Kill Music and Let Sounds Live

An exorcism of musical spirits by Jeffrey Erbacher, John Rodgers and Errki Veltheim at QPAC’s Merivale Street Studio, Saturday 22 Sept.

The atmosphere is dark, repressive, religious: votary candles; the scroll and fretwork of the heads of a collection of violins and cellos throwing shadowy crosses on the wall and scrim; voices intoning; the smell of frying bacon; random cracks of sound punctuating the otherwise sombre mood of the deliberately protracted prologue.

This is the haunting - a register of poltergeist activities which occurred in real life (including the phantom smell of cooking bacon) to a friend of the performers, Elliot Dalgleish. The classical concert innstruments downstage become a brooding grouping from Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba, evoking an aura of early Polanski rather than The Exorcist, Peter Straub rather than Stephen King. These instruments listen. The voluptuous gleaming of polished wood begins to exude paranoid delusions of gandeur, pride, and persecution.

Behind the scrim, there is the dimly seen presence of two concert performers (John Rodgers and Erkki Valtheim) who take turns to tend the sizzling bacon (souls burning in hell?), and read aloud from manuals of instruction for violinists. This litany of intsructions imperceptibly builds up a picture (along the lines of Beckett or Peter Handke) of classical concert performers as victims of the bourgeois cultural regime that lionises them; and concert-going itself as an absurd ritual of bourgeois power.

The message is reinforced by slide projections of an ‘arisiocratic’ virtuoso, Jascha Heifitz, juxtaposed with the self-consciously ‘populist’ image of Vanessa May playing her violin in a white bathing suit. Despite the latter attempt to popularise classical music, the indefatigabiy powerful iconic stature of the classical string instrument renders it utterly risible. How can these instruments be cleansed for contemporary expression - present a clean slate - except by a complete historical exorcism?

This is the second act of the piece: an act of class war, according to Erkki Valtheim. A ritual enactment of class war perhaps, because it is also diabolically funny. Funny as hell, in fact. The two po-faced exorcists perform energetically in frenetic silent film comedy style as they ‘liberate’ a lewd cacophony of sounds from their ‘possessed’ instruments, until finally the wailing of lost souls dies away into silence, and the instruments are literally ‘laid to rest’.

As the lights come up in the auditorium, the performers declare that the instruments are now ‘safe’ to be handled and (innocently) played by the untutorcd members of the audience. The audience’s relationship to the classical concert has been deconstructed, all barriers are down, and in a carnivalesque turnaround, what once was sacred has become profane, or democratised. (‘But is it music?’ I hear the philistines cry again.)

For all its riotous playing with such Barthian notions of intertextuality, does, can, this project succeed in and of itself? Of course not. But such destruction and silencing - a recourse into violence and terror, as Martin Buzacott has pointed out elsewhere - is perhaps the last resort in a world bereft of actual political change, a world where we are exhorted by Beckett to “fail again; fail again better.”

A funny and bitter parable of our times that deserves to be festivalised.

Doug Leonard