Afterthoughts: Max Richter, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Jlin at The Barbican

Max Richter’s “Sounds & Visions” festival is a four-day event and “creative environment” co-curated by the composer alongside his partner Yulia Mahr and held at London’s Barbican Centre. With the help of a varied selection of artists, composers, dancers and performers, the pair intend to put on a series of shows exploring their mutual belief that “art exists beyond all boundaries”, that “unexpected juxtapositions can spark something fantastic”. Nowhere was this concept more apparent than the bill for the weekend’s opening concert, which saw avant-pop synthesist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and footwork luminary Jlin invited to accompany a one-off performance of Richter’s 2007 work “Infra”.

Richter kept to his word, and delivered an evening marked by its contrasts – contrasts between the artists on the bill, between the music and its surroundings, and even oppositions inherent to the performances themselves. Jlin opened the concert, accompanied by a singular dancer, both strolling casually on stage amidst a plume of orange smoke. She wasted no time before unleashing a sonic broadside on the audience, cascades of percussive samples descending like shrapnel, sounds ricocheting around the hall. It was a brilliant ice-breaker, and cut straight through the somewhat placid and restrained atmosphere that the venue tends to inspire. Jlin’s frenetic pointillist rhythms, unconcerned with decorum and interspersed with horror-show samples of dramatic shrieks and movie dialogue, felt like something of a wake-up call for the portion of the audience that may have bought a ticket on Richter’s name alone, expecting only a soothing dose of neo-classical tranquility – kudos is rightly deserved on Richter’s part for upending his own audience’s expectations and delivering a truly unexpected juxtaposition. 

At the set’s high points, Jlin’s lightning rhythms moved through dancer Lilian Steiner’s body like an electric charge, dizzyingly complex sonic patterns manifested physically in space through movement. The choreography was spot-on, alternating between graceful pirouettes and convulsive spasms that mirrored the music’s amphetaminic energy. Not all contrasts are good, though: the disjunct between the raw punk spirit of Jlin’s music and the Barbican’s cloistered atmosphere proved jarring, only worsened by the inadequate volume of the PA. Her music is a raucous assault on the senses, and should be amplified as such. As is often the case with the merging of club music and concert hall, it felt as if something was sacrificed in the process. 

Second act Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a kind of devotional synthesist, summoning universes of sound from her modular rig that envelop you entirely, spiritualist symphonies that sound like hymns to an unknown deity. Though expansive and freeform, it’s not ambient music – in most songs she adds heavily processed vocals, singing through a headset-mic as she confidently manipulates her Buchla Music Easel, elaborate compositions bleeding into one another like pigments on a canvas. Percussion and rhythm took a backseat to her luxuriant harmonies and rich, biomorphic textures, providing a different kind of sensory assault that contrasted beautifully with Jlin’s brutalist footwork, equally overwhelming but opposite in approach.

The evening’s zenith was a performance of Max Richter’s “Infra”, a work initially composed for a ballet a decade ago, and a meditation on the 7/7 bombings that’s intended as a “examination of the submerged sounds of the everyday.” It’s a gentle piece, full of subtle drama and quiet tension that gingerly tugs at your heartstrings without dipping into melodrama or sentimentality. Richter sat centrally at the piano, surrounded by string players the 12 Ensemble, carving melancholic chords out of thin air while garbled snatches of morse code and shortwave radio signals chattered away beneath, lending a ghostly air to the performance, a sense of absence. It’s powerful music that’s easy to become submerged in, lulled into submission by the ebb and flow of the string section. On its own merit, Richter’s performance shone, but it may have seemed an oddly subdued selection to follow the futurist maximalism of the two opening acts, performances alive with intensity that tonally couldn’t be further away from his mournful electroacousticism. Yet the evening’s theme was one of contrasts, intriguing oppositions between sounds, places and ideas – and in that sense, “Infra” made for a fitting ending, sparking something truly fantastic. 

Words: Matt Mullen

Featured Images: Mark Allan/Barbican

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