There are few venues in London as capable of transporting an audience as Wilton’s Music Hall. Even in stillness and silence, it’s an incredibly evocative space; in the corridors and stairways, with their peeling paint and flaking plasterwork, shadows of the past loom large while the interior of the hall itself has an almost church-like quality.
This collaborative project by the young Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and experimental film-makers, the Quay Brothers, explores the relationship between the visual and the aural. Ibragimova could have played a straightforward recital in this atmospheric space and it would have already been a memorable experience; instead an attempt has been made to examine what a musical performance looks like as well as what it sounds like, to play with what the audience expects from a classical recital.
The piece, a commission for the Manchester International Festival, was originally staged at Chetham’s School of Music, before being presented here by the Barbican as part of their Blaze Festival. The performance begins with Berio’s Sequenza VIII. We first see Ibragimova’s elongated shadow as she descends from the gallery with her violin in hand. She plays the intricate Berio standing in front of the stage, gently washed with light. It is a furious, fractured piece, and at times it seems impossible that this kaleidoscopic sound is the product of single violin; the violence of the music is occasionally punctuated by the grumble of passing trains and this seems fitting. Over the tops of the audience’s heads sometimes all you can see of her is the darting tip of her bow, frayed like a comet tail.
When Ibragimova returns to the stage for the second piece, Bach’s Ciaccona from Partita no 2, she is spot lit from beneath, her shadow stretching towards the music hall’s peeling ceiling, towering above the audience. Every small shift in posture causes her shadow self to fluctuate, Alice-like in height, while every gesture is magnified, intensified. At times the shadow takes on a malign, arachnid quality. It’s hypnotic and also unsettling, this living shadow theatre, and the figure on the wall starts to feel like a distinct, formidable entity.
During the interval, as the audience file out into the bar, up the stairs into or out into the alley outside Wilton’s, strains of Biber’s Mystery Sonata, played by Ibragimova, filter through the building from an unseen source, the music filling the crumbling corridors, a series of startling sounds caught in the gaps and snatches between people’s interval conversations. (There is an invitation to explore the space during this time, but the acquisition of drinks takes precedence for many).
The final piece of the evening, Béla Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin is played alongside a specially created stop motion film by the Quay Brothers entitled I looked back when I reached halfway. The Bartok piece was written when the composer was dying and while the film is often abstract, it does have something of the texture of memory, an act of ‘looking back’ just as the title suggests, and while the images do not overtly synchronise with the music, they do seem in harmony with it. There are clouds of smoke, a fountain pen scratching out musical notation, a window fluttering like the wings of an insect. An eyeball is seen in Buñuel-esque close up, the cornea taking on a lunar quality. The visual palette is muddy and muted but there are vivid splashes: the recurring image of a child’s face surrounded by white roses.
The film does not hijack, does not overtake things, and Ibragimova remains the dominant presence in scarlet silk at the side of the stage. Instead the images and the music feed one another and the venue itself, evocative yet fragile, only adds to the power of the experience.