Mike Atkinson

Swimming: binaural headphones show, Broadway Cinema, Friday December 2

Posted in Broadway, gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 8, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

“Are you here for the binaural?” The respectable looking lady to our right leaned over to us, with a friendly, enquiring smile, before introducing herself as the mother of Swimming’s singer John Sampson, and their drummer Pete. During the conversation which followed, I was hit with a new thought: to fully grasp where the art is coming from, perhaps you need to talk to the mother. For John and Pete’s mum was not only a mine of information – biographical details, key career highlights, the full skinny – but she was also possessed of a keen understanding of the ideas, inspirations and aspirations that have informed John’s songcraft.

And there was nothing that she didn’t know about “binaural” performance methodology, either. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a method of sound recording that seeks to reproduce the exact sensation of being in the same room as the musicians, by means of microphones which are attached to the ears of the binaural broadcaster.

For this unique performance at Broadway, Swimming were cloistered away in the Lounge, while the rest of us gathered inside the Café Bar, each equipped with a pair of high-specification cordless headphones. Our channeller for the evening was Dallas Simpson, who has been working within this medium for the past ten years. “My ears are your ears”, he told us before the set began, explaining that we were about to be offered “a one-to-one relationship with Swimming”.

Two video displays were activated, each beaming onto a different wall of the bar. On one wall, a fixed camera showed Simpson in the middle of the lounge, slowly moving between the seated players. On the other, a camera attached to Simpson’s head showed us what he was seeing, as he moved this way and that.

As the performance began, introductory sounds of running water were replaced by the music of the band, transmitted from the instruments in the Lounge to the ears of the bar. Indeed, there was no external amplification whatsoever; if you slipped off your cans, all you heard was the rare silence of a packed city centre bar on a Friday night.

What hit you first was the extraordinarily spatial, three-dimensional quality of the sound, which felt as if it existed outside of your head, filling the room.  The effect was amplified by a number of long white tubes, which Simpson arranged on the floor of the performance space, occasionally tilting them hither and thither.  The tubes acted as speakers, channelling each individual player’s contribution from one corner to another, and increasing the sensation of distinct sonic separation.

By stepping around the performance space, drawing close to different band members in turn, Simpson was able to subtly influence the mix, his physical proximity to any chosen instrument increasing its prominence in our ears. His intent, focussed, acutely “present in the room” demeanour set the mood for the audience, who remained in rapt concentration throughout.

Some closed their eyes and surrendered to the sonics, while others flicked their gaze from one wall to the other, connecting the two pieces of visual information – but all were actively engaged in an exercise of sustained listening, of a nature that was wholly unlike anything that you could have found at a standard rock gig.  The communal listening experience was still present, but our responses were freed from the usual influence of the crowd.

The performance differed in other ways, too. Projected high above our heads, there was an Olympian detachment about the players – and yet at the same time, an extraordinarily direct and intimate connection was formed between them and us. In turn, this informed the band’s re-interpretations of their recorded material.

In marked contrast to the closely melded indie-rock production of the records, in which individual parts coalesce into a fuzzed-out whole, this was a performance that invited you to separate out the components of each track. Noisy and pumping on their parent albums, the songs became contemplative and delicate, with sparkling, stripped-down new arrangements.  Swimming Unplugged… or was it Swimming Re-wired?

On Sun In The Island, for instance – a song inspired by a search for inner spiritual calm, following a near-miss encounter in a shoot-out on the streets of Sneinton – the pounding synth riff was transferred to a softly tinkling xylophone. It was a beautiful, affecting transformation.  At other times, songs dissolved into extended, unstructured, unhurried interludes, before eventually regrouping into recognisable new melodies.

With few clear pauses in the music, and without the physical presence of the players to encourage us, applause only broke out a couple of times before the hour was up. It felt odd, clapping for people who weren’t really there, and who couldn’t hear us clapping anyway. (Binaural is a strictly one-way process, you see.) But as the spell finally broke, and as the lights went up, restoring Friday night normality, the cheers rang out loud and clear. This was a remarkable, bold and brilliant venture, from a band that had pushed itself to new heights of creativity. Much like the rest of us, the mother and her friends beamed from ear to ear with blissed-out joy – and with justified pride, too.

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