I say this in the nicest possible way: walking through the promenade production KlangHaus: 800 Breaths is like being in a lucid dream that is constantly on the precipice of a nightmare. It is enjoyable in a strange way, and strange in a (mostly) enjoyable way.
A partnership between visual artist Sal Pittman and musicians/sound artists The Neutrinos, KlangHaus: 800 Breaths “explores unique promenade performance via cinematic installations for small audiences in unsung spaces”. There is no material handed out beforehand to explain what it is we were about to experience or why; but the images, sounds and lyrics I accumulated along the way gestured to an exploration of the human body’s relationship with machinery and industrial spaces, and how we maintain calm breaths and heartbeats in the face of anarchy and disruption, despite being inherently vulnerable to both of those things.
On a purely logistical note, be warned that KlangHaus: 800 Breaths is not for the faint of heart: the heat and the basslines intensify in direct proportion to one another. I recommend layering up on the day and then, upon visiting a designated cloakroom before the production begins in earnest, shed as many of those layers possible. Heels and flip-flops are forbidden; I’ve been assured that they will refuse entry to anyone wearing them. I suspect this has as much to do with acoustics as with health and safety: at the Southbank Centre sound doesn’t just carry, it soars. We stuck our heads around the corner of every new flight of stairs, expecting to find the human source of the ethereal introductory notes.
The Royal Festival Hall has more stairs than you’d think: I found myself having to keep reassessing what little architectural knowledge I thought I had, as yet another section of space opened up that apparently, from the exterior, I’d just never noticed before. As we filed through corridors and ducked into tank rooms, the true Tardis-like quality of the Southbank Centre made itself known. Having anticipated an empty, disused series of spaces in which we the audience would have to perform most of the mental legwork, the effortless enchantment of the promenade performance came as a surprise. It was the spatial and psychic equivalent of walking into a perfume shop and encountering a whole host of sensations that were at once new and familiar, amalgamated and distinct.
The artists and guides behind KlangHaus: 800 Breaths move from space to space, but the many projected shapes and pieces of footage stay put. We began with a spinning fighter plane, electric drums (indeed, electric everything), and an abundance of shadows. There was some initial and inevitable awkwardness as we calculated how many of us could comfortably stand at full height in this new, dark, and restrictive space. With strangers maneuvering around each other and yellow hazard stickers on underfoot pipes, the experience was simultaneously reminiscent of rush hour on the tube and of haunted funhouses.
After that, the ceilings and fixtures opened up into the most industrial part of the route. It was as though we’d wandered straight onto the set of Firefly or Torchwood. In a peculiarly cinematic moment, a singer emerged at the opposite end of a hallway and slowly proceeded towards us, the static viewers instructed not to go beyond a certain point, like a long camera shot without the lens. If KlangHaus: 800 Breaths were a meal, what followed would be the main course: intense electronic rock (with chimes), which could have had about a minute shaved off — the novelty of sheer bizarre musical experimentation only lasts for so long when the verses and refrains descend into repetition. This also applies to the projections on the walls behind: an apt summary of the major motifs, footage of black and white faces with thick glasses and dark eyeliner was overlaid with scaffolding, which in turn was overlaid with circuit boards, to the point where some degree of variety would have gone a long way.
And then, golf clubs! Two of the performers started jousting up and down the space with a golf club apiece, while reciting lyrics from a new song. It probably would have been smoother if they’d used pipes, or some other objects in keeping with the steely setting, but the sheer incongruity of the props and how they were used made my disbelief firmly elbow its way out of suspension for a minute. Golf clubs were then exchanged for guitars, and a folksy, romantic duet about the human pulse. Like an early Lana Del Rey music video, faux-vintage footage of a flower eternally blooming and closing in on itself was projected onto a screen, for reasons that went over my head but contributed to the mellow atmosphere nonetheless. Mild bewilderment, on a personal and collective scale, plays a natural part in KlangHaus: 800 Breaths, but to the show’s credit these moments of dissonance were anomalies in an otherwise fluid series of sets.
Next came a jazzy, mildly disturbing number, in which we were never sure what part of the surroundings might be used as a prop next. In my case, the lead vocalist gently reached out an arm and, like an item on a shelf in the way of what she was really looking for, nudged me to one side and sang into a wall telephone just over my shoulder. The disturbing part came from some spiderlike physical movements from the other performers as they led us to the next set, as well as the dark, moody lighting design. By contrast, the following song was warm and cozy, akin to a Friday night rock gig in a low-ceilinged pub, except here a typewriter was thrown into the mix.
Then, ducking lower still, we indulged in a rare moment of sitting, awash in harmonised lyrics about taking time to breathe, and a musical saw. It was here that I wondered how this show might fare in the winter, with its ever-present sense of huddling together and waiting out something apocalyptic in the outside world.
As for the very end of the show, I’d rather let prospective audience members experience it first-hand for themselves, because it was such a pleasant shock to the system. What I will say is that, much like the creativity and daring required to bring KlangHaus: 800 Breaths to life, it’s breathtaking.
Klanghaus: 800 Breaths runs at the Southbank Centre for hour-long performances at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, from 11th July to 23rd July 2017. For more information and tickets see here.