SENSORY REVIEW: Writer Megan Orpwood-Russell takes you through her synaesthetic responses to a cultural event. First up: Hahn and Hauschka at the Bishopsgate Institute.
The pairing of contemporary classical composer Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka, and internationally renowned violinist Hilary Hahn was always going to yield interesting results. The former is known for his interpretive use of materials to complement his piano – ping pong balls, gaffer tape, magnets and the like are all thrown into the instrument to diverse effect. The latter is known for her solo performances, technical brilliance and commitment to new music.
The collaboration is not unsurprising, but it does forge an alliance that seems intent on exploring new musical territories: last year saw the two musicians produced Silfra, an album of improvised pieces recorded in a ten day stint in Iceland. After seeing them perform on Friday night at the Bishopsgate Institute, my synaesthetic eye has seen new worlds, worlds characterised by mellifluous discord. The weighty notes of Hauschka’s piano provide a kind of bedrock, above which Hahn’s violin soars with the scent of cut grass. Under the pungent whiff of damp earth, feathers and bright lemons are glimpsed through half-shut eyes. The evening is tinged with rosemary and birdsong and light flickering through leaves.
From the start, as Hahn’s violin begins to speed through the high notes, sunlight gradually warms my skin – like rose petals falling upon me. The notes are red and gold and molten, warm and dense and viscous. The exchange between Hahn and Hauschka, between piano and violin, feels like a conversation. The piano presents triangles – bitter, tart, unripe apples with a lingering scent of woodsmoke.
Eyes closed, I rush into a pool of green – the violin pushing like a sharp breeze. The spaces between taste light and fragrant – like coriander or mint. There are sound ghosts, tricks of the light. Low crackle is a deep fuchsia. Sudden urgency, bright red feathers. In my mind’s eye I lie on cold glass and see circles rotating. The sound hits me like a lighthouse beam, illuminating but also earthy. I can feel leather. Washed on a tide of sound honey – like sliding my hand into cold marbles. Cherries and tart, green triangles return once more. Red bass piano; yellow violin highs; acid blues shooting throughout like pastel fireworks. My scalp prickles with the intensity.
And now, the feeling of squeezing water from a sponge. The coarse feel of natural sponge is at my finger tips. Citrus flavours flood my mouth whilst the rumble of the piano feels like walking barefoot in shale. Falling piano is blue, rich, deep – shot through with lime. Shimmering purple circles faded to ice blue, and the violin is suddenly red and urgent. Colour of bruises, tender raw blues and purples and gentle flashes of yellow permeate my vision. The piano rolls brown and rich like coffee. I feel as though I’m swimming through turquoise sound. Metal and marble.
Then: a rushing change of mood, as sudden flashes of aggressive maroon and sharp purple dominate, and I see the sound as a needle on a lie detector test. But the fear and panic subside to the sensation of sailing or flying, infused with the delicate flavour of almonds. Gaffer tape hits the piano strings and smells sharply of petrol, forming strange ovals of sound. The encore, with further gaffer tape, is prolonged and delicious – the amplified sound of the tape ripping yellow and tangy. An olive green voice asks, “Is this a tape recording?” The laughter, when it comes, is shaped like bubbles.
But only, perhaps, for me: speaking to friends after the concert, I’m surprised by how inaccessible they’ve found the evening. One felt drained by the process of listening and it struck me that I gain my most powerful synaesthetic responses to sound through complex, multifaceted and often discordant music. Tonight, the colours have plaited together, each strand of sound overlaying the next. The notational intervals were poetic scenes flashing through my mind’s eye, splashing down in raindrops of colour. The trouble with imagined journey through chaotic landscapes is how hard they are to share.
© Megan Orpwood-Russell, 2013. For The Journal of Wildculture.