Sonic Meditations #4: Concrete music

The Multi-Story Orchestra have been taking performances of classical music to car parks in London, Birmingham and Ipswich. At the end of the season, Emma Warren finds out what happens when classical strings bounce off concrete.

Solo cellist Nathaniel Boyd is in the corner of a car park in Peckham, bow drawn. People are sat on hay bales as he hovers over the opening notes of Bach’s Suite No. 1 In G Major. We’re at Bold Tendencies’ car park in Peckham, with a few hundred people who’ll be experiencing a very specific kind of listening, where music by Bach and Hungarian composer and philosopher Kodaly will reflect off concrete walls instead of the plush upholstery and wooden floors of a concert hall.

It’s a new and powerful experience for most people in the audience says artistic director Kate Whitley. “People applaud at the end but also between movements, which you don’t tend to get in concert halls. I think that indicates a certain way of listening and responding – and it means the musicians are more aware of the audience.”

“I think it creates a really exciting atmosphere,” she adds. “In a concert hall people go quiet by default but here people are going quiet and listening intently in a space where you wouldn’t expect it.”

It’s not an easy space for the musicians to work in. In rehearsal there’s a struggle with the music sounding ultra resonant – ‘really boomy’ – without audience members to soak up the sound. When the space fills up with people, the sound gets too dry. So Multi-Story commissioned acousticians Sound Space Vision to even out the listening experience. They made hanging perspex panels to stop the sound bouncing up and through the beams and gaps in the ceiling, and wooden panels to put around the orchestra.

You could have heard a car key drop in the seconds before Boyd turned the car park into a concrete box overflowing with music. Kodaly’s Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello is a rich and complicated piece of music, written in 1915 and overtaken by World War I before being performed for the first time in 1918. The lower strings are tuned down one semitone, a trick that the The Velvet Underground plucked out of the ether and adapted a half century later. The music drags itself across the car park floor, a mixture of dogged determination and outright exhaustion. By the second movement it’s picking itself up in wildly complex time signatures – 6+4/8 – and folding in undertones of Hungarian folk music. And in the third, it’s a whirl of sonic reds and oranges, where slap-plucked strings and intense bowing create a musical dervish dance that holds our collective attention like it’s a telegraph wire and we’re the birds perched on it.

It would sound spectacular anywhere but it sounds particularly powerful here. “The sound bouncing off concrete creates a different quality of sound than you’d get in a concert hall,” says Whitley. “That can bring a really great immediacy to the sound, especially in the Peckham car park where there’s a low ceiling so the audience sits really close. The sound has an immediacy.”

“Listening is a ritual,” she adds. “It’s an amazing thing for people to do, sat in silence.”

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