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Review: In the Dark – a 30 minute sound experience

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We Are Sound Picture: Snaptitude Photography
We Are Sound Picture: Snaptitude Photography

I start this piece with a disclaimer.

I am a member of the Cambridge musical collective We Are Sound.

For various reasons, when it was announced that our next gig (or gigs, as it turned out four of them) would be on November 11, I decided to sit this one out and take the opportunity to be a part of the audience for the first time. So while I may not be entirely impartial, I write from a perspective of one who knows the challenges and joys of this kind of collective music making.

From the start, this performance was always going to be different.

Where We Are Sound have always put on large scale, long (two hour) gigs with massive setlists, a band, and 120 singers, this was billed not as a gig but as a ‘sound experience’. The collective’s name was hardly noticeable on the poster or publicity and it seems likely that a proportion of the punters were literally that – people taking a punt on the experience. And why not? At only 30 minutes long, with a choice of four timeslots and a beautiful and historic setting at the Round Church in Cambridge, these gigs were easy to sign up for.

As I took my place along with just 40 other ticket holders, even I didn’t know quite what to expect. I’d seen the slightly dazed and awestruck faces of those leaving the previous performance, and overheard some enthused chatter, so settled down to enjoy whatever was in store. We’d been advised to arrive 15 minutes before the start, and as we took our seats walls of the Church glowed in soft lighting as haunting pre-recorded music echoed around the chamber: The ambience was already magical as a female voice softly sang in ethereal but indiscernible tones. Andrea Cockerton, founder and artistic director of We Are Sound, came to the front of the small audience and said just a few words by way of introduction, requesting that we didn’t applaud (how refreshing!), rather we just give ourselves over to the performance. All phones and cameras were to be turned off and then… we put on our sleep masks.

The effect was instant. It was all about the sound. The darkness, the silence and the stillness was in itself spine tingling but then the sounds began again, the ethereal music culminating in a sort of muffled but repetitive heartbeat-like “thump thump … thump thump … thump thump”. I felt like a child in the safety of a mother’s womb. And apparently from nowhere, the singing started. Even though I’m a member of the group, I hadn’t been primed and had no idea where the voices were coming from. At first I thought they were above me in a gallery but no, they were all around me, the acoustics and architecture of the Round Church lending itself perfectly to the fact that the sound really was surrounding the audience. The opening track (we found out, when setlists were distributed on departure) was Jake Houlsby’s Howl, and started with just keyboard and male voices – beautiful, smooth and faultless – arranged so cleverly that they came at me from all sides as female tones gradually joined in to layer upon layer of harmony. The effect of this opening number really was breathtaking and the track perfectly chosen. The ghostly humming and the lyrics – of wolves and shadows – sent chills up the spine.

The thing about this experience was that it really was ALL about the music and the lyrics. The concept – a gig in total darkness – was daring and genius and a huge challenge for the amateur singers who are used to singing their complicated arrangements from sheet music. Masking the audience’s eyes ensured that we focused totally and intensely with our ears and really, really listened. Never did my mind wander in the way that it might in other gigs, watching musicians at work, fancy lighting or even, err, wondering where that person shops for those cool clothes. It was just me and the experience and as the first song blended seamlessly into the second I was rapt. Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill was probably the track most familiar to the majority of the audience. It’s one I know well and one I’ve sung with We Are Sound, but still I wasn’t prepared for the way in which it totally blew me away to hear it performed flawlessly in these conditions. It was sung with such passion, the growing and swelling of the stunning vocal arrangement getting ever more intense, so that the emotion caught me off guard and tears *may* have escaped through my sleep mask.

The gig’s brevity was a good thing, as the sheer intensity of the experience would probably have become too much had it been prolonged. Seven tracks were covered, each one arranged in multiple parts, with layer upon layer of overlapping vocals and perfect harmonies. No microphones were used, but the sound felt amplified as it bounced off the walls of the round building with the audience at its centre. Guide My Feet, the African-American spiritual made popular by Little Axe, proved another perfect choice, its repetitive nature emphasising the harmonies along with Andrea’s gorgeously jazzy keyboard accompaniment. The highlight for me was Mree’s beautiful Winter, sung by the women so plaintively and tenderly that I had real, physical goose bumps. Another highlight (OK, so there were a few) was Jack Garratt’s Surprise Yourself, in which the full choir gave way to a duet of one male and one female voice, singing just perfectly together, simultaneously so sweet yet so forceful and passionate. At that point, the lyrics took on such meaning – “so let go and surprise yourself” they sang – and I knew that that is exactly what the whole choir, and the audience, were doing.

As the penultimate track gave way to a final rendition of the opening Howl, the lights came on so we could see the singers that somehow were surrounding us (How did they get there? When?). This was a great opportunity to try to compute fully the amazing and surreal event that we’d just experienced, but also a lesson in how once our eyes are opened, we lose something of the aural pleasure. A good technique too, to bring the audience gently back down to reality in time to open the doors onto Bridge Street and head to the University Union Bar to use our secret password to ensure discounted drinks – the sense of mystery and belonging to a very secret and exclusive club prolonged.

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