Norwich is like a little island, surrounded by twenty miles of open greenery in every direction. This is, of course, glorious, but, unfortunately, it does mean that we sometimes consider ourselves as somewhat separate from the rest of the country. Despite the strength of our art scene, people are often sceptical of a Norwich-based artist’s ability to make it past the boundary of the city walls. One group that shows that this is mere pessimism is The Neutrinos who, collaborating with visual artist Sal Pittman, have proved to be wildly successful with their mixing of music, atmosphere and oft-overlooked spaces. Over the course of the next month, they will be playing at London’s Southbank Centre and, happily, I had the privilege of being there during their opening night.
Here is what I experienced – and, gosh, was it an experience.
Standing awkwardly in the lobby of the Southbank Centre, a crowd eventually started to form around me. The demographic varied quite wildly – from a young woman who had been gifted the ticket for her birthday, to an older couple who couldn’t appear more passionate, to a small family, complete with the obligatory disgruntled teenager. What was evident from an early stage was that nobody else had been to a Klanghaus show before, so I couldn’t help but be excited on their behalf.
Eventually, once around twenty rather excited individuals had arrived, we were ushered upstairs - before realising that we were yet to wait longer. Dropping off our bags and making casual small talk, I would partly be inclined to assume that there was an intention for this stage’s inclusion; an apprehension-building exercise designed to increase the tension before the show. However, knowing how large institutions function, this was probably just a series of segments that had to take place for legal reasons. Still, it helped build some form of trepidation – not unlike the moments before exploring an abandoned building, or the calm before the storm.
A short introduction from a charming gentleman then occurred, which strangely managed to garner a round of applause, despite how it was about fire safety. It also made me ask the question as to why someone would want to wear earplugs at a gig – but each to their own, I suppose.
After a short while – made tolerable by how lovely the audience were – we were guided around the corner, through a fire door and into a rather tight stairway. The door was closed behind us in, what would become consistently apparent, an example of how to pack quite a few people in to a small space. I actually didn’t dislike this, as there was just enough breathing room – and the closeness made it feel very intimate. This artificially-created atmosphere was then enunciated expertly in the dramatic monologue of a slender man, stood at the top of the stairs.
Gazing down at us, he calmly introduced what was effectively the theory of the piece, in the form of a somewhat dictatorial speech. This included maintaining our awareness of our breathing (which was pertinent, as the presence of breath was clear within such a tight setting) and mentioning pulse repeatedly. As he peeked over the shoulders of those at the front, gesturing wildly, I couldn’t help but think that there was something immensely engaging about this whole affair already.
“Breathe together,” he said in an almost meditative tone.
We began to walk upstairs.
As we rose, the music in the background echoed, along with the faint pitch of a female singer. To the side of the staircase, so far out of the way that one would be forgiven for not noticing, stood a woman. She faced the wall, a flight up from where we were meant to continue toward, singing beautifully. Almost operatic in its cadence, people quickly leered around the corner or doubled-back, treading on toes as they clambered to briefly get a glimpse.
We had to continue – squeezing ourselves through the first of many crawl spaces as we entered the bowels of the building. With air vents wrapping around the exposed concrete and a large screen before us, heavy, thumping drums echoed, bouncing off the humidity that sat low in the claustrophobic room. A projection ran in tandem with this tribal beat; a plane, descending as it spun in perpetuity. The man who began the event appeared from behind us, pushing through the crowd as he hacked madly at his guitar – dramatic, choppy sounds that sent a residual echo up my spine – before he disappeared in to an even tighter cubbyhole than we had entered from. Soon after, as he settled into a space to the left of us, the woman appeared once more. She responded to the music with more operatic tones, effectively contributing the treble - dancing with us, then behind the screen, then sauntering as she sang through the crowd and disappearing deeper in to the darkness.
Honestly, I could write a novella breaking down what occurred around me during this event. From this quite high benchmark of experimental music and an immersive environment came a series of equally evocative pieces. A quirky, playful tune about being unable to get a golf ball in a hole came shortly after a rather transient number, followed by a series of much heavier songs. These built in intensity, culminating within a breakbeat-like number in a very confined space – the most traditional of them all, if it could be called that. The whole band sat in a line under a dropped-down ceiling, as we squished together before them. While the performance continued, the areas got even tighter and the artifice between the artist and the audience completely dissolved. At points, it was difficult to tell where you were meant to stand or if you were in the way. That was evidently the point, as there was no specific place they wanted you to be.
No stage, no formality, no confinements – just a musical performance that was almost pseudo-interactive in its magnetism.
The connotations of the stage had effectively been countered, giving way for an event that had a strange intensity about it – even in the calmest moments. As a relaxed song took place inside what can only be described as a cranny – juxtaposed interestingly by the presence of a full-sized double bass – I couldn’t help but think of how progressive this whole experience was. There is nobody else dealing with a space, the audience’s expectations or the performative elements of music in the way that this group does.
We stood, gazing upward at a projection of a skydiver falling, which echoed the beginning of the show with the spiralling fighter plane, as what would be the last song chimed in the background. Directed up another flight of stairs, the whole audience gasped.
A door opened, revealing a harsh ray of light from outside.
We were on the roof. Standing stock still, gazing in awe across London’s skyline.
Silence sat in the air.
What we see in the case of Klanghaus is a completely new way of looking at music; a manner which is more akin to the immersive environments of contemporary art than to the stereotypical gig. Through actively seeking to include every small effect, they have created something that is designed specifically for you; a narrative that you are part of, with your presence and experience at the very forefront of their thinking. The product is something that is both conceptually challenging and contrastingly natural. I find myself not reiterating the fact that nobody else is doing anything like this but asking why this is the case.
Surely, this is what all musicians should be aiming for – a genuine, human experience.
If you get the chance, I cannot recommend this event more. Whether it is an excuse to pop down to London to check out some galleries, or if you fancy just drinking a glass of wine next to the Thames, find a reason to see this.
You could take part in one of the most experimental musical performances this year and, in doing so, support Norwich-based artists. Who knows, in the future one of the group may serve you at the Playhouse and remember that you were there.
I can’t imagine anything more Norfolk than recognising literally everyone all of the time.
I also can’t think of anything more pleasant.
Klanghaus is performing at the Southbank Centre, London, from 1st to 23rd July
Performances are at 6.30pm and 8.30pm, varying depending on the day
Visit klanghaus.co.uk for more information