Two months back the Edinburgh College of Art held its annual Degree Show. While I felt it wasn’t as captivating as last year’s there were still definite highlights: the hypnotizing light installations by Val McLean and Kirsty Vyner Ross; Elaine Wilson’s bold “Borrowed Light” series, flooding serene Icelandic landscapes with feverish bold colours; Liana Moran’s almost Stanley Donwood style “Monstrous Aerials” piece which intimidates as much as it intrigues. But out of all I saw, the few artists I chatted with and all the free postcards I took, one little business card has stuck out for me: an image by Adeline Bourret called “The Rehearsal.”
Part of the reason it resonated more than others in my mind was that it simply reminded me of the cover to Max Richter’s latest work Infra, which I subsequently began delving into, triggered by this link. The association might seem trivial to others, and some might argue the link lies with Julian Opie – the creator of the album artwork – rather than Richter. But this is where you have to take into account what Infra is as a whole; instead of just another album as many casual listeners may well see it as.
In a nutshell Infra is a harmonious piece of work created by choreographer Wayne McGregor, artist Julian Opie and Max Richter that all came together in 2008. In front of an 18 metre long LCD screen of white blank outlined figures passing by, McGregor’s dancers intimately move with a beautiful sort of fluidity while Richter’s music plays. I can’t claim to have seen the full thing which aired last year but thankfully the few videos that hover about on YouTube have brought the descriptions of it to life. As individual pieces of art each person’s contribution is interesting, beautiful and evocative in both similar and separate ways, but taken together they become a whole different kind of creature.
And this is where the link between Bourret’s work and Infra become clearer: both are explorations of the body and they compare and contrast in numerous ways. The way McGregor directs his dancers in a sublime manner makes it seem like they are almost possessed – the joints and limbs seem to want to come apart from the bodies. This invisible sort of ghostly presence comes alive in the static pictures from “The Rehearsal” where joints have both disappeared and reappeared in new and almost unnatural positions. The initial comparison with Opie’s figures seems to turn around and juxtapose when you look into it more intently: Opie looks to simplify his figures whereas Bourret’s have been complicated with the distortion, even becoming a little less human.
One thing all the artists have created is a vivid sense of movement. The coloured ink used in “The Rehearsal” puts emphasis on the liquid fluidity of the movements captured. With McGregor’s dancers the movements are not just as expected (being a ballet and all); it’s also an exploration, seeking to almost stretch the dancer beyond their capabilities with the way the limbs move as mentioned earlier. Even Opie’s figures have a balletic aspect to them despite moving in a seemingly mundane manner.
With Richter’s score movement is as present as it is in any of the other artist’s pieces but comparing listening to the music on its own and to when the whole show is in action the former seems lacklustre in effect. Richter’s music seems to beautifully accentuate McGregor’s dancers, so much so that after you’ve seen videos of the show you’re only likely to picture couples moving intimately, lovingly and even angrily together within a beam of light when you hear the music.
But it should be made clear that Infra as an album is still a successful piece by Richter, once again displaying his intricate, delicate and even masterful skills while raising the hairs on the skin numerous times. Separated into two sets of numbered pieces – “Infra” and “Journey” – the most inspiring music comes from the former – the tracks created for the final show itself. That sense of movement is as clear as can be with the likes of “Infra 3” with its rippling piano chords or the careful crying streaks of “Infra 4.” The best part of the whole score begins with “Infra 5” and continues right until the end of the disc. “Infra 5” – quite possibly the best piece here – slowly builds sombre melodies to a near frantic swell of strings and feedback that cuts off suddenly. Once it’s gone that weird rush of blood through your body hits and your mind has dissolved into the beautiful piano of “Infra 6”. Penultimate “Infra 7” feels like one last almost teasing but warming glow before the final track plays out the last melodies (which do seem to echo “The Haunted Ocean” motif from the Waltz With Bashir soundtrack from two years ago).
Put beside each other the “Journey” tracks can easily come across as passing in their effect, somewhat mundane even. But when you consider these tracks were created with actual journeys in mind – road movies, soundtracking images of scenery in films – they feel much more apt. Obviously being created with this purpose in mind, movement is definitely present in the music itself; you can almost imagine an aerial shot of a vast wooded area being shown with “Journey 1” playing or perhaps some icy landscapes to go with the chilly piano on “Journey 5.” But if anything these tracks seem to act as link between the “Infra” tracks and as a further exploration of sounds and moods from the music created for the final show itself. Richter ties it altogether with an unsettling kind of distorted static, adding as much a haunting effect as it does coherency to the album as a whole.
Considering how much I’ve fallen for Richter’s work over the past few years – particularly his Waltz With Bashir soundtrack – it took me a long time to get into Infra. This could well have been my reluctance to look up any of the videos in attempt to let the music speak for itself but now I realise that it almost requires (if not demands) McGregor’s and Opie’s work as an accompaniment. Instead, all I had in my head were the static images of album cover and Adeline Bourret’s ghostly figures to accompany the music. While my imagination could certainly make these figures move about in my head I could never have conceived the sublime movements McGregor did.
On a whim I decided to get in touch with Adeline and ask her what her thoughts on Infra were. The word she picked to describe the music alone was “melancholic,” calling the score itself “a journey.” She spoke of how the different rhythms and different notes helped heighten the movements from the dancers, helping to create a sense of flow and making it look easy as choreographed dance should. And really it’s hard to argue with this description. Richter’s careful understanding of music, tone and atmosphere – among many others things – creates a score that arguably has as many vivid and beautiful moments as any of his other albums. But when you see it as a piece of the jigsaw and put it all together it somehow manages to become something even more inspiring.