|Ragnar Kjartansson’s An die Musik at Ambika P3
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved
Ragnar Kjartansson’s An die Musik
(Ambika P3. LCMF 2017. 3 December 2017. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
The opening event for the fifth annual London Contemporary Music Festival, LCMF 2017 was an extraordinary tour de force, Icelandic performance and video artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s take on Schubert’s 1817 song in celebration of the transformative power of music, An die Musik. The song, of just over three minutes’ duration, was performed continuously by five duos of young singers and pianists for seven hours in the cavernous, underground chamber of Ambika P3. I was able to attend the first three hours of this compelling and immersive experience.
The artist was not present – he would be in New York, as emerged from his illuminating lecture for the RA a few days earlier, but his colleague, curator and filmmaker Markus Thor Andresson, expertly oiled the wheels of this marathon performance, changing some of the pairings during rehearsal and, on his peregrinations in the auditorium, serving refreshments to the musicians, and even stepping in on piano to maintain continuity when one of the duos needed a natural break.
Kjartansson often deals with repetition in his epic performances. He had The National play one of their best-loved songs, Sorrow, for eight hours in New York’s PS1 gallery, and the final aria from The Marriage of Figaro was repeated by a fully costumed cast on stage for twelve.
He put An die Musik into context with concision and clarity in a short film (of the same duration of Schubert’s song!) made in 2012 to coincide with the work’s premiere in the Migros Museum for Contemporary Art in Zürich, also previewed on this site HERE. Kjartansson has always loved the song and been moved by its lyrics by the composer’s friend Franz von Schober, which ‘basically save you from suicide’.
He seeks out vast, echoing spaces to enhance his deconstruction of the piece to become ‘a Stockhausen-esque noise’, most effectively achieved in the stark, brightly lit industrial cavern of Ambika P3, a test bed for concrete in its previous life.
There was a disorientating and disarming quirkiness about the whole presentation. The welling up and dissipation of the song’s signature melody from different coordinates in the hall; the variations of pace and intensity of delivery from each performer, waxing and waning over time; the indistinct rumblings of the pianos, subtleties lost as their finessed accents collided unpredictably. Singers alternately stood by the pianos then perched on high stools when tiredness kicked in. Some projected with theatricality, others were more recessive, in a situation where the audience was fluid rather than traditionally static. Taking on fuel, liquid and solid, whilst performing was an art in itself – one pianist kept her left hand going whilst holding a sandwich in her right, singers would pause to take a mouthful then continue. Those left in the room would sometimes join in with other duos while their partners took breaks.
The audience played their part, sitting around the perimeter of the football pitch sized floor, then wandering to spectate close up, or climbing the staircase to mezzanine and balcony levels for aerial views with accompanying changes in acoustics. A baby in a buggy briefly became the focus for a formative, one-on-one musical experience.
There was something of a Roman amphitheatre about proceedings. The Coliseum without the violence, with musicians rooted to their positions whilst the crowd were free to amble (nobody threw anything, except unstated respect and appreciation), and also of the incessant flow of the Thames with its fast flowing currents causing serendipitous coalescences, rebounds, clashes and stirrings.
Above all, there was the increasingly spiritual sense that emerged from the songs’s substance, as the talented musicians grappled with the physical and emotional challenges of their brief and tiny gaps and silences insinuated themselves in the structure of Kyartansson’s entire edifice and artifice.
Patricia Auchterlonie, soprano
Rosalie Warner, mezzo-soprano
Alessia Naccarato, mezzo-soprano
Tom Kelly, tenor
Dan d’Souza, baritone
Thomas Ang, William Cole, Maria Staneva,
Ben Smith, Jelena Makarova, pianos