Live: Ragnar Kjartansson – The Visitors @ Brewer Street Car Park in London, 13/11/2015

Each of the nine screens switches on, one by one. On each, I see a musician in a different room of the house (namely, a “two-hundred year old Rokeby villa on the banks of the Hudson River in New York State”). A guitarist perched on the edge of a bed, back-dropped by flaking wallpaper and old photographs. Another in a freestanding bath with an acoustic guitar resting up against the side (Ragnar Kjartansson himself, no less). Singers congregated on an outside patio. A double-bassist perched on an ornamental chair in front of a makeshift bed. All of them have headphones on and microphones in front of them, and through this equipment they are connected. Yet without the presence of music to truly unify them, they are alone for now.

The five minutes prior to performance is always a time for private preparation. The inner voice makes demands for calm and concentration. Breathe deeply. Sit upright. Focus. Play it just as you’ve practiced. With each musician granted an individual screen to inhabit, I’m able to focus on how each makes the psychological leap from person to performer. The pianist puffs on a cigar and sends smoke wafting across the lounge. An accordionist sings the melody idly and a few of the musicians join in from the other screens, pre-empting the performance to come, impatiently seeking glimmers of musical unity in eachother before it’s truly time. Several musicians mumble cliché concerns of live performance and broadcast: is everything working? Are we ready? Am I in tune?

The song starts to stir. An acoustic guitar. A double-bass. A voice, then two. I hear the nervous, trance-like excitement of performance thickening into being. The first time the band all resound together is like a soft burst of flame; the initial evidence of unity between them, as the song streams through wires and wafts through the rooms of the house. Melody kicks up gently off the dusty rugs, the wooden glazed flooring, the faded items of furniture…separate room reverberations coalesce above my head, and the melody encircles me with just the right balance of melancholy and affirming love. Just as the scent of a house triggers a whole spectrum of memories, joyous and sad, the song fills my ears as a cocktail of fondness and unplaceable longing. I’ve never heard the piece before and yet instantly it sounds familiar. Has it lingered in the house for centuries before the musicians ever arrived? An old folk song flooding through the walls and floors, possessing the guests as they make contact with the surfaces?

As the song starts to decay, the musicians abandon their screens to congregate around the piano, swigging champagne, all physically together for the first time. I bid farewell to any residual suspicions over whether the performance was indeed conducted in real time. And then they venture outside, trudging down into the garden – still singing, carrying the song with them – to depart into a nearby field as the sky reclines into the overcast grey, quietly inviting the music into the expanse. As I glance at the empty screens, I think about the comfort of companionship; how the warmth of community and friendship permeates even the cocoon of momentary solitude. The video lingers as the song falls out of earshot. The screens are still. A technician comes round to switch them off, one by one.

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