Five singer/pianist pairs play Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, on a loop and at their own speed, together, in the same space, for seven hours. That’s the summary of Kjartansson’s piece. But it was one of those curious things that the more you watched and heard, the more you noticed and the more complex it became.
The sound was mostly generalised, but with a Schubertian profile – the curve of a line, the precisely grounded harmonic steps, the unique gift for registral balance. I’m curious to know how Kjartansson’s method manifests in his piece on Mozart’s ‘Contessa perdona’ aria, Bliss; are the two pieces characteristic of their source material in any meaningful way? Or am I imagining something in the Schubert installation here?
Moments in Schubert’s song – particularly going into the cadences – would rise and fall from the surface. Occasionally, and always unexpectedly, two duos would fall into step, throwing brief shafts of light across the scene.
For sustenance and to highlight the work’s physical demands of endurance the performers drank amply throughout – water mainly, but also coffee, tea, the odd glass of wine or beer. Within certain parameters they appeared able to take short comfort breaks (and longer ones when indicated by a roving curator, who would take up the piano part in their absence). The bar staff kept them supplied and there was something touching and human about their patterns of refilling water jugs and taking drinks orders. It reminded me of a hospital or a Mass. After five hours or so everyone was served fish and chips.
I stayed for about 90 minutes, around the middle. Everything was in full swing and the rhythms of the work had bedded in. But at the same time – about three hours in and with about three hours to go – things were also starting to fray. For the performers this was probably the toughest stretch, the grinding middle third. Not that it showed: the beginnings of fatigue, perhaps – and built in to the structure of the piece – but no drop in commitment. I caught one wonderful passage when the tenor Tom Kelly turned to sing directly (and with full ardour) to a clutch of three people sat just a couple of meters away to his side.
It’s a very calming environment. Order becomes chaos becomes a higher harmony. Like trees into a forest into a canopy. There’s a surprising amount to this piece and I doubt I discovered it all. Themes of superabundance, and the body, and ruin, obviously. Not history though, I think: the Schubert was there because of the sound he made and not for what his music signified, except for a general expression of refinement, tastefulness and order.
I thought this was an extraordinary event, and I wish I could have caught more of it. Such is my life these days I dropped in after having seen the new Paddington film with the family, and for the second time in one afternoon I was moved to tears. Damn you, Aunt Lucy; damn you, Ragnar Kjartansson.