KlangHaus: a revolutionary new way of staging live music

The Edinburgh festival show applies the techniques of immersive theatre to an indie gig, resulting in something genuinely groundbreaking

Sometimes, particularly if – like me – you’re well into your third decade of going to gigs, you can glumly think that you’ll never see anything truly original again. Yet there’s one show at the Edinburgh festival that truly delivers the shock of the new. Part art installation, part architectural experience and part concert, it’s the most innovative presentation of live music I’ve ever seen – a total game-changer.

If you’re going to KlangHaus I would stop reading here, as the surprise element is what makes this show so delicious. If not, here’s what happens. You enter a lift with a bearded man in a monochrome shirt. You’re not sure whether the lift is moving up or down. You make your way down a corridor towards a door with a projection of the view looking down a spiral staircase. Beyond that, there are sinister rooms with cages – the venue is an old animal hospital. A woman appears to be locked inside one.

You’re invited to move into a much larger room lined by cabins with mesh doors. In one there’s a drummer rhythmically slamming the door and banging on the pipes. In another, there’s someone operating an old-school synthesiser, the kind with wires spilling out of it. The bearded man re-enters the room and starts to sing as the drummer emerges banging a bass drum.

A cage at Klanghaus
A cage at KlangHaus. Photograph: Alex Needham/the Guardian Photograph: Alex Needham/The Guardian

This band are the Neutrinos. Over the course of 50 minutes, singers Mark Howe and Karen Reilly guide you around the venue’s rooms, performing a different song in each – all of which are staged in radically different ways. In one, Reilly is situated behind a screen as her vocals come from speakers behind you. Next, the audience is lured into what seems to be the kitchen by Baker and Reilly singing “reel ’em in and roll ’em out”, performing acoustically as we crowd into the space.

Then we move into the centre of a much larger room, as the band perform blistering no-wave around and among us in exhilarating, startling style. Some rooms and songs later, a door is thrown open and reveals drummer Jeron Gunderson bashing away at his kit, bathed in red light. It’s an overwhelming moment, revealing the way acoustics can be manipulated by architecture, almost in the way that back in the early 60s producer Joe Meek made records by recording some instruments in the bathroom, or positioned down a corridor.

As if that wasn’t sensory bombardment enough, each of the rooms are soaked in projections by artist Sal Pittman. There’s also a faint smell of disinfectant, a lingering memory of the building’s original use. Finally, we’re led down the stairs to the exit as the band scale a ladder to the ceiling, then perform a final, lullaby-style song above our heads as they peer through the entrance to a loft, backlit in pink.

Musicians from David Bowie and Kraftwerk to Madonna and Grace Jones have combined pop performance with film, theatre and visual arts – often very successfully – but their shows were still ultimately gigs. The xx’s concerts at Manchester international festival last year, where they played on 18 nights for 60 spectators a time, in what appeared to be an intimate venue until a big reveal at the end, indicated that musicians are reaching towards a new way of integrating music with the immersive theatre techniques of companies such as Punchdrunk. Yet KlangHaus is much bolder, and surely includes ideas that could apply to musicians right across the spectrum, from the avant garde to the super-pop.

Based in Norwich, the Neutrinos have been together for 14 years. In 2008, they decided that they were bored with conventional gigs and decided to try something new. “The format is a bit tired and often not for the audience’s benefit,” bassist Jon Baker told me. “There is always a division between the audience and the performer. The lights are usually fairly dull. I think having the audience amongst us is just so much more exciting. It’s what attracted me to music in the first place – just getting really up close to people and feeling that visceral thrill that you get by being sung to close at hand.”

In the kitchen at Klanghaus.
In the kitchen at KlangHaus. Photograph: Alex Needham/the Guardian Photograph: Alex Needham/The Guardian

The first of what they call “collaborations with buildings” happened when they made an album, The Butcher of Common Sense, at the FunkHaus in Berlin. “It’s a disused radio station – it’s enormous and it’s very inspiring and we basically fell in love with it.” The band made a book about the place as well as an album: “it became an artwork about the building and what it meant to us. Just the smell of the corridor, the sound and the way things looked – this decaying sense of it all.”

Baker says that when the band go into a space like the small animal hospital, “we just try to imagine what would have happened there and what it would have felt and sounded like. And we pick up a feeling. The sounds that come from those rooms are like us amplifying that feeling. It’s like a haunted space in a way, or we imagine it is, and we bring the visual or the musical to it.”

The band have also performed in an undercroft under a war memorial, and at London’s avant-garde space the Horse Hospital. “The more you can disorientate people the better so they can have an extraordinary experience,” says Baker. “They’re being processed and then spat out the other end, blinking into the daylight.”

The band adapt the show to the reactions of the audience. “Some people find it too loud and stick their fingers in their ears and then other people just want to dance. We like to respond to that. We find that we can change the set almost from moment to moment, so it’s not just people responding to us, we’re responding to each other. That’s a really lovely thing.

“People have found it thrilling, which is a really fantastic compliment. It feels a bit like a ghost train for adults. Rather than immersive it’s more ‘submersive’ – the feeling that we are all sunk in this extraordinary world that we’ve created. It’s childlike in a way, it’s a little bit like making a den and playing in it. It’s absolutely brilliant fun.”


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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