’s surreal to hear such hard sexism pushed into places it doesn’t fit, stripped of the guttural voices and loud volume that gifts the words their intimidating masculinity, rendered puerile via the grace and patient contemplation of their re-delivery. The end credits reveal that Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy and Wiz Khalifa all had the same treatment throughout tonight’s performance, and it’s at this point that it all makes sense.

The theme of drastic recontextualisation continues with Rie Nakajima. Her eyes narrow as she scans the room, looking for the best location to situate the motor in her hand, like an architect filling the empty spaces to redress aesthetic balance or ensure physical stability. She casts objects all across the auditorium: a tin-foil sheet gasps under motorised friction in the aisle to my left, a metronome chimes at the edge of the stage, a wind-up toy writhes upon a glockenspiel somewhere behind me. At one point I feel as though I could close my eyes and use the proximity and reflections of each sound to paint the room’s exact dimensions onto my imagination – with lines springing forth from acoustic response and the unique interrelation between each of the sounds – but Nakajima keeps building beyond a point where this is possible.

The noise thickens; individual surfaces become indistinguishable as seams are squashed into neighbouring noises, and the piece moves from what started like wires strung delicately across empty space to the sensation of being submerged in an aquarium tank full of smog water; audience coughs begin to sound like people choking on the air that congeals into clumps, and as some listeners start to leave – seemingly overwhelmed by the sound that clings to their faces and chests – Nakajima’s piece leaps into the empty seats. The metronome – once so clear, like a pebble dropped onto a still lake – is now inaudible, like the same pebble dropped into a turbulent sea forever colliding with itself. Architecture disappears, and I can no longer hear my hand in front of my face. Breathtaking in more ways than one.

The piece is flushed out during the interval, and Richard Skelton (performing here tonight with Autumn Richardson) conjures a gentle return to activity. I’m somewhat relieved to find myself in a distinct and earthly location after Nakajima’s firm dislodging of place: rural northern UK to be exact, where cello bows are rasping against a soil crusted onto the strings, and feedback rises and dips like sun glare on film. For the most part I sense the energy in Skelton’s music rather than hear it, and like the mist that crawls across the hills in the washed-out accompanying projection video, there is implacable stillness within the moments of explicit movement and vice versa – a monotony without traceable source, like roots running unseen under the earth as the tones in the higher frequency ranges writhe and quiver like emaciated and bony tree branches, forking out into individual splinters of frequency shaped by nature’s intricate path of causation. History ripples within the solid objects, and without the presence of actual instruments to designate source action to the end product, I am lead to imagine violins and cellos singing of their own will, clustering into choir voices that criss-cross toward the ceiling.

Credit to whoever sequenced the lineup tonight, as the disorientation of Jennifer Walshe’s work feels even more potent for having emerged for meditating on Skelton’s fixed physical location. Nonsense marriage statistics, operatic paranoia, idle daydreamer Google searches, voyeuristic Twilight obsession, “they ate my brother!”, emotional extremes inverted with the flick of a switch, “climb a mountain; punch the face of God!”, salivary dead air, chimpanzees falling off cliff edges, chattering brain viruses, sudden mutations of identity and accent (Irish, Canadian, American), melody jammed into exaggerated media speak, into blubbering breakdowns, narratives are chopped up, channel-hopped, forced together on a backdrop of traffic noise and electro-static. I feel as though I’m clambering through a maze of rooms, in which drama is mid-swing and nightmares are hitting climactic peaks.

At certain points Walshe appears to me as a neutral vessel – a crash test dummy, a blank canvas built for whatever purpose – while at others she is disturbingly human, dragged unwillingly through a zigzag of sensory overload. At one point the words lodge in her throat and only surface after a series of splutters and heaves – “X-1-IS-GREEN”, whatever that means – while the sound of cracking ice smothers like a straightjacket; blocks of cold pressed right up against her ribcage and ceasing respiratory flow. She ends by throwing an imaginary grenade into the audience. We’re all totally lost by now, and I’m unnervingly desensitised to my own fictional detonation, too exhausted to react, too bewildered to die.