In the Dark – a 30 Minute Sound Experience

We Are Sound – 11 November 2017, The Round Church, Cambridge

I start with a disclaimer: I am a member of the Cambridge musical collective We Are Sound. For various reasons, I decided to sit out this gig, and take the opportunity to be a part of the audience for the first time. So while I may not be entirely impartial, I write from a perspective of one who knows the challenges and joys of this kind of collective music making…

From the start, this performance was always going to be different. Where We Are Sound have always put on large scale, long (2 hour) gigs with massive setlists, a band, and 120 singers, this was billed not as a gig but as a ‘sound experience’. The Collective’s name was hardly noticeable on the poster or publicity and it seems likely that a proportion of the punters were literally that – people taking a punt on the experience. And why not? At only thirty minutes long, with a choice of four timeslots and a beautiful and historic setting at the Round Church in Cambridge, these gigs were easy to buy into.

As I took my place along with just forty other ticket holders, even I didn’t know quite what to expect.  I’d seen the slightly dazed and awestruck faces of those leaving the previous performance, and overheard some enthused chatter, so settled down to enjoy whatever was in store. We’d been advised to arrive fifteen minutes before the start, and as we took our seats walls of the Church glowed in soft lighting as haunting pre-recorded music echoed around the chamber:  The ambience was already magical as a female voice softly sang in ethereal but indiscernible tones. Andrea Cockerton, founder and artistic director of We Are Sound, came to the front of the small audience and said just a few words by way of introduction, requesting that we didn’t applaud (how refreshing!), rather we just give ourselves over to the performance. All phones and cameras were to be turned off and then… we put on our sleep masks.

The effect was instant. It was all about the sound. The darkness, the silence and the stillness were in itself spine-tingling, but then some sounds began, the ethereal music culminating in a sort of muffled but repetitive heartbeat-like “thump thump … thump thump … thump thump”. I felt like a child in the safety of a mother’s womb. And apparently from nowhere, the full music started. Even though I’m a member of the group, I hadn’t been primed and had no idea where the sound would be coming from. The acoustics and architecture of the Round Church lent itself perfectly to the fact that the sound really was surrounding the audience. Voices seemed to engulf me from all sides, as layer upon layer of harmony grew. The opening was breathtaking and the track perfectly chosen to send chills up the spine.

The thing about this experience was that it really was ALL about the music and the lyrics. The concept – a gig in total darkness – was daring and genius. Masking the audience’s eyes ensured that we focused totally and intensely with our ears and really, really listened. Never did my mind wander in the way that it might in other gigs, watching musicians at work, fancy lighting or even, err, wondering where that person shops for those cool clothes. It was just me and the experience and as the sounds blended seamlessly into one another, I was rapt. Unprepared for the intensity of emotion brought about listening to the flawless vocals and the growing and swelling of the stunning arrangements, as another beautiful piece began, I was caught off guard and a few tears *may* have escaped through my sleep mask.

The gig’s brevity was a good thing, as the sheer intensity of the experience would probably have become too much had it been prolonged. Seven tracks were covered, each one arranged in multiple parts, with layer upon layer of overlapping vocals and perfect harmonies. No microphones were used, but the sound felt amplified as it bounced off the walls of the round building with the audience at its centre. There were many highlights but I don’t want to give away any of the carefully planned setlist.

As the final track began, the lights came on and a gentle voice told us to please take off our masks. Now we could see the performers that somehow were all around us. (How did they get there? When?) This was a great opportunity to try to compute fully the amazing and surreal event that we’d just experienced, but also a lesson in how, once our eyes are opened, we lose something of the aural pleasure. A good technique too, to bring the audience gently back down to reality in time to open the doors onto Bridge Street and head to the 1815 Café Bar to use our secret password to ensure discounted drinks – the sense of mystery, and of belonging to a secret and exclusive club, prolonged.