A Shot in the DarkThu 18 Oct 2018, 8pm
In total darkness, diverse groups of musicians – drawn from Exeter's classical, jazz, folk, noise and student ensembles - interpret a musical score burned into their retinas via a series of digital flashguns.
Improvising Decline A Shot in the Dark, reviewed by John Hartley
After a dramatic introduction to ‘Just yell if the dark became
too much’, the audience and players all slowly descended into the gloom for this performance of A Shot in the Dark, one of the Exeter Sound Context Commissions by Ed Baxter, with Michael Umney.
In the minimal flicker of safety lights, it was just possible to make out Baxter moving around silently, until with an extreme explosion of light he shot a flashgun score into the faces of various musicians and the improvisation started. A potentially uncomfortable hotchpotch of players attempted to interpret the visual score, responding and overlapping in turn with a series of short-lived squeaks, sags and groans which petered out as the images guiding them faded from their eyes. Over time the flashes became more urgent and drums, voices and strings came into play before slowly collapsing back into the gloom. By turns things became more melodic, then muscular, as different parts of the assemblage was activated to explore this strange beast hidden in the dark.
It was hard to work out exactly what was being played once the lights were down. Sax and drums were easy to pick out, other elements of the anonymous mob less so in the half light of uncertainty. Was that live voice, or sampling? A guitar, or some sort of sighing instrument of torture? Together the musicians were prompted, or prodded temporarily to life by the flashgun shots, stimulated like alarmed taste-buds, fading uncertainly. And I could only guess at the pain the light might have caused them. Repeatedly, the near dark returned, though visual artefacts from the persistent flashes cluttered and confused our eyes. For a musical event, and one in the dark at that, the experience was remarkably visual. The flashes and wrestling shadows evoked a pit of fading half-humans, recharged by occasional lightning, then returning to their unsettled waiting, a half-dreamed Raft of the Medusa.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this work was how it inverted the normal problems of bringing a collective idea to life. Clearly, the musicians and their instructions created something new together – a work was born. But the instructions they were following also fell apart in front of their eyes. In what ways could they improvise their way out of the collaboration; by slowing, dropping notes, becoming quieter or more disjointed? The whole worked like an autonomous system, but not one predominantly concerned with emergence. It was an orchestra in perpetual dissolution with its parts no doubt struggling to make sense of their lot, desperately trying to understand how to follow a fading plan, how to improvise decline.
Turn the lights out and listen here.