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Brighton Festival 2016

Song Conversation

Laurie Anderson, Nik Bartsch, Elvin Aarset

Genre: Music, Performance Art

Venue: Brighton Dome


Low Down

A Brighton Festival Exclusive, billed as a highlight of the 2016 Brighton Festival.

Renowned for her inventive use of technology, and regarded as one of America’s most daring creative pioneers, Laurie Anderson called this her most perfect collaboration: a song conversation between fellow musicians – composer pianist Nik Bartsch and Guitarist Elvin Aarset.

Nik Bartsch is a pianist composer and producer who works both as a solo artist and a member of groups Mobil and internationally highly successful project Ronin. Elvin Aarset is a guitarist of diverse orientations who has worked both with Ray Charles and Nils Petter Molvaer. His early influences come from Hendrix, Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Billed as an alluring exchange of songs and traditions, their collaboration resulted in an evocative and spellbinding performance.



“We’re going to walk through these songs stopping at places” says Laurie Anderson in her introduction to Song Conversation. “We’re going to perform some of our own songs and some of other peoples songs”.

Whilst the smoke itself created its own constantly changing forms as it drifted in the light like a dragons tail, traces of story rose and dipped beneath a sea of sound, sometimes coherent, sometimes fragmented. The musical score was repetitive and rhythmic. At times melodic, at others brutal and broken. Even silence can become part of the score if you know how to use it.

Violin, guitar, a grand piano, laptops, light and smoke helped to build this magical dreamscape of noise, sound and music fused with written and improvised text.

Anderson’s eclectic multi-disciplinary career has spanned the worlds of art, theatre and experimental music and has seen her create works as a writer, director, visual artist and vocalist. As in some of her previous work, spoken word is integral to the soundscape she creates. Punctuated by rhythm and underscored by the sound of Elvin Aarsets intuitive guitar riffs, we heard of a woman who buried her dead father in the back of her own head, and henceforth giving birth to Memory.

Skilled in the language of the visual arts, Anderson and her collaborators play with our perception of reality, our craving for the logical and our need to find meaning.  A man stands in a recording studio. He is naked and covered in flies. The nightmare image worthy of a painting by Frances Bacon is suddenly turned on its head as the flies are revealed to be tiny microphones. The naked man had been asked to take off all of his clothes because they rustled during a recording session!

A fragment of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel emerges from the subtly changing soundscape but the story is changed with Gretel working as a cocktail waitress in a Berlin Bar and I find myself transported to somewhere between a Tarantino film, a fairy tale and a dream. Anderson draws on the techniques of Haiku to create word pictures that are underscored and wrapped in sound to build a movie in the mind. Suspended by sound, nothing is fixed; every thing is subject to change and floating in the smoke as it drifts across the stage, twisting and turning in the light.  Stories come and disappear into the ether to emerge in a different form. The recorded voice of Lou Reed, Anderson’s partner in life, emerges from the dream. Voice distortion is used to drop the pitch of Laurie Andersons voice and she sounds like a robotic man. I detected traces Schoenberg and Berg somewhere in the mix. The performers sometimes chat informally amongst themselves about what they are doing as they are doing it. Nik Bartsch, both percussionist and pianist, plays both the inside and outside of his grand piano beating the strings and hammering the keys and then unexpectedly a melody drifts into the chaos with the sound of Laurie Anderson’s violin and Elvin Aarsets haunting guitar.

Melody and  harmonies consistently break down and then rebuild themselves. Then everything falls apart again. The trio creates a sense of journey through a constantly changing landscape of sound and story.

I couldn’t help but think of the filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky whilst I was immersed in this performance. This quote from his book ‘Sculpting in Time’ came to mind – ‘The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible. The absolute is only attainable through faith and the creative act”.

In a contemporary world of confused narratives Song Conversations explores the beauty of chaos in a universe of noise. To me it was sound sculpture, captivating, entrancing, hypnotic.

Apparently some people left before the end of the show. Perhaps their expectations were more The Sound of Music rather than the Music of Sound?

Performed only once before at the Ludwigsburg Festival in Germany this was a UK Premiere. I’d happily see it again.