Presumably when the Gregorian chant first exploded onto the theological music scene in the 11th century, there were plenty of old monks moodily complaining about how these young monks were slaves to cynical marketing. Sentiments like ‘it’s not even music; the Old Roman Chant was a proper liturgical plainchant repertory, this is just noise ’ and ‘Pope Boniface VII was a real Christian music pioneer, people just like Pope Sergius IV’s stuff because he’s good looking and nuns like him.’ would have abounded. Meanwhile the younger monks would have rolled their eyes at these old fogies unable to see how Gregorian chanting was where it was at; ‘only stuck up Coptic Patriarch’s listen to the Old Roman Chant; do you even self-flagellate brother?’
The point is that every generation stretching back into antiquity is linked by a symbiotic belief that the music culture of their youth was great and that the new generation’s approach to music is not only wrong, but possibly the harbinger of the total collapse of civilisation. One of the flashpoints in the current generational culture war is that the sheer availability of music via the internet has led to something of a magpie approach. People like a bit of everything and often they like to be doing other stuff when they listen to it. Schizophrenically genre-hopping playlists abound and the preponderance of screens means that even when we’re listening, we’re generally not just sitting and focusing entirely on the music. Even if we give the occasional song our full attention the idea of doing that with a full album has become unrealistic to many people, almost tragically retro. As a result a lot of albums, particularly in the pop sphere, seem to be moving backwards to a more 1950s conception of the album: just jam all the singles in there and call it a day. Internal consistency or concept is strictly for the rubes.
So to quote Lenin, “What is to be done?” Some genies can’t be put back into the bottle [example: just watch the new “Aladdin”] and even those bemoaning the cultural barbarians tearing down the music industry’s gates aren’t innocent of some light Googling whilst the proverbial reels spin. The only way to remake the wheel is some outside-the-box thinking and Beyond The Road, a highly unusual immersive exhibition squatting in the rafters of the Saatchi Gallery, certainly qualifies as ”outside the box”. There are immersive versions of everything from films to dinner, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the venerable institution of the album is next on the block and that the mention of the world ‘immersive’ causes more than a flicker of an eye-roll. However this cynicism is somewhat mollified by the knowledge that this exhibition has been years in the making by two of “Punchdrunk” Theatre’s behind-the -scenes wizards, Colin Nightingale (creative producer) and Stephen Dobbie (sound designer and creative director). “Punchdrunk” are the godfather of the immersive boom and understand better than anyone else how to make the art form sing.
Beyond The Road takes UNKLE’s ‘The Road: Part I’ and ‘The Road: Part II/Lost Highway’ by UNKLE [familiarity with the albums or UNKLE themselves is not required] and explodes them outwards like a technical blueprint. The individual stems of the record have been unthreaded and laced together throughout the space: in one room silvered in reflection and pulsing with ultraviolet lights you’ll find the synths, whilst outside along the gently undulating corridor the bass jitters and pops and hidden inside a telephone like the sound of waves in a shell, you’ll find a delicate quivering vocal. Sound leakage between the rooms means that the album swirls around in a vortex, constantly changing and evolving depending on which room of the space you currently occupy. The rooms themselves would all be happy inside a David Lynch movie; dreamlike does not begin to describe it. An immense dinner table drips neon wax like a carpet of lava, screens before and behind you reveal endless corridors and nameless crimes, a church baptismal pool reflects and endlessly swirling “mandala”. In short, it could definitely be accused of being pretentious. But this charge doesn’t stick, because of the sheer power of the musical approach. The dreamlike artistry of the physical location absorbs your mind as you wander, through allowing your subconscious to fully interface with the music, free to give its swirls and ripples total commitment. The piece lasts for 30 minutes, but we hung around for a full hour and a half exploring how different rooms achieved alternate peaks and gullies. The immersive album isn’t exactly something you can take home with you, but it’s got a beat and it can dance with you.
tickets available at https://beyondtheroad.saatchigallery.com/