After a long lull in my photographic output, I have come out of a mental / spiritual / ontological guff. Site after site, book after book, friends’ suggestions after friends’ suggestions, all gave me momentary inspiration “Ah, yes, that will be useful to consider for my …”, which dissipated nanoseconds after I deleted the site / closed the book / shut down zoom.
I have no idea what caused the guff or how long it has had a grip on me. All I know is that I went to a concert by a drummer, percussionist and electronic artist late on Sunday night in Dartington, and had a caring phone call from a friend shortly afterwards, (the events are unrelated) and whatever it was, had been vibrated out of me.
The first comment on this blog came from fellow student Catherine Banks (see below) who directed me to a website which explains the origins of the effects of rhythm on our wellbeing. I am a convert! I have a set of drums in the attic …
The event was advertised as : “Patterns on skins, both human and drums: a late-night set from drummer and percussionist Crystabel Riley”. Having in mind how much my husband enjoyed the wild, non-conformist piano-concerto by pianist Haushka at Dartington 2 years ago, I thought that he would enjoy this ‘experimental’ performance too.
Crystabel was introduced by a member of the London-based group Cafe Oto (Japanese for sound or noise) formed in 2008. Noah Payne-Frank writes: “The Music at Cafe Oto is not for everyone, and you can’t rock up there on a random night certain you will enjoy it.” (1). The same article makes reference to “music on the margins and located in one of the most aggressively gentrified areas of the capital. ” (1) – a juxtaposition which was reflected in the sounds and audience on the night we went -. ‘Co-founder Hamish Dunbar explains: “Essentially there’s an underlying idea behind all the music. Maybe it’s political, or it’s social, or it has a purpose, bigger and more powerful.” ‘(1) (This quotation will be even more relevant in our next Cafe Oto experience two days later reported below.)
Crystabel’s 50 minute performance was the most powerful I have ever experienced. I had never been to a drum performance, let alone a solo one, so I did not know what to expect and so was curious. It was enthralling: it evoked in me every experience I have ever had in listening to any, to me, conventional music performance (my favourite is the music in Madama Butterfly by Puccini): I saw colours; I felt the romance; I was involved physically through the strong timbre of the piece; it totally transported me to different places: the soft bits took me to rivers, the crescendos took me up to climaxes where the air is rarified and then right down to a plain of whispering grass, galloping gazelles and thundering wildebeest.
Apart from the ‘skin’ of the drum, Crystabel used the rim and some flat pieces of metal, the shape of a potter’s comb, that she had placed on top of two of the drums and jettisoned them thirty minutes into the programme.
She was telling her rhythmical stories sometimes using just two adjacent drums, sometimes jumping over one drum with her sticks to resonate with a different one, sometimes including all the drums in different pairings. Her fluidity and dexterity were impressive as were the movements of her feet on the bass drum and the high hats. (I had to look up their names because I did not have a clue as to what they were called.). Her performance was enhanced by the sounds made by the shells sewn onto her tights which sounded when she used her feet to work the hi hats and the bass drum.
The venue, a cavernous medieval hall, was, in my opinion, the perfect space in which to experience this concert because the acoustics were perfect: in the absence of any soft furnishings, with all the windows and doors open, the sound wrapped around each one of us sitting in the pandemic-specified, distanced chairs. That same space between us also helped to make us feel the vibrations and rhythms of the sounds.
When I spoke to Crystabel afterwards, she said that she loved the way the space carried her sounds. I think it may have been her first concert because she was very self-conscious with all the applause and just came back to her seat. The fact that she does not yet have a website or CDs also tells me that she is new to performing. There were a few young girls who came up to her & wanted to photograph her tights!!
Our next experience came a few days later when we decided to watch a different experiment, one billed as “A delicate, late night exploration of sound and silence with situational performer Ryoko Akama, as part of our (Dartington’s) collaboration with Cafe Oto.”
The venue was changed at the last minute so, instead of the large baronial hall, we were in a much smaller auditorium with stage curtains, raised seats still pandemic ally distanced but arranged in a horseshoe formation around the props. The area was very dark and the atmosphere almost reverential.
At the arranged time a very slight person walked into the ‘stage’ area and walked around the props very deliberately but very quietly. She went to the ladder and fiddled with something. If only we could see what the objects were!
Very soon into the time in which nothing seemed to happen, the stomach of a spectator behind us started making ‘digesting’ noises and I did not know if this was an extension of the ‘situation’ or just a very unfortunate incident. Then my husband started getting irritated at not seeing anything happening. At this point I had two performances going on at the same time: one on the stage area and one on the bench next to me. My husband started folding his arms and huffing, irritated at not being able to understand what was / not going on.
By now, there were reactions to what Ryoko was doing: when she touched something near the bottles, a very high frequency sound started; then she went to the next bottle and the same but higher frequency sound came and I could feel my husband’s irritation growing because high frequency sounds hurt his ears. The arms were unfolded and then folded again noisily!
Another fiddle with the props and a light came on on the ladder. Because we had been used to a very dark hall, the light, even though it was encased in a brown paper bag, was painfully bright.
More fiddling with the electronics and a tiny hair dryer came on. We only knew it was a hair dryer by the sound it made. Then, a tiny TV set came on with interference lines and crackling sounds emanating from it.
More fiddling and different lights came on reflected off a copper plate. We only knew it was a copper plate after the end of the show when we could walk around the props.
Under the miniature TV set was a mini loud speaker which broadcast the sound of a distant frog croaking. Natural noises?
Although I was fascinated by how different this theatre performance was, I was getting irritated because I could not understand what Ryoko was doing and why, and I could not see a sequence pattern in it either. It was all seemingly random acts which either electronically switched on lights or made noises.
From where I was sitting I could see that this was a bottle and that there was something in it which was made to thump the curtain over and over again. Only after the performance could I see that it was an artificial butterfly – probably reacting to the lights but it repeated its action whether or not the lights came on.
Another element was a football commentary which again had a lot of electronic interference so you could occasionally but only vaguely understand what the commentator was saying at times. We learned afterwards that the suitcase on the table was the storage box for all the props.
From her website I realised that she makes her own props by recycling found objects, and, by using them, generated the energy such as heat, sound and electricity, used in the performance.
Overall, I was very glad I went to see this situational performance. Ryoko made me think not only about the importance of listening, of using my imagination because I could not see every prop she was using, and trying to figure out why she was doing what she was, but also the importance of stretching the concept of performance beyond the conventional. I also tried see the connections she was trying to show me in her ‘son et lumière’ performance and how the two were connected. She made me, time, space, culture, sound and light come together in a way that made me realise the relevance of what she was doing in a very unique way.
If performance means that you are making the audience think and react, that you are making them see and feel something new, that you are making your props relevant in your performance and that you make the audience carry what you have done away with them and question what you were doing and find possible reasons why you were doing it, then I think Ryoko’s performance was just that. The second performance happening next to me was entertaining and, possibly expected but not wasted: seeing something so ‘out there’ must stay with you for a long time and will probably connect with some other performance, in another theatre and another time if our minds are receptive to new, artistic and cultural expressions!