World Event Young Artists: Blackout, Nottingham Contemporary, Wednesday September 12
With all coats and bags checked in, and with all phones fully powered down – strictly no exceptions, folks – we were led into The Space in groups of four, through a curtained ante-chamber and into total darkness. We shuffled in with hands on each other’s shoulders, guided by ushers with see-in-the-dark sensors, who plonked each of us at some indeterminable spot in the middle of the never-more-vast floor. Robbed of visibility, we staked our positions with chat, easing the risk of being bumped into by stumbling incomers.
It was strangely disinhibiting, this blackness. I found myself talking to a young British writer, one of WEYA’s 1000 delegates from 100 countries, who had read at Broadway earlier that week. She had once dined at a blackout restaurant in Berlin, staffed by blind waiters, whose aim was to direct their diners’ focus solely towards the food. This was to be an analogous exercise, pitched at ears rather than tongues. Or, as the NME saw fit to put it: “an innovatively synaesthetic descent into a world of music-led sensory possibility.” Or, to put it less pretentiously, we were about to listen to a live music performance in the dark, without having a clue as to who would be performing, or what genre they would be performing in.
As the room filled, the hubbub swelled. I had expected hushed, reverential anticipation, not this giggly babble. And here we hit the first hurdle: as there were no house lights left to dim, and hence no cues that the show was about to start, the players were obliged to wade in over the top of our chatter.
Faced with a more typically reverential audience, who hadn’t been hanging out with each other all week, perhaps the opening notes would have silenced us. Failing that, maybe a more pronounced, more dramatic introductory flourish would have done the trick. But as it was, the unexpectedly low-key start – a solo male vocal, devotionally chanting in an unfamiliar tongue – barely registered in the room. As further voices made their entrance, so the conversation began to ebb, egged on by a good few shushes. (This blackness could be empowering, as well.)
After several austere minutes of unaccompanied chanting, a drum struck up: an unexpected jolt of energy, which drew claps and cheers. Other stringed instruments eventually appeared, as the music built in intensity and tempo, without surrendering its core spirituality. But what was this music? Was it North African, Middle Eastern, Arabic? In what context was it more usually performed? What did the words mean? What emotions were being expressed?
And who was playing it? Where were they in the room? And where was everyone else in the room? Were they facing the customary stage area? Or had they turned round, as I had, to face what seemed the most likely source: upstairs, at the back, in the far corner? And were they standing, or sitting, or lying down?
The rhythms built and solidified. I stood up, suddenly emboldened and – what the hell, let’s go with the flow – ready to dance.
At this exact point, the music suddenly stopped and the lights gradually raised, revealing a colossal projection screen, masking the stage. We shuffled around to face it, as abstract fields of colour emerged from the gloom, soundtracked by formless rumblings and quakings.
A giant pair of hands descended, sliding plastic shapes across a translucent table top. One shape said “stress”; another said “routine”. Some of the shapes left thin white lines behind them as they moved. Elsewhere, tiny cubes appeared, orbited by even tinier moons.
The sounds shifted this way and that: musique concrète, devoid of melody or rhythm. Perhaps the movement of the shapes was shaping the movements in sound? The more you looked, the more likely it seemed – and yet the laws of visual cause and sonic effect didn’t quite seem to apply, either.
Although different in almost every respect from the blackout performance, this still was an austere, demanding experience. Most of us stayed seated on the floor, gazing at the barely shifting visuals. Towards the far side of the room, the urge to lie down flat proved contagious for a sizeable minority. Around the sides, a small number opted to stand. Oddly, there was a greater sense of concentration in the room, now that we could all see each other – or was it merely zoned-out ennui? Time slowed to a standstill. How long had we been in here? It was hard to judge.
At the end of the second performance – which might have been twenty minutes long, or two hours long – the audience slowly rose from the floor and drifted away: softly and quietly, as if waking from a collective dream. A post-show Q&A had been billed, but this never materialised: a missed opportunity, as some background knowledge would have helped us to form a clearer understanding of what we had witnessed.
As it turned out, the blackout performance had been provided by a Lebanese ensemble, Taht Ahl El-Hawa, who had led us on a musical journey through classic and traditional Arabic renaissance styles, from the Byzantine period through to the 19th century. Performing from behind the projection screen, they were followed by Marco Colasso, a sound artist from Uruguay, whose piece Because was inspired – in ways that I couldn’t even begin to fathom – by the Beatles track of the same name. It had been an improvisational exercise, apparently separated into four sections – earth, fire, water and air – which sought to explore “the frequencies connecting the world and its inhabitants, and the relationships which occur between them”.
Although this had been a thought-provoking (if backside-numbing) experience for the most part, I left with a slight sense of disappointment, and a feeling that the promise of the evening had not been fully realised. Unannounced surprises might have their place, but perhaps a little retrospective context would have been no bad thing.