KlangHaus – 800 Breaths, Southbank Centre

For some time now, artists and performers (uneasy distinction notwithstanding) have been challenging us to rethink public and private spaces, championing the idea that if you repurpose a hitherto redundant or strictly functional area, you change its meaning. This in turn clads to your piece, adding a transformative specificity. The Klanghaus company, a collaboration between alternative outfit, The Neutrinos and Sal Pittman, a visual artist, have created a “promenade” gig, adapted to and utilising the crawl space and unfriendly, claustrophobic confines of the Royal Festival Hall’s roof cavity, home to its electricity generators and heating systems. The result is something like an avant-garde edition of the Crystal Maze.

As you’re silently guided around, led into areas that become intimate stages for thumping, mesmerising, industrial electronica, you’re conscious of a sound perfectly partnered with the surrounding aesthetic. Scant lighting, abstract artwork projection and pinpoint sound design helps of course – it fundamentally alters the encompassing structures, giving them the feel of a moody underground club where the price of admission is a black double breasted jumpsuit and sunglasses. But there’s a unity of design here that adds a sensory layer to the music’s appropriating methodology.

The group don’t waste anything – they employ bells, barn saws, non-recyclable waste bins as drums, their laps when the space doesn’t allow for a chest mounted guitar – even the programme, which folds into a “breath box”. That methodology doubles for every inch of roof they inhabit. The space has seen a lot of workmanship over the years but, I’ll wager, very little beauty and reflection until the band moved in. It’s a shame they can’t take up residence.

Ultimately, what you get is wrap around art – an affirmation of the show’s key themes and ideas on introspection and non-conformity, foreshadowed by your guide, later understood as lyrical grabs from the pieces performed. Said lyrics are scrawled in pen on sheet metal wire housing, visible in bursts from pre-programmed lighting synched to the rhythm of deep breathing – in and out. The show’s title, “800 breaths”, likely refers to the resting average of a person over an hour, the show’s duration. Immersive theatre is now an established theatrical sub-genre, but the active musical journey is not yet that. Consequently, Klanghaus grabbing the audience by the dick and pulling them close, feels like a progression; live music that constructs a world around itself, shaped by itself, narrowing the divide between artist and listener to the width of a cigarette paper.

There are flaws. The format isn’t particularly practical – attendees have to think on their feet not to get in the band’s way, and some spaces are so tight that the instruments barely fit – the bassist could just about erect his instrument (but we’ve all been there). That’s the problem with artistic conversions, the space may not be fully adaptable. That begs the question, what are the limits? Some would argue that art and theatre have become so self-referential and aware that there’s little left to do but consume and transform every outcrop of unimaginative, that is to say, strictly utilitarian space. But if you do that, where will all the unimaginative people go? The army, you say? Well, alright.

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