Do you remember the first time? Oh god yes. Edinburgh festival, August 2014. A part of Summerhall not used for performance before. Memories of stairs and enclosed spaces, racing pulse and eyes searching the half-dark, disembodied noise suddenly taking shape, into a woman straight out of Ready Steady Go, a guitar clanging six inches away, never knowing where the music would be coming from next, she and him taking turns with the drummer to lead a slow march through corridors that flickered into forever and disused rooms crumbling into dust. This song rearing wild and raucous, then that reaching out with softest caress, low hum, lean close to catch each word. One lyric in particular still unforgotten: “the soul lives on, though the bones are gone”. The bond to ephemeral things.
Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision? What looked like a one-off encounter turned out to be the beginning of something new. The musicians are a band from Norwich called the Neutrinos, who’ve played together for more than 10 years, collaborating for most of that time with visual artist Sal Pittman: she’s designed websites for them, CD sleeves, but in that room in Edinburgh she complemented the dereliction of the space with sharp and jagged projections, barred lines and black-and-white headshots for singer Karen Reilly to disappear against, a red wash here and a stark glare there, typography and geometry, always somehow fitting to the room and the song.
And the drums, the drums, the drums, the drums… They’re an odd band, the Neutrinos: rumbustious, resistant of cheap romance, they ricochet from one genre to another, never staying in any place too long. The same is true of where they choose to perform. More than a collaboration between themselves and Pittman, KlangHaus is a relationship with buildings, architecture, mostly disused or overlooked or hidden spaces where they can move free of preconception, respond to acoustic, shape fragments of story then shatter to abstract. Always it’s the drums most untethered in these spaces: the boom and pound and crash of them, pummelling the body with proximity.
All my cares just drift right into space: up on the roof, or among the rafters, among the hidden machinery of the Royal Festival Hall. Fast forward to summer 2016 and the surprise and exhilaration of encountering KlangHaus again. Everything different and nothing changed at all. Reilly’s voice floating down the staircase, her body jittery behind a screen, two drum kits lodged between structural pillars, ceiling pressing low. The shape of us, the audience, compressed and expanding like bellows – the show called On Air, it fits – as we lodge ourselves between electrical units, stretch along corridors, crouch in an unexpected den. A completely new set of songs, but that same feeling, of abrasion and gentleness, roar and whisper, held in intricate balance; of music finding a new language for performance.
Only for one night and no repeat… Up until 800 Breaths, I’d only seen Klanghaus in new venues – after Summerhall and the RFH, in a bus depot in Colchester in October 2016, cavernous by comparison to where they’d been before, except when they closeted themselves in mezzanine offices, or crammed into an abandoned Routemaster, or crouched in a mechanics tunnel below the floor. In that big open room Reilly twinkled and sang of how the stars obstruct our view of space and for the briefest moment the galaxy felt small. There’s a similar flash of warped perception in 800 Breaths, towards the end when a flicker of light draws eyes upwards and the scene projected on the ceiling is of dolphins and divers in deep shimmering blue.
But it was odd seeing KlangHaus in the same space twice: the attic of the RFH isn’t labyrinth enough or flexible enough to make true difference possible. Reilly’s voice floating down the stairs again, the drum kits lodged in the same place, the den shunted a little further along, but doing the same work in an arc of movement and energy that felt over familiar this time, even though the songs were mostly new. Of course, all of this is only a problem if you’re an obsessive who follows them around (and it’s worth mentioning that a friend saw the same performance as me, his first encounter with KlangHaus, and was highly impressed), but this was the show I felt most pernickity about: the moments of taking the pulse of the audience stagey and awkward, some of the songs – especially a furious cod-Rage Against the Machine number about golfing – unappealing, a disconnect to the relationship of sound and vision.
I was standing, you were there, two worlds collided: and then Reilly lodged herself between two machines that look like old American petrol pumps but with ampere measures protruding from the top, bracing herself against their cold metal as she sent her voice swooping, a swallow in flight, and it’s that unsettled seduction again. She stood inches away from guitarist Mark Howe, his fingers plucking lemon-sharp discords as their voices harmonised perfectly, with that and with each other, and it’s that spine-shiver swoon again. She sat with a musical saw and a conspiratorial smile and this way of performing live music as theatre, requiring the audience to be nimble, curious, attentive, comes into its own again. Ending with a walk across the actual roof of the RFH, gazing over landmarks and into clouds, those voices drifting from the air vents, the ghosts in the machines come to glorious, vivid life.
KlangHaus: 800 Breaths is on at the Southbank Centre until 23 July 2017. Click here for more details.