Riot Ensemble: Solstices at Kings Place review - Pitch-black concert is a primal thrill

·3 min read
Riot Ensemble (Justyna Skwierawska)
Riot Ensemble (Justyna Skwierawska)

If you’ve ever been awoken by a disconcerting thump in the night and frantically tried to assess whether it was the cat, the upstairs neighbour or a crazed axe-murderer hacking down the front door, you’ll know that sound holds a certain power in the dark.

And in this performance of Solstices — Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s mercurial piece for 10 instruments, which is by turns meditative and violent, and is written to be played in total darkness — the force is undeniable.

Creating that kind of sensory vacuum is easier said than done. Before tonight’s performance, Riot Ensemble’s artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum tells the crowd how much effort has been spent in the build-up to the concert, covering every light source in the hall. They did an almost perfect job of it — I can’t see my hand before me, and the only thing I can make out is a very faint glow behind the stage, although it looks like little more than a fog-cloaked lighthouse in the distance.

To be entirely honest, I’m glad that this one almost imperceptibly dim light survived. In a particularly pandemicky turn of events, I’m in the grip of post-vaccine fatigue during the concert, and if it was in absolute darkness, without that one light to cling to, I’m worried the more tempestuous parts of the piece might have finished me off. I mean that as no insult; when the sound swells to monstrous proportions, a shapeless beast from the gloom, it’s the kind of primal thrill that only live music can conjure.

The darkness amplifies everything. During the sedated drones of the quieter sections, as the guitar and detuned piano begin to coalesce, it becomes easier than ever to get lost in thought. But as things take a turn for the vicious, with clattering drums and animalistic screeches from the horns, it feels inescapable. Holloway-Nahum warned the audience in his pre-show introduction that there would be three “cataclysmic” interruptions, and he wasn’t overstating it. After the first almighty crash, I can feel my heart pounding in my chest.

The lack of vision also ups the challenge for the musicians on stage, who not only have to memorise the music, but must also steer the ship through sound cues alone. It’s a challenge they all rise to, with incredible discipline and endurance.

Without looking at my watch (phones are strictly banned, lest their pesky lights ruin the mood), it’s near impossible to say how long the music goes on for. Time seems to bend in the absence of light, to the point that I can’t tell whether we’ve been listening for 20 minutes or two hours, but it’s all part of the otherworldly pleasure. As the lights gradually return and we see the musicians on stage once again, it’s like returning to our own planet. We may have spent all that that time in the dark, but the journey was illuminating.

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