It's Easter Sunday and I'm singing to an audience who are wearing blindfolds. To be clear, they aren't bound and gagged. It's not a King of Comedy type situation in which I perform for people against their will. This is an "art" thing.
It's all part of a performance at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre called The Gospel According to Matthew J Anthony led by Mark Palmer and James Byrne of the band Life after Modelling (Byrne is also the drummer with Villagers). Once purveyors of fine melodic indie music, their new project is a cycle of powerfully off-beat gospel songs embedded in a metaphysical spoken-word story about the eponymous Matthew J.
For this performance, Palmer and Byrne have expanded into a nine-piece band and I am one of the backing singers. (For the record, I didn’t pitch this article. The conversation went something like this. Editor: “Any interest in covering this blindfolded gig on Sunday?” Me: “I’m in it!” Editor: “Want to cover it anyway?”)
At some point in the show's devising they decided to blindfold the audience, who now sit facing us, while we, the musicians, sit in the dark wearing head-mounted torches. "The idea came from Donal Scannell, " says Palmer. Scannell is their creative consultant/manager/"evil Svengali" (their words). "I was going through the text for him. He had his eyes closed and said that the experience was very meditative and that we should set up a situation where people had to wear blindfolds."
Palmer once played in one of my bands and Byrne and I have often toured together. We’ve travelled through the day and night to play to handfuls of people in tiny pubs. We’ve played at student events where large crowds paid no attention to us and might as well have been wearing blindfolds.
“We’ve played to minus figures of people,” says Byrne, recalling a gig where even the soundman left halfway through. We have huddled at three in the morning trying to funnel petrol into the broken petrol tank of a barely operating camper van. Being a musician is existentially troubling at frequent intervals, but I have never before played to a blindfolded audience with a miner’s light on my head.
Palmer, who went to art school, has done stranger gigs. "I remember being on the Aran Islands and doing this thing where I painted around my body in black and white and sang The Smiths How Soon Is Now? ," he says.
“For another performance I stayed for three days in an attic room and didn’t leave. I video-diaried the whole thing. Nobody was looking at me doing that, but it was a performance.”
Now, as I write in my notebook between songs (why not, nobody can see me), Palmer is pacing the stage barefoot incanting a rich script that sits somewhere between Dr Seuss and Dr Jung. Soon the beautiful, intricately arranged music will start to play again.
The audience, sitting back in their chairs with blindfolds in place, look unusually relaxed. Some are lying back in their seats. Couples are holding hands. A woman has her head on a friend's shoulder. Most keep the blindfolds on throughout, although at least one man cheats, regularly lifting up his blindfold to peek ("My glasses were uncomfortable under the blindfold," he later explains). They're all very still.
Context and texture
Context is everything in music. The type of venue you play, the type of formats you record in, and the type of scene you inhabit
determine what you create. Everything from how big the space is (or not), to how reverent the audience is (or not), to how clear the sound is (or not), affects what is produced. Throughout the last century, artists experimented with changing the relationship between performer, venue and audience.
These experiments ranged from full-on amateur participation as pursued by Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, to thought-provoking sonic experiments, of which John Cage's 4'33" is the most well-known example, in which all incidental sounds are considered to be part of the performance.
Palmer and Byrne, although pop musicians, are following in this tradition. “People will be more attuned to the sound when blindfolded I think,” says Palmer. “They’ll hear the turning of the pages, the creaking of the chairs.”
This makes sense to me. Musicians regularly play with their eyes closed. It’s easier to concentrate on the sonic details when there are fewer extraneous sensory distractions. It’s an article of faith for many musicians that people appreciate music better without visual distractions.
They certainly experience it differently. “My hearing became a lot more sensitive,” says audience-member Tim O’Donovan in the bar afterwards. “I became a lot more aware of the sound of the music as a whole.”
“Because of the blindfold, parts of the story created images in my mind and they really stayed with me,” says Louise Butler.
“The sounds seemed to have colours,” says Eleanor Philips. Her friend Jesse Jones lists off a number of blindfolded theatre shows she’s been at. “I love listening in the dark,” she says. “It’s strange. You start thinking, is this live or am I in my bedroom listening to this?”
From a performance perspective, not being looked at while singing (as opposed to being ignored, which is a different thing altogether) is liberating.
You can think purely about how things sound. You can blatantly cue one another. You can dance unself-consciously. You can take notes for the article you have to write the next morning.
For Palmer, however, “It’s about moving the focus away from the performers and on to the music. You go to a gig and it’s about the band and whether they are cool or sexy. But this isn’t about us. We’re incidental. We’re standing in as a means to mediate something to the audience.
“I don’t want people looking at me and thinking, Is he cool or not cool? It’s about kick-starting something in the listener.”
“And it’s about trust,” Byrne told me earlier. “I know being unable to see makes people feel vulnerable, but I hope the majority will buy in all the way through and only take the blindfolds off at the end. And then they’ll realise that everyone is safe.”
Further performances o f The Gospel of Matthew J Anthony will take place over the summer and an album will be released later this year