Based offsite at a secret location in Cardiff, Sinfonia Cymru string ensemble present a new composition from Tom Raybould – Unease. Steph Power was on hand to witness it.
Sinfonia Cymru is a vibrant chamber orchestra comprised of young professionals rightly determined to expand our notions of ‘classical’ music: what it is, where it happens, and how we might experience it live. In 2013, they launched the ongoing ‘Unbuttoned’ series with screen composer Tom Raybould, in which broadly familiar repertoire pieces are performed in informal settings with interactive audio-visuals. This year, the creative team has been expanded to include a video artist, theatre director and producer with the idea of taking us further out of our comfort zone – indeed to explore the very nature of ‘Unease’.
The resulting event was designed to be far from the usual classical music concert. Part multimedia, part site-specific installation, part immersive experience, the idea was for the audience to allow the Sinfonia Cymru team to ‘colour the dark space around you’ with their ‘collections of uneasy sound, image and memory.’ Further ominous publicity warned, ‘you are right to be afraid of the dark; of being alone and of things you don’t understand. Fear is a good thing. Fear is your guide.’
The venue was kept under wraps until ticket holders finally learned it would take place at Jacob’s Market near Cardiff Central Station. Upon arrival, we milled around the stuffed animals and vintage bric-a-brac, musing upon this oasis of arty eccentricity in a desert of newly-developed office blocks, before being invited up fairy-lit stairs to the first of three, linked performance spaces.
Actually, first stop for most of the audience was the bar, wherein Dutch courage was available if desired. From there we were herded (in a manner not unusual these days for site-specific performances) into a brightly-lit room, bare but for a row of chairs, overhung with one light each. The chairs turned out to be for a Sinfonia Cymru chamber string ensemble, whose individual lights were switched on and off via trigger, depending where the audience stood. One by one the musicians entered, sat, and played a short, easy to listen to repetitive phrase whilst their light shone, falling silent when it went off. The effect was to create a collective audio-visual texture which waxed and waned in a minimalist fashion according to a simple interactive process.
So far so curiosity inspiring – but hardly prompting of unease. And thus the performance continued, with the sense that this was very much a work-in-progress. After a few, brief minutes, and a final tutti signalled by a robust ‘3, 4…’ from the lead violinist, it was time for room number 2. Here we were plunged into the threatened darkness, but not for long. Soon, we were lit by bright strobic flashes, timed to coincide with stabbing, 4-beats-to-a-bar interjections from the re-sited ensemble, this time with a gathering crescendo of background rumbling electronica… which prepared us for room 3, where the main – or at least the lengthiest – multimedia event took place.
Room 3 was a bare, grey-lit area – a gallery, in effect. The ensemble sat flanked by mixing desks and speaker cabs, through which Raybould and team pumped various pulsing riffs and electronically treated narration against a scrolling video backdrop of words and shapes. Gradually, a hypnotic wash of live strings emerged which, after looping around a melancholic chord sequence, moved into boppier, drum ‘n’ bass-inspired territory to a mixed soundtrack of pizzicato effects and grinding beats, complete with drops. Within the texture circled an anonymous voice, intoning snatches of sentences about fear: most notably the repeated question, ‘what is fear?’
The whole thing seemed to be aspiring to a kind of retro/futurist dystopian chic; in principle with excellent ideas, ripe for development, but in practice, needing to be further realised. There was certainly more surface than depth. Of a projected hour-long event, the actual performance lasted less than forty minutes. Shorter than the average concept album, let alone enough time to create an immersive experience – unless really setting out to deliver something short, sharp and shocking. But then ‘unease’ is not really about extremes. It’s rather about a lack of comfort, say; a worry or an anxiety. Even ‘fear’ seems to me stronger than ‘unease’, and I think the team didn’t quite manage to focus on what exactly they were setting out to do, nor why.
Indeed, I found the music of Room 3 to be the opposite of unease-inducing but rather comfortingly trance-like – and frankly reminiscent of the kind of backing track any decent pop session string band would be expected to sightread. The video and voice-over, too, were pretty basic in concept and execution. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, and the various moods and atmospheres surely had potential. But the pre-event blurb promised far, far more.
Perhaps it’s partly about a kind of artistic courage of conviction; for instance, had this very material been stretched into something which lasted several hours rather than several minutes, then I imagine a genuine unease – sensory and otherwise – would build between the creators, performers and audience. But whether the team actually wish to create unease as opposed to simply express it seems a key question yet to be addressed. I look forward to further development of the project.