A short walk from the teeming mass of harried commuters, sleeping bags in doorways and bruised young women that collects around King’s Cross Station like fluff on a stylus lies a huge office block of rippling glass and cavernous ceilings, whose hushed acoustics house not only the relocated offices of The Guardian and The Observer but one of London’s newest music and arts venues.
Kings Place has the outward appearance of a large merchant bank, but the abundance of comfy seating and quirky sculpture reassures you that you’ve come to the right place for The Bubbly Blue & Green Festival, a four-day exercise in water-based eclecticism assembled by curator Ben Eshmade of Arctic Circle and Resonance FM.
Soothing ambient music and soft, rippling light play over the stage where the inevitable table full of gadgets awaits the presence of Philip Jeck, England’s own gentleman of the turntableist’s art. He’s here to perform new work The Wreck Of The Deutschland, a musical setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ tragic poem of Franciscan nuns being sent to a watery grave. The music flickers to life like a silent film, distant bells echoing over the surface of a choppy sea, the screen above his head heaving with old, slow motion footage of a lifeboat crew being consumed by waves.
The mood is sombre, heavy: vinyl crackles, amps hiss, a string orchestra picks out a woozy pizzicato, there is radio chatter and a man’s voice reading Hopkins’ poem, as though the Shipping Forecast has been hijacked by ghosts. The clicks and pops of the run-out groove are reminiscent of footsteps on a shingle beach. Volume rises and falls, a thudding beat emerges and then dissolves again. As the piece winds down into fading drone, a sudden loud pop from the speakers snaps everyone out of their reverie and the bearded, avuncular Jeck takes his leave silently.
Next up, his protg, the chatty, endearingly boffin-like Janek Schaefer, places vintage Roberts radios throughout the audience as he describes Phoenix and Phaedra Holding Patterns, the abstract ‘radio play’ he will be presenting tonight. Named after his young son, Phoenix, and first performed in a 650-year-old church in the heart of Coventry, it begins with the sound of water lapping the side of a boat going down the Amazon River and ends with the guttural sputtering of a dying radio.
In between the darkened theatre is bathed in the sound of that warm, familiar vinyl crackle, which is suddenly swallowed by angrily hissing radio static, then by a persistent drone. Moth wings flutter in the ears as lights flicker on and off on stage (very David Lynch). Snatches of a Richard Wilbur poem are read, just about identifiable under the clicking of a faulty stylus, as a chamber orchestra emerges tentatively from the fog and the mood becomes almost church-like. As the lights come up, the audience knows that it has been taken on a journey, even if it’s not exactly sure where it was they were taken to.
Day Two opens with a hushed, spacious set from Isan. The theme of water is physically represented on stage by an intricate, charming Heath Robinson contraption of their devising, a glass cabinet containing a xylophone which is played by random drops of water. Just the patter and chime of this ‘dripophone’ is mesmerising in itself, but this is soon merged with the quiet electronic tones and pulses emanating from Isan’s laptops and Casio keyboards. Frozen Swedish lakes and delicate patterns of ice and snow appear on the screen over their shoulders as the music builds into a soft bed of clicks and whirrs, a female vocal stuttering somewhere in the background, a hint of birdsong here and there in the electronics.
The first two songs end hesitantly: the applause is hesitant too, perhaps out of fear of breaking the spell. When they crank the volume (slightly) for the remainder of their set, layering beats and more defined melodies into their sound, it is somehow not quite as effective as the diffuse, mysterious opening section. The images on screen thaw and get get progressively warmer and more colourful as the music does, and when they leave the stage their equipment continues to chirrup and sigh, as though independent of them.
The remainder of the evening is spent in the company of Haushcka, the alter ego of Dusseldorf-based pianist Volker Bertelmann. He introduces his set with a chatty, self-deprecatingly funny ‘don’t shoot me, I’m just the piano player’ speech about the concept of the pieces he’s about to perform with Icelandic cellist Hildur Gunadttir, based on the various colours that can be found in the ocean.
Before this new collaboration begins, he runs through three solo pieces on his prepared piano, and leaves the audience in no doubt of his virtuosity as both musician and mood-manipulator. The solo works cover a wide range of sound-worlds in a short space of time, first a rattling silent-movie score, now a delicate music-box, now a stop-start game of cat-and-mouse or a Morse code message. Often he will turn a knob on an electronic box of tricks on his piano to make the tones resonate more deeply, occasionally he will reach into the guts of the piano itself to stroke the strings by hand or pluck out a tiny object and discard it.
When Gunadttir joins him, her cello weaves in and out like a shortwave radio, while Hauschka pulses away on the keys, occasionally striking the strings like a percussionist, or at one point bowing them with a handful of cat-gut to conjure up an unearthly, organic sound like an animal breathing. They encore with a seemingly improvised piece inspired by a scene of someone drowning in the movie The Big Blue, but instead of the womb-like ambience one would expect, they surprise with an urgent, rhythmic piece, Gunadttir drawing long, winding, dissonant chords from her cello, then pounding it harshly with her bow, slowing and speeding like an expert driver at the wheel of a fine automobile. It’s a rich, dramatic, captivating set from both of them, and sets a standard that the remainder of the festival will be very hard-pressed to match.