Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory and then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words and gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, and when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.
Ignas Krunglevičius’ Gradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on and around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. But at the introduction of the text, this not especially inviting material fell back, everyone’s attention now focused on the words appearing on the wall in front of us, which was divided in two, with one irrational interlocutor occupying each half. Initially, their conversation was bipped out by one singer at a time, one word at a time, but after a while loud electronic pulses took over. The content of the conversation was so fascinating, and so starkly in relief, that it made the accompanying music not so much irrelevant as unnoticed. That in itself, i think, proves it fitted what was going on—if not, it would surely have proved distracting. As it was, the half-baked discourse at the centre of Gradients was able to ring out loudly, confusing and amusing in equal measure. One can only wonder about the long-term value and power of a work like this, but last night, it certainly proved compelling.
Rather than words and syntax, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music had the grammar of gesture in its conceptual sights. A 40-minute work in three sections, it divided the Oslo Sinfonietta into three groups, placed at the sides and rear of the space. At the front, dead centre, was the titular box, with two holes into which the ‘conductor’ put both hands. This was facing away from the audience, but the contents of the box—the conductor’s hands, plus assorted ephemera and some curtains at the front—were hugely projected onto the entire wall. The first part, ‘Ouverture’, established the ‘grammar’ i mentioned before (although ‘rules of the game’ would describe it just as well), the conductor pointing towards different groups to elicit a response, and/or making different shapes and signs with his hands to trigger specific events. It initially seemed as though this was overlong, an entertaining idea stretched too thinly, but the subtlety of Steen-Andersen’s design slowly became apparent. At one point, the relationship between the musicians and the conductor lost all synchronicity, leading one to question exactly who was leading whom, or indeed if there was a ‘leader’ at all. i couldn’t decide whether the title of the second part, ‘Disambiguation’, was intended ironically, because the sheer range and complexity of hand shapes and gestures, as well as the speed with which they progressed and the tautness of the resultant interactions between the various groups, were all dazzling; perhaps they were only able to dazzle precisely because there was no longer any ambiguity. Only the last section, ‘Finale’, seemed to come unstuck; it was definitely overlong, in part due to some technical issues within the box, which by this stage had been festooned with elastic bands, motors with strings striking suspended cups and, at the last, a balloon, and getting all this in place meant the focus became a little lost. But Black Box Music is such a joyous riot of humour and unbridled joie de vivre that it simply didn’t matter; that it also demonstrated formidable technical prowess while asking some searching questions along the way only makes Simon Steen-Andersen’s achievement all the more astonishing. A truly unforgettable performance.