A fascinating show from a shapeshifting, innovative performer operating at the intersection of music, art and youth culture
Combining and blending musical genres has been something musicians have done for decades but Harmattan, the album released last year by south London multi-disciplinary artist Klein, seemed to offer something new in how it balanced rigorous contemporary classical, grime/electronic aesthetics and a free-jazz presence. It marked her out as a difficult-to-classify artist following something of an individual path but it shouldn’t have necessarily come as a surprise. Earlier albums like 2018’s Lifetime and 2020’s Frozen, while positioned differently musically, had demonstrated a similarly forward-thinking approach and she’d also previously performed at the Southbank Centre’s New Music Biennial in 2017 and debuted a musical at the ICA in 2018 (which was later turned into a feature film in which she acted). So far, so polymath.
It’s difficult to quite know what to expect therefore ahead of her show at the Barbican. An early sign that things will be different comes with the appearance of a raised platform on stage with an adjoining staircase (there’s video screens on either side as well as below the podium, as well as various props on stage). Before Klein appears we get a quick showcase of the emerging London DIY grime scene by way of support. First up is Jawnino, billed as a “grime superstar”, and tonight joined on stage by a cohort of friends and fellow performers. They collectively deliver their set with loose urban swagger and raw energy but it feels a little incongruous amid the seated formality of the Barbican. It’s certainly easier to imagine them opening a stage at Field Day, something that can also be said of second support act Lioness who arrives on stage next, bringing her garrulous, high-impact, R&B-infused variation on grime.
Klein’s music might suggest a foreboding prospect might be in store but a down-to-earth announcement of “Hi, I’m Klein” from on top of the elevated platform seems to initially dispel this. The stage set up dictates that the avant-garde piano-led moments from Klein’s back catalogue won’t be represented tonight (but she does at varying points play trumpet, flute, guitar and drums as well as operating laptops).
Snatches of conversation and mangled vocals infiltrate her music early on before she takes to the trumpet on what could be a version of Roc from Harmattan. We’re forewarned of “strobing and haze” being used in tonight’s show and they certainly contribute to passages where it’s hard to know exactly what is happening visually. Her music has a similarly elusive quality but it doesn’t make it any less intriguing.
At one stage, a collaborator begins to hammer a drum with a rawness and intensity bordering on violence. It goes on for a long time. From there on the show progresses in defiantly experimental fashion. A cacophony slowly builds as flickering red light rains down on stage, all infernal distortion both musically and visually. Occasional light relief comes in the emergence of looped motifs that sound like Boards Of Canada playing with William Basinski at the bottom of the ocean. The programme notes referred to ‘movement’ alongside the instruments each performer would play and this feels apt as dancers flit round the stage adding to the fluid nature of the show while Klein herself often breaks off from playing to manoeuvre to the darkly meditative, gaseous, subterranean music.
Towards the end, the lights in the venue suddenly go up and one of her associates climbs the platform to tell a laboured joke. There’s something almost Dadaist and mildly provocative about such moments and while it adds to the unpredictability of the show it’s also an example of something that works less well (alongside the feeling that the show is slightly longer than it needs to be).
Yet, the overall impression gained is of a shapeshifting, genuinely innovative performer operating at the intersection of music, art and youth culture. The resulting industrial-digital-grime-drone is fascinating, confirming her as an artist capable of playing the cerebral and the physical off each other and it’ll be exciting to see where she goes next.