Shakenstir review of Boxhead Ensemble

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Live Review: Boxhead Ensemble

Sept. 27, 2001

The critically acclaimed improvised soundtrack to the documentary film Dutch Harbour launched Boxhead Ensemble on extensive world tours for several years.

When asked by the Irish Docland Film Festival to perform Dutch Harbour this year, Michael Krassner and Braden King saw an opportunity to create an alternative, fresh film/music performance vision they’d shared for a couple of years. The idea was simple; commission and find a series of silent short films and enlist the ensemble players to improvise the soundtrack to each film on stage.

Acceptance of the concept by the festival organisers signalled the beginning of a new and more adventurous phase for this group of the world’s best wandering avant-rock players. This, Boxhead’s first short European tour of the show (described by Krassner as a ‘trial by fire’) culminates at the Doclands Film Festival and further developments of the idea thereafter in preparation of world tours next year.

The new performance space provided by the jagged architecture of the Contact Theatre in Manchester proved an ideal environment for the show. And performance space is critical to allow space for the players (they have to be able to turn to look at the screening while playing for the audience) and a large back-projection area for the films.

As the players formed a semi-circle of musical excellence, lights dimmed and the first film flickered into the stillest and calmest monotone life. In the necessary darkness of the stage, it was difficult to spot who was playing but, of course, individuality is not on the agenda here. However, black bodies and instruments silhouetted against the massive and bright projections created images of memorable and stark beauty. Everybody, including the players, were focused on the screen’s images, while the sounds drew the audience deep inside each of the nine fascinating short films.

The visions of huge passenger jets casually caressing the tops of high-rise tenements on route to Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport were surreal and terrifying. Jets from different angles, appearing and disappearing, near and far, corner to corner, top to bottom, fast and glacial, rising ominously over the heads of the musicians whose sparse accompaniment heightened the tension. New York, New York!

A crashing crescendo of drums and percussion following jellyfish pumping their way upwards in a palette of angry red and boiling blue. An arm ends in a burning piece of cloth that splinters into a thousand oblique shapes and colours. A pigeon sits on a branch while another launches itself into frozen animation. Sepia bodies melt and peel. The cello doesn’t sing, it talks. The violin doesn’t soar, it creaks. The trumpet doesn’t bark, it screams. Cymbals don’t crash, they shimmer. Images and sounds sometimes in contrast, sometimes in unison, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes at peace. Moments of respectful silence, creeping tones, and musical brush strokes.

Compelling, magnetic, perfectly imperfect. This is performance art at the cutting edge but eminently accessible and personal. It is relevant, it is wonderful.



Read more about the Boxhead Ensemble: Stories, Maps, and Notes from the Half-Light.