When I arrived at Kings Place the walls had been freshly decorated with fish and bubbles. I was entering the venue on day two of Arctic Circle‘s Bubbly Blue and Green festival, day one having already seen the venue play host to the combined talents of Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer. For this second event, German pianist Hauschka was to be paired with the sublime cellist (and now Touch artist) Hildur Gudnadottir, with support provided by ISAN.
Given that the members of ISAN operate out of Copenhagen and, erm, Southend, you can imagine that they don’t play together very often. In fact last time I saw them/him they/he were/was a one-piece, with Robin Saville commandeering the name for his own ambient purposes. Tonight as a duo they were responding to the watery theme via their use of a “dripsaphone” in the construction of their music. This was a device which dripped water onto…well I couldn’t see exactly, but it sounded like a lovely amplified boink of water on china to me. At about this point I realised that this was the first time I’ve actually been in Kings Place’s Hall One. I’m usually in Hall Two or some tiny wee room (by wee room I don’t mean toilet, although some are not much bigger than that) watching skronky improv or something. With its lights glowing through slatted wood it looks like a (very) scaled down version of Amsterdam’s marvellous Muziekgebouw, with a similar attention to acoustic detail. Every sound ISAN produced was rendered so crisply, I started to feel I was in a nice bath, with the hot water tap dripping on my toe. And, I guess, that was the problem with the set – it was just too warm and too nice. The only cold, hard edges were those on the visuals, with rusting ferries and industrial complexes looming large amongst icy landscapes. Half way through they dispensed with the dripsaphone, as it required them to play too quietly, but even after that they didn’t manage to scale any snow-covered heights, just snowploughed gently along in retro-tinged electronica furrows, with only the occasional flurry of gentle glitch or woozy synth raising the heartbeat.
Those familiar with Volker Bertelmann’s recorded works as Hauschka may have been not entirely prepared for the darkness that was to follow, but I thought that the combination of his prepared piano with Hildur Gudnadottir’s cello was very special indeed. Bertelmann played a few solo pieces first, scattering all manner of devices across the strings, deadening the sound and turning his instrument into something more like a tuned percussion device. Delicious metallic rattles pervaded the pieces, like tiny men being woken by alarm clocks to start their jobs as tiny pneumatic drillers. Bertelmann reached into the back of his instrument like a mechanic under the bonnet, fiddling with strings, before sitting back down to play frantic cross-handed sections which sent notes flapping into the auditorium like shredded fan belt sections.
Before Hauschka was joined on stage by Hildur, Bertelmann took the time to explain how the aquatic theme had influenced what they were about to do. Apparently they decided to work from a set of Pantone colours which they had picked to represent the sea, using them as diving boards from which to leap off into their collaborative waters: blues, greens, turquoise and white. Right from the first of their six pieces, the influence of the cellist was apparent: she was to drag Hauschka out into much darker, more threatening waters. Swaying from side to side, her bow carved a wave across the strings. Her cello had a mournful voice-like quality, a sailor talking about the the loss of his ship in a storm perhaps, and forced Bertellman to take a different approach to his instrument; slower and more textural. Playing soft, pulsing patterns he rocked the boat with extra notes and missing notes, and caressed the strings with strands of cat gut or mermaid hair or something. Back inside his piano he produced some splintering-hull creaks, before unleashing a torrent of raindrops from the keys. While the preceding pieces were no more than semi-improvised, the closing encore piece (an homage to a death scene in Luc Besson’s Big Blue) was clearly very new to both, yet was all the better for it. It benefitted from a sense of mutual support, that their long, deep notes had limbs entwined around each other, that if either of them faltered they would be lost to the depths; it was so intense that I almost forgot to breathe. A magnificent end to a suitably deep, dark and mysterious performance.