RichMix, Shoreditch, London
By Tom Stewart
Earlier this year I interviewed Steph Singer, founder and creative director of BitterSuite, a company which produces multi-sensory experiences involving music, touch, taste and smell. I thought I came away from the interview with a good understanding of what it would be like to be one of their blindfolded participants. I was wrong. For the forty minutes of their new creation, Tapestries, we were massaged, carried and otherwise physically manipulated to the beat of String Quartet No 1 (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1928) by Czech-maverick Janáček. The movements of the quartet were interleaved with poignant music by Fred Thomas and poetry by Kayo Chingonyi. I left feeling genuinely elated, and it wasn’t difficult to work out why.
The music itself was excellently played with exactly the right amount of metallic tang for the Janáček and poise for Thomas’s pensive interpolations. Janáček’s score recounts the psychological drama of Tolstoy’s story of the same name, but it was the tactile element of this unique performance that drove the emotion home. Unable to see, the audience was dependent on the dancers, who acted as individual guides, not only to prevent them from colliding with each other but also to help them interpret the piece. Pulled and pushed in every direction, we were forced to think about the connection between what we could hear and what we could feel – at one point three performers lifted me horizontally into the air, laid me down on the floor and wrapped me in a blanket. There is a method of teaching languages called ‘total physical response’ that engages the whole body in understanding words and phrases – this was its musical equivalent, and it worked brilliantly.
Compared with this physical contact, the olfactory elements were rather less bold. The cup of hot mulled wine we were offered on arrival managed, assisted by the richly patterned carpets and throws, to conjure the sense of a Bohemian salon. The orange juice foam and powdered seaweed seemed less relevant. It was hard, too, to make out the connection between the music and the scents dispersed into the air. Perhaps some kind of explanatory ‘menu’ might have helped to illuminate these relationships.
What BitterSuite plays with is something much more subtle than synaesthesia – the power of suggestion. Yes, the flavours and fragrances could have packed a more obvious punch, but it would be hard to imagine a more intense or illuminating way to enjoy music than this.