Review: Undersong at Barton Hill Settlement, Mayfest

19th May 2018

Verity Standen has a gift for producing the most unsettlingly beautiful, intimate shows for Mayfest. Two years ago, HUG left many an audience member in tears, whilst a year before that Symphony offered the most affecting private performances on the Bristol Old Vic stage.

This year, the Bristol-based composer and performer has come up with Undersong. Once again blending the space between the performer and the audience, a group of singers harmonise as they meander through the seated crowd. A seemingly random collection of noises from each member of the choir – including hums, shrieks, squeals, and everything in between – combine to create a beautiful choral whole.

The movement of the singers is key to the whole thing. For the listener, sounds swirl around your head, coming in and out of focus as if caught in a rounding wind. Aside from moving through the audience, the singers also swivel on chairs, lie down, and stand waggling their tongues.

While all beautifully done, Undersong doesn’t quite reach the peak of Standen’s previous work. Symphony and HUG were perfect in their conception and production, presenting warm, all-encompassing pieces that placed the listener in the heart of everything. For Undersong, the audience feels more incidental – as if the singers would be doing their thing regardless of whether anyone was there. The music feels like a collection of compositions rather than a single entity. However, Standen has set a high bar for herself, and while Undersong doesn’t leap over it, it is still a lovely thing to witness.

Conal Dougan