Jack Joslin reviews Byrd-Cage: The Shape of Sound

Byrd-Cage is, however you ultimately come away feeling about it, a unique
experience. Taking place in Leeds Art Gallery’s Tiled Hall, this short performance
– at just under an hour – is comprised of eight pieces of operatic music
performed specifically to stimulate and challenge the relationship between the
audience and their surroundings.

Chorus Master Oliver Rundell acts as both conductor and ringmaster, gently
guiding the performance as the Chorus moves in and around the space. At first,
it’s business as usual with all singers facing forward in a row until, suddenly, it’s
not. As the pieces transition, so do the performers – peeling off from one
another, weaving past and throughout the audience.

During the longest section (an excerpt from the 1970 work The Great Learning by
Cornelius Cardew), each performer sings the first line in a certain pitch for the
duration of several breaths as they walk. On hearing a new pitch of their choice,
they move on to the second line and so on. In practice, this results in a
fluctuating unique experience that is simultaneously uncanny and unsettling.
This is the evening’s most challenging component – I won’t pretend the strange
piece didn’t slightly outstay its welcome after nearly twenty minutes, but I’ve
certainly never experienced anything like it.

As always, the Chorus of Opera North are exceptional, and the unusual
ambulatory nature of the work doesn’t faze them in the slightest.
The performance concludes with three shorter pieces, including an intriguing
and playful piece by John Cage. The effect as the Chorus reunites – following the
dissonant and borderline chaotic The Great Learning – is profound, as if some
great calamity has been narrowly avoided.

This is a difficult show to review. Is it a show or an experience? Does it achieve
what it sets out to do? I’d argue yes, although the heavy lifting is largely done by
the longest central piece – that’s the point where you’ll either be all in on this
performance or completely alienated.

For less than an hour of your time, you can experience something completely
unique in a beautiful space. Whether you find the experience sublime or
misguided, it’s certainly one that you won’t forget.

Visit the Opera North website for further information about upcoming performances.

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