Syndrome 2.3, Drift: Caroline Bergvall sets her audience adrift in the endless sea of space and time

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Caroline Bergvall

Caroline Bergvall

As Syndrome’s immersive offerings enter their third installment, Getintothis’ Laura Coppin reports on a journey drifting through time and space.

As the night set in, 24 Kitchen Street once again opened its doors to welcome Syndrome’s latest event. Part of a programme of evenings interweaving immersive artistic experimentation with affordable technologies, ‘Drift’ promised to take its audience ‘on a journey through time and space, where languages mix, where the ancient cohabits with the present’.

Commissioned originally for Grü/Transtheatre’s lost.last.gru festival, the piece brings together the extraordinary talents of Caroline Bergvall, Ingar Zach, Thomas Köppel and Michel Pralong to create something truly remarkable.

As Bergvall took to the ‘stage’ – a microphone and drum set-up with a projector screen backdrop – the crowd fell into a hushed, excited silence. After a short pause, her soft, slightly nasal but undeniably hypnotic voice rang out. Soon after Zach joined her on the drum, placing singing-bowls on its surface and slowly filling the room with sound as he moved them in smooth and practiced circles.

Behind them the fruits of Köppel and Pralong’s labours began to unfold; projected text drifting and melting in layers over itself like heavy tendrils of fog. As each medium interlaced with the other, Drift truly came to life.

Using a heavy-set bow, Zach began to draw it back and forth against the edges of the singing-bowls, interrupting the whale-like song by intermittently letting their edges touch together to jangle and clang. At the same time he span a heavy disk against the surface of the drum, creating an echo like thunder as it slowed to a halt. Over this huge depth of sound Bergvall’s voice continued to ebb and flow, rising and falling like a vocal tide.

As the combination of sounds began to intensify, her intonation changed, breathing out the beginning of words and stopping when they crawled forth half-formed. Deep throat clicks were dotted through the fragments of sound, whilst Zach’s constant thrum of noise creaked and groaned behind like glaciers made of iron.

The combination was at once familiar and alien; English words hand-in-hand with Old Norse, the modern world hand-in-hand with the primal and ancient.

The text behind began to transform, changing from a wall of words to an advancing army made only of the letter ‘t’. The effect was strengthened by the introduction of a drum beat, halfway between a battle drum and a heartbeat, bringing to the aural atmosphere a heavy darkness. In this darkness the language became cosmic, speaking of galaxies and planets before falling to an almost inaudible whisper.

As Bergvall fell quiet so too did Zach, reducing his percussion to nothing more than a soft ache of sound. Behind the two, the names of animals both mythical and real began to swim; Globsters, squides, meeremaides, skraelings and kraken. Eerie bow-song was soon joined by real song; Bergvall’s lilting timbre weaving through to create a thrumming blanket of sound.

Ingar Zach

Ingar Zach

Once the dual song reached a fever pitch the room fell silent, the projected text spreading to fill the screen like an impassable wall. Bergvall spoke of death and dying, stillness, the anon. Then, as the screen behind her fell to black and all other sounds fell silent, she began to tell a tale which brought all in the room back to reality with a crash.

In March 2011, a migrant ship left the coast of Libya with thrice its recommended number of passengers and negligible fuel; all on board seeking a better life in Italy. A trip they were told would take less than a day stretched on and on, their distress calls ignored by all and sundry.

Without emotion, she spoke of armies documenting those dying aboard the boat yet offering no aid whatsoever; of desperate passengers mixing their own urine with toothpaste in a bid to stay alive. Those who lived merely found themselves coming to shore further along the Libyan coast, before being imprisoned and left to rot.

Such a story was of course as harrowing as it was thought-provoking, leaving its mark on each member of the audience. In the pregnant silence, she began to sing again; a deeper song of toneless mourning. The large speakers on either side of the stage came to life to join her with first a dark buzzing, then an eerie swell of synths.

Over this building noise Zach’s singing-bowls once again span and clanged, ringing out like a violent storm warning until at last the room finally fell silent. With this silence, Drift came to its end.

Describing an event such as this can of course do it little justice, to truly gain a measure one must be there to experience it. Though it may not be to everyone’s taste (our companion described it as ‘a load of guff’), there is no denying the remarkably immersive and ingenious nature of the performance. Whilst Drift’s run is now over, Syndrome has many more events yet to come  – all of which are well worth taking the time to lose yourself to.

The next is Syndrome 2.4: TRANSITION by VESSEL and IMMIX Ensemble, which will take place on 22 October in the University of Liverpool‘s Victoria Building.

Pictures by Getintothis‘ Oliver Matich

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