Sound Histories, an evening of live music played and inspired by the exhibits of the British Museum, created an exciting atmosphere of dynamism and imagination. Designed to evoke a history of an object through music written for and related to the exhibit in question, the evening swung from being beautifully pitched, to irritatingly cluttered.
Conceptually, this is a brilliant, worthy and inspiring idea, the kind of which should, and needs to, be done more by arts institutions. This is mainly to create a unique experience for visitors wishing to engage with a familiar setting in a different way, but it's also to activate and consolidate relationships from different forms of arts institutions. Here, Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music met the historical collections of the British Museum to try and explore a new way to telling and sharing history.
The scale and sheer ambition of the project is commendable, and considering that over 200 musicians were playing over 120 performances in a variety of rooms around the museum, the organisation of the evening had to be perfect. Unfortunately this wasn't as polished as it should have been. Confusing routes through the exhibits and consistently referring to the guide to try and work out where you were, and where you wanted to be, meant that missing the performances was irritatingly common. Given that a large proportion of the pieces were around five minutes in length, it was difficult to settle on a piece from the beginning. The sight of confused tourists pottering around became more familiar than a performance.
That said, when settled in a space – whether by abandoning the guide and letting yourself wander somewhere by following your ears, or arriving at your destination at the correct time – some performances did well to explore and engage with the exhibits.
The short premieres played in front of the Egyptian sculptures in Room 4 of the museum were the definite highlight of the evening. Each piece was inspired and played for an particular exhibit in the room. Alexander Dawson's plodding meditation on the Colossal Scarab Beetle wonderfully evoked a sense of time and imagination of the origins of the unusual sculpture. Better still was Vitalija Glovackyte's Granodiorite statue of a Horus-falcon, played in front of the exhibit of the same name. The aggressive and unsettling combination of double bass accompanied by distorted white noise from a transistor radio seemed to perfectly represent the feeling of the dead-eyed hunting bird. Here, it appeared, music was actively blowing the dust off the sleeping sculpture and instilling it with a sense of vitality and life. For five minutes, gone was a sculpture whose sole contemporary purpose is to be observed by millions of tourists, and in its place was a new dynamic of imagination and expression, thanks to a wonderfully inventive interpretation. Similarly, Leo Geyer's Book of the Underworld for bassoon allowed the Sarcophagus of Nectanebo II to eerily take centre stage and was impressively inspired by the hieroglyphs etched into the coffin.
Pieces played out in front of the famous Elgin Marbles allowed for a calmer reflection on the stones. A rendition of John Tavener's Lament of the Mother of God was a haunting way to evoke some sense of emotional engagement with the marbles. Designed to represent the Parthenon's conversion to a Byzantine Cathedral, the performance was delivered beautifully and was an interesting way of taking something so quintessential to a time period and changing its history through music.
Elsewhere, in the Oriental and Americas exhibitions, performances sometimes used traditional instruments from locations of the exhibits. Marylin Bliss's It Was Wind for soprano and native American flute gave a strong sense of location and space, as did the booming In distance by Tan Dun for piccolo, harp and bass drum, which juxtaposed three contrasting instruments to wild effect. On entirely the other hand, renditions of Mozart, Beethoven and Handel in the Enlightenment exhibition allowed for a more standard, albeit less interesting, exploration of history through music.
The climax of the evening was a mass performance in the museum's Great Court. The piece, Lebab, composed by Steve Berry, used a majority of the performers to create a chaotic, messy mass as an aural conclusion to the evening. Meant to represent the cluttered and conflicting histories of the exhibitions contained within the British Museum, it gave a clear perspective of the scale and ambition of the evening. That said, it still felt a little clumsy in its presentation of what it was trying to sum up; that cultural fact from thousands of years and miles of history can loose its imagined origins and ethereal purpose. To capture this feeling fully, an evening like this needs more considered organisation and discipline. If this acts as a rehearsal for another evening like this, then the final performance will be spectacular. For now, it stands as an important experiment in cross-cultural performance and media and one that most certainly should be developed for the future.