The AAA music and art festival “The Human Body” (Jan 17–25) has explored responses to our experience of embodiment through music, theatre, film and dance, culminating in a live performance by Gwyneth Wentink in the Concertgebouw. The young Dutch harpist, who has met with great acclaim for her imaginative and sincere performances since she arrived on the international scene in her teens, performed a programme of 20th- and 21st-century music for harp, clarinet, electronic textures and the human body itself.

Gwyneth Wentink
Gwyneth Wentink

A special nervous excitement is generated by the way the stage is set up for performances of contemporary music such as this. Two harps, one amplified, a profusion and confusion of wires, laptops and soundboards, and overall a large blank screen waiting for poetic content to reflect placed the audience in a state of uneasily pleasurable anticipation. For many concert-goers, the opening moves of a concert performance – the tuning up of the orchestra, the to-ing and fro-ing of musical and technical personnel – are part of the experience. These images and sounds play a part in psyching up the audience for the sustained emotional and intellectual engagement that follows. The buzz of hearing a grand orchestra tune up for concert or opera is almost pure exhilaration; the intimate, disciplined tuning of a chamber ensemble calls forth a sort of corresponding emotional rigour in the audience. But for contemporary music which is realised through a multiplicity of media, the organism of the audience can feel spikily undirected: talking more, laughing more, less united but more personal.

Though the concert was dominated by the interactions of the harp with the technical-musical wizards playing laptops as instruments, the first piece was a purely electronic composition. Mark Bain’s The Archisonic, played by the composer himself, was an intensely physical sonic experience, designed to turn the building of the Concertgebouw itself into a body. With a waving pattern of green fronds projected onto the screen behind the stage, the music opened with a low rumbling, throbbing drone that expanded to a sometimes thunderous roar of pitched and unpitched sound that could be felt as much as heard. The experience evoked the idea of being inside a vast organic machine, with the throbbing and rushing sounds suggesting the pulsating of organs and the flooding of fluid moving through arteries as wide as rivers.

Bain placed seismic sensors at several locations around the Concertgebouw building to pick up and record the vibrations of the building itself. These sounds were amplified to proportions and frequencies that could be heard and felt by the audience, buzzing and reverberating through our bodies. For me, this powerfully conceived interactive music was one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of the whole concert. The experience of music as an explicit manipulation of our physical responses is an incredibly important part of electronic dance music, with its powerful beats, but less common to the concert hall. Several audience members indeed found it overwhelming, having to leave the hall. In this work, part sound installation, part performance, the audience had our physical inhabiting of the structures around us viscerally altered.

In total contrast was a tender, contemplative performance of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, played here on harp and clarinet. Based entirely around the tonic triad, Part’s minimalist meditation uses myriad tiny variations on the same chord, suggesting an infinity of mirrored reflections, which were visually developed by visuals creator Arnout Hulskamp with a lovely display of lines of soft light bending, crossing and cascading. Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer played the solo clarinet with great sweetness of tone, capturing the sense of timelessness and calm with the simple melody floating smoothly over Wentink’s
even, constantly rippling, arpeggiated chords. Wentink played with with a certain
detached simplicity, allowing the understated charm of the piece gradually to pervade the atmosphere of the hall.

Another truly beautiful part of the programme was Wouter Snoei’s Trio. The trio of the title were Snoei on electronics, Wentink on electric harp, and the harp itself. Wentink played a series of sounds which were captured and amplified by Snoei, creating an orchestra out of a single instrument. Wentink played arpeggios, chord clusters and single notes, but also ran her finger along individual strings, or the body of the instrument, bringing a tremendous array of sound possibilities from the instrument, which were by turns playful, tender and dramatic. I found this one of the most joyful parts of the concert. It was wonderful to hear and see the creative relationship of artist and instrument in live exploration: rather than demonstrating “mastery” over the instrument, Wentink seemed to show an affectionate co-operation with it, which gave a lightheartedness to the strange textures and harmonies.

Other works included further pieces for harp and electronics as well as body percussion and spoken word. Matthew Schlomowitz’s Letter Piece 5: Nothern Cities used stylised movement and syllables of city names in a comic piece with the audience found very funny, while the duo Cymatical created a piece that used Wentink’s heartbeat as the basis for building a powerful sonic and visual experience. Wentink’s playing throughout was bold but not showy. The body percussion/vocalisation sections suffered from the performers looking too much at their scores rather than communicating directly with the audience: sometimes a hazard with vocal music that uses extended techniques. There were also a couple of very minor technical hiccups, but in an informal and exploratory atmosphere these did not mar the enjoyment of a very enthused audience. A joyful, fascinating evening.