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Sixty grass covered beds are lined up in regular rows. The audience lies down, the musicians start playing and … the lights go down. In this production by stage director Sabrina Hölzer the members of Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop perform contemporary and classical music in pitch darkness, moving through the auditorium as they play. Music by Bach enveloping you, works of Barber and Crumb coming from all directions: drifting in time and space it becomes an intense, dreamlike experience, which might well get you closer to the heart of the music than ever before.
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Music is art that you listen to. You experience a concert with your ears – but also with your eyes. A major part of the listening experience is guided by visual stimuli: what instruments am I hearing, who is about to join in, what is the relationship between the musicians, how are they acting on stage? Moreover, your eyes are quickly distracted by the surroundings of the hall and the nearness of other visitors. Your awareness of your own presence in the room does not make it easy to listen to a concert.
That is why Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop plays in the dark. In pitch darkness, in fact: you literally can’t see your hands in front of your eyes. Each person in the audience lies on one of the 60 beds lined up in carefully ordered rows around the room. Then the lights switch off – and the music begins. The members of Kaleidoskop move along the paths between the beds in a clever choreography that surrounds the listeners with music, allowing them to become absorbed in the sound. When at the end the lights switch on again, the musicians have disappeared. Now I Lay Me Down is a concert given by ghosts, experienced by the audience as pure sound.
The idea for these spectacular concerts in the dark comes from the German director Sabrina Hölzer (b. 1968). She wanted to get away from ‘seeing and being seen’ – which is an important aspect in the music world, just as it is elsewhere – and from the continual judging that goes along with it. At the same time, she wanted to investigate the sensory experience of music in an unconventional setting. In order to realize such events, in 2011 Hölzer set up the production company Into the Dark, which also works together with Kaleidoskop. After Into the dark and Dark was the Night, this is their third concert performed in total darkness, each time with a different repertoire. Now I Lay Me Down premiered in December 2014 in Berlin.
Playing a concert entirely in the dark is an extremely big challenge for the musicians. Not only do they need to learn all of the parts by heart – that’s not so unusual for alternative concert forms, with which Kaleidoskop has had lots of experience – but they also lose visual contact with their instrument. Whereas the eye generally guides the precision of a finger position or contact point, in pitch darkness accuracy depends entirely on the ear and the sense of touch. Getting used to this takes lots of practice. What’s more, something else falls away: eye contact with the other players. A collective attack, shaping a phrase synchronously or ending a note at the same time is a lot harder when you can’t see each other.
But on top of having to reorient themselves to their instrument and to each other, the musicians had to learn how to move in the dark. A movement coach who normally works with blind people was called in to help. All sorts of things that most of us take for granted, like walking straight ahead or making a 90° turn, prove to be almost impossible in the dark. The musicians therefore had to train extensively in order to be able to traverse their routes on the narrow paths between the beds without colliding or stumbling.
Out of safety considerations, however, the audience has to hand over their shoes, coats and bags and are urgently requested to keep their arms on board. Infrared cameras survey the performance space; people who want to leave the room ahead of time can give a signal and are then led outside by a blind person.
Hölzer emphasizes that choosing what to play is a very exacting process. Certain pieces of music simply don’t work in the dark, they are too much for the listener. For Now I Lay Me Down, a programme spanning many centuries of music history was put together; in addition, a number of new compositions were commissioned.
Visitors to previous editions of Into the Dark all say that the project is a unique musical experience. One visitor said that after two numbers he had completely forgotten his body; his entire being was wrapped up in pure concentration on the music.