The Memory of W. T. Stead
Cassie Yukawa, Christer Lundahl & Martina Seitl
Steinway Hall, London
25 March - 6 April 2013
Review by Maggie Gray
For several minutes at the beginning of ‘The Memory of W. T. Stead’ the six of us lucky enough to have tickets for the evening were left alone, perched on piano stools inside the Steinway & Sons showroom just north of Oxford Street. London’s muffled traffic and rumbling tubes mingled with the accidental indoor percussion of pipes, floorboards, and the pianos themselves, lined up in ranks in front and behind. Cassie Yukawa (the experimental pianist whose notes would haunt the evening’s experience, which was conceived in collaboration with artist duo Lundahl&Seitl and commissioned by NOMAD) had explained a few days earlier how a piano contained within itself every piece ever composed, and those as yet unwritten, the potential inside its wooden shell as infinite as stars in space. The Steinways were pristine and untouched, bodies gleaming and pedals wrapped, yet still they echoed with their own intrinsic music; the metallic snaps and hollow yawns of shifting interior tensions.
Presently we were fitted with wireless headphones by a man who moved with the kindly solemnity of a priest dispensing the Eucharist; then with blindfolds as a whispered voice instructed us to close our eyes to the room. As the thudding keys and ringing notes of a piano sounded through the headsets - the ghostly recorded counterpart to the instruments in the space - I was told to stretch out a hand. Finding someone else’s waiting in front of me I stood up, and, after a few vertiginous moments of uncertainty, began to follow them.
These opening moments seemed a crucial prelude to Lundahl&Seitl’s latest immersive choreography, which guides visitors through Steinway Hall while simultaneously inviting them to imagine their way outside of it. The silence heightened anticipation and sharpened perception, lending everything the crystal clarity and trance-like passivity of a dream. And like a dream, the experience is incredibly difficult to describe. Stripped of your habitual sensory cues (sight and local sound) you are led blind through the showrooms, as if taking part in a dance, the exceptional performers’ slightest touches somehow sufficing to communicate the next move. At the same time the audio spins its own tales, like a magician companion, conjuring images out of nothing. A soundtrack of noises opens up and closes in around you, swallowing you up in the daydream.
Passages of ‘The Memory of W. T. Stead’ respond directly to the venue’s history, dwelling on the physical elegance of the pianos (whose keys and mechanisms you are invited to touch) as well as the legacy of the music they enable (in this case, pieces by Bach and Ligeti), which reinvents itself every generation, yet speaks through the ages. But the narrative also detours towards investigative journalist turned spiritualist W. T. Stead, whose writings seemed to presage his own death on the Titanic. Steinway Hall embodies its own history as the group moves from showroom to piano-maker’s workshop to rehearsal space, but it also evokes a mysterious ship. Sounds of dripping water trickle into the headphones’ tracks, and, as hands gently rock you back and forth, the recorded creak of the piano morphs into the aching groan of a listing hull.
Sometimes the illusion stumbles: in the middle of the performance, just as you are finding your feet and growing used to the subtleties of touch, you are asked to remove your blindfold. The room and the other visitors suddenly loom large like icebergs, threatening the dream - but still you are asked to imagine, to envisage a window opening onto the space, as a low light shifts subtly to match your mental projections. The artists don’t presume your suspension of disbelief; they expect you to perform it.
The evening culminates with an intimate recital by Yukawa in a dimly spot-lit basement - blindfolds off. Everything that was missing in the curtained hush of the first room palpably comes together: the piano sounding in the space; the figure bent over the keys, tensions playing across fingers, arms and back. It felt as if, after drifting and sinking and searching with the waves, we’d finally reached the bottom of the ocean and found one of the musicians who went down with W.T. Stead in 1912.
Although the imagery of the boat might well stand for the hulking Titanic, it could just as plausibly be a raft over the Styx in the dark; in this dreamlike setting, strands of thought and association are readily conflated. The whole performance is awash with ghosts, memories and dreams, seeping into the space. Everything the narrative draws on - legends, memories, music, spiritualism, even the mundane process of recording a voice - is born, in its own way, of a desire to connect through the ages and beyond or despite death. Yukawa, Lundahl&Seitl use them all as mediums.
But by far the most important medium is the body itself. ‘You’re still here,’ insists the audio guide near the end of the tour; ‘Can you feel the pulse’’ It is true not just of this artwork, but far more generally, that the body is our vehicle and anchor, our only means of communicating or knowing anything at all - the site where real and imaginary experiences collide and new stories can be made. Immersive art and theatre has become popular in recent years, perhaps in reaction to the increasingly passive, screen-mediated reality of daily routine, and ‘The Memory of W. T. Stead’ draws deeply on that desire to interact and imagine. But it also serves as a reminder that we have all the tools we need to do this more often; stepping back onto the rumbling streets, the immersive experience only really has to end when, for whatever reason, you stop listening.
‘I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music. My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys’ The anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs.’ György Sándor Ligeti (1923-2006)