Walking up the worn stairs of The Toff and into the venue that will house the Dark Space Project, I feel completely and utterly uncool. I’m surrounded by people with an effortless air of coolness that I have never, and will never, comprehend. I choose a seat near the back of the venue, worried that if I sit any closer to the stage I’ll be caught out for the uncool imposter I am. I pull out my phone, the young person’s way of feigning busyness and bring up the details of the Dark Space Project on Melbourne Music Week’s website.
Online, Melbourne Music Week promises it to be a “journey of ambient and psychedelic music in complete darkness”. True to form, the blinds are drawn, but at the moment the room is still lit.
As the rest of the room begins to fill up with the aforementioned cool people, it becomes apparent that the very few seats in the space are not nearly enough. Grown adults are relegated to sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor. I shudder thinking of the various spillages, stains and sticky substances this floor has encountered. I’m thankful I managed to snag a seat, but I feel for the people who paid for this event and have to sit on the floor.
My plus one points out the 2 drumkits on stage. He tells me that the only band he knows that uses 2 drum kits is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, an Australian psychedelic rock band. I’m immediately intrigued. How on earth can 2 drum kits keep in time together? The potential for witnessing that level of percussive skill excites me.
After sitting around, waiting for something to happen, finally, a young man jumps up on stage with an acoustic guitar. He introduces himself as James Teague. He asserts that he is in fact not a DJ (as the program and PR assets had stated) then launches into his own unique brand of folk music. He is an expert guitar player, effortlessly plucking the strings. He leans into vocal runs, pushing the limits of melody. At times, his voice clashes with his guitar playing. I feel slightly unsettled during his performance, but I think that’s the point. James adopts different personas in his songs, one of which he himself admits is “kinda creepy”, about a guy obsessed with a girl called ‘Gertrude’. One of the lyrics in this song is “there is no way I’d ever injure you”. So, not your typical folk song.
Whilst James’ music is not my style, he is charming on stage. He dedicates his final few songs to his friend John, who plays in Dark Space Project, who he says he “hasn’t seen for a year and a half”. James describes his next song, ‘Only You’, as a “really sparse Jazz number”, which is “an old song, but no one has heard it, so it is new”. At first, I think ‘Only You’ is a love song. It has that dreamy, floaty vibe that normally signals a love song. But as I listen to the lyrics it becomes apparent it is actually about dying. Lyrics like “time will claim me for her own” and “are you scared to die alone?” pepper his effortless guitar melodies. James’ songs are lyrically stunning, but I find I’m ultimately put off by his vocal style. His voice is not for everyone, but many will find his style refreshing.
After James finishes up his set, we wait 30 minutes for the next act. I’m not impressed, as my chair is very uncomfortable and the majority of the audience remains sitting on the floor. It’s late and everyone in the room is eager to get to the main event. But before we are plunged into darkness and the world of psychedelic music, we are graced with the stylings of a young woman and her electric cello. She does not introduce herself, but from the program, I assume she is Hextape (also known as Bridget Chappell).
Essentially what Hextape does is create soundscapes using a loop pedal. She loops melodies, plucking and bouncing her bow against the strings, tapping the cello’s body to create percussion and mixes it all with her own soft vocals. She builds the soundscapes on the spot, everything starts from the sound of a single string and is crafted into a cacophony of sounds. The end product reminds me of whale calls, the sounds of the deep ocean. As the performance progresses, it becomes clear that this is all the performance is. There is no interaction or acknowledgement of the audience, and the song does not evolve as you would hope it to. It ends up sounding like the same song looped over and over for 26 minutes. The initial novelty of her performance is lost quickly. At the end of Hextape’s performance, she murmurs a “thanks” into the microphone before leaving the stage. I’m left feeling like the audience was superfluous to her performance, and as though I would have enjoyed it more watching it as a YouTube video. It felt almost like we were intruding on her rehearsal. I did not feel connected to her or her music, but was definitely impressed with her musical prowess.
Following this performance, there is once again another 30 minute wait. At this point, most of the audience has been sitting on the ground for nearly 2 hours – something that not even school children are subjected to. At last, the lights are turned off, we are plunged into darkness, and the Dark Space Project performance begins.
I cannot see anyone on stage. I have no idea who is performing or even exactly what instruments they are playing. There is a buzz in the air. We are all excited to be a part of something special. This performance has not been rehearsed and is completely improvised. It will never be replicated or repeated.
The music begins. I can distinguish an electric guitar, drums and possibly a bass guitar. Out of nowhere, a violin shrieks. I jump out of my chair. The violin is a stark juxtaposition to the other instruments in the band. As the performance progresses it becomes clear that it does not cohesively exist in this performance. Just when I’m actually starting to enjoy the music, the violin starts back up and I feel myself jolted once again. The violin is a truly beautiful instrument, I have heard it performed live and when it is good it is breathtaking. However, this violin playing is uninspiring.
Violin aside – what I like about this performance is how the music is a living and breathing organism. It is continually changing and evolving as I listen to it. At some points, it reminds me of the sounds of space. I feel the music pulsating around me, the bass hitting me in the chest. When the music reaches a crescendo, neon lights begin to flash and dance on the stage. At first this is exciting, however, the novelty of this wears off very quickly.
Before heading into the performance I had thought that listening to experimental music in the dark would be an intriguing, transformative experience. Instead, however, it makes me feel trapped. There is a couple to my right who can’t take the music anymore, getting up and leaving mid-way through the performance. Across the other side of the room, I see another group leave early too. I have to say, after nearly an hour of this unsettling performance, I am pondering leaving early too. After what feels like an eternity, however, the music finally stops and the remaining crowd erupts in applause. I am relieved to head home, happy in the knowledge that some of the audience enjoyed themselves even if I did not.
Reflecting on my experience at the show, the main conclusion I draw is that Dark Space Project was an incredibly cool, innovative idea – but was marred by poor execution. Paying audience members had to sit cross legged on the floor for hours, there was painfully long waits between acts. No act was properly introduced, and the music itself was a struggle to endure at times. I applaud the creativity, enthusiasm and talent of all musicians involved in the show, but suggest that more rehearsal and organisation could have been beneficial.
At the very least, Dark Space Project demonstrates the wide variety of talents in the Melbourne music scene. Even if the music was not exactly my taste, it is unique and a testament to the creative hub that is Melbourne. However, if this event is to be repeated at next year’s Melbourne Music Week, I strongly suggest some rethinking about its execution. And more chairs, please.