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  • Miles Hedley


Updated: May 24, 2022

We live in a world where knowledge is power, where we know so much. But we should never underestimate the power of the mysterious, for it meets a need lying deep in the human psyche and allows us to revel in the joy of not-knowing. Religion, art and Agatha Christie all prove the point.

It’s one of the reasons I so love the contemporary classical music scene – old rulebooks are torn up, traditional forms are subverted and audiences are challenged in ever more unexpected ways.

Jack Sheen’s new work Each one cancels the last (Hector), which had its world premiere performances at Blackheath Halls, is just such a piece – an immersive mix of music, living art installation and audience involvement that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying even though it is loaded with unanswerable questions.

The mystery is overt from the start. Why was the performance already underway as we walked in to the dimly-lit auditorium. Why were the six members of the brilliant Octandre Ensemble spaced around the floor each in their own pool of light? Why were 11 string players from Trinity Laban raised above them in the gloom of the stage? Why were all the musicians dressed in black except for the Octandre flautist who shimmered in a luminous orange top? Why did dance artist Eve Stainton pose sculpturally for a time beside each musician before moving on to the next? Why were the musicians playing Sheen’s score only in snatches – and with only the lightest imaginable touch? And why did we keep catching hints of Berlioz?

The lack of a linear narrative and the feathery, breathy style of playing was at first unsettling. But as the audience moved slowly between the musicians and we were able to begin to attune ourselves to the delicacy of the composition and its paradoxically formal looseness, the ritualistic logic of the work drove away the sense of bafflement and replaced it with a growing realisation that while we may never comprehend it, we could marvel at its protean complexity and celebrate the mood of mystery it had wrought.

And by the end of the hour that realisation had grown into a heart-warming understanding that answers are not, well, the answer. What a delight!

Berlioz is best known for his Symphonie Fantastique. The same adjective, in all its senses, can justly be applied to this remarkable work.

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