Although listed in the Barbican's programme under Theatre, the programme notes for The Noise Of Time state repeatedly that it is a "meditation" upon Shostakovich's string quartet no. 15 in E flat minor (1974). Its core is a performance of the piece by the Emerson Quartet, the culmination of their project of performing and recording all the composer's string quartets. The Emersons have collaborated with Théâtre de Complicité director Simon McBurney on this project, seen in London as part of a European and American tour.
Audience applause on the quartet's entrance fades into taped applause, followed by a radio announcement and a collage of sound clips travelling backwards through the twentieth century, from Clinton's Lewinsky denial to Chamberlain's announcement of war and beyond. The single spotlit radio on stage becomes several, travelling slowly around, torchlit in otherwise complete darkness. An assemblage of sound clips and projected pictures of Shostakovich's life and the cultural history through which he moved blend with similar torchlit movements of items of clothing, and endless rearrangements of several dozen chairs onstage. The Emerson Quartet are augmented in this 45-minute segment by four "performers".
Gradually we move through the composer's life to his final illness-racked years; a taped anecdote by a friend about how they would sit in companionable silence gives way to complete quiet, out of which seep the first violin notes of the quartet. The Emersons arrive on stage one by one, standing; similarly, one by one they move toward seats which are first scattered across the stage then coalesce into a standard quartet arrangement, though with the musicians facing forward rather than in towards each other. The "performers" silently aid these movements and stand or sit as witnesses to the music, almost as ghosts. It all happens with almost imperceptible slowness, to match the quartet itself: four movements adagio followed by one adagio molto, a musical essay upon mortality and decline into stillness.
It is a novel mode of presentation, and strongly follows the Complicité aesthetic of painting pictures with light, images and words. It succeeds in its aim of creating, even forcing, an awareness of the quartet's context within both the composer's personal history and the broader sweep of events: reference is made to Gagarin singing a Shostakovich song in space, and the words of Stalin seem physically to buffet those onstage around as in a storm. However, in effect this sequence is simply a staging of the programme notes: the bulk of the salient information is there on the page as well. Moreover, during the quartet itself, the clicks from slide projectors or lighting wheels, though few, are more obtrusive than audience coughing in terms of disturbing the sombre space in which the music should exist. It may seem bizarre, but the McBurney project of which I was most strongly reminded was his direction of last year's stage tour by French & Saunders; there, too, his vision augmented the core material in a noble experiment, but ultimately did little to enrich its essence.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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