BEIT MERY: Four black-clad men stride into the spotlight and seat themselves about the square wooden table set in the middle of the stage. Each produces a blade which he casts forcefully at the tabletop. With each impact, thuds reverberate through the hall. Of the two dozen or so audience members who’ve been made to sit on stage, only a couple of faces betray traces of panic, and only briefly.
Performances at Al-Bustan don’t usually include knife-throwing.
After a few minutes of wordless performance, the men standing at the north and south ends of the table shake hands formally, as if to end a contest whose rules only they know.
So commences “The Table,” the musical-theater hybrid that Sunday evening yanked Beit Mery’s classical music festival into the 21st century.
The Wroclaw-based ensemble behind this innovative, highly entertaining performance is Karbido (translated as “free choice”).
The four lads on stage – ensemble founder “maot” (aka visual artist, bassist, and composer Marek Otwinowski), Micha? Litwiniec (sax, aerophones, throat-singing and ethno instruments), Igor Gawlikowski (guitarist, composer and arranger) and Pawe? Czepu?kowski (percussionist, composer and arranger) – all have rich and varied performance careers ranging far beyond this surface.
The table at the center of “The Table” is not what it seems.
From the first knife impact upon the surface it’s obvious it’s equipped with microphones, like a flamenco technician might mic a surface. The electrical cables coiled beneath, the array of instrument-like strings strung from the table’s flip-up wings and the bows hanging at the ready all suggest Karbido’s is the most pimped-out eating surface in the greater-Beirut area.
With so much technology and technique clustered about a table, the performance isn’t the strictly percussive affair you might imagine.
The ensemble’s playing surface has some conventional instruments attached to it – a recorder-like wind instrument protrudes finger-like from the tabletop. Thanks to electric guitar-style technology, an array of strings can reproduce instrumental sound, regardless the surface to which they’re affixed.
The table is also equipped with technology widely used in experimental music circles – simultaneously recording, bending and playing-back sound so the two headset-equipped vocalists at the table can mimic sounds as varied as Tibetan throat-singing and the refrain of Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”
An otherwise unobtrusive pipe-like surface projection allows one vocalist to produce tones ranging from that of a didgeridoo to that of a television newscast anchor.
During a post-show chat, the throat-singing Litwiniec recalled that the concept for “The Table” stemmed from Karbido’s simply being bored with conventional performance.
Indeed, it isn’t the technology that places this act firmly in the contemporary experimental moment, but a sense of idle curiosity that makes the show as fun for the audience as it is for the players.
How does it sound, for instance, to write a note on a piece of paper with a pencil? What is the music of twirling a coin across the surface, spintop-fashion? What happens if you drop the house lights and hold a wee flashlight over the coin as it spins?
Experimental music aficionados could confirm that there’s something familiar in the players’ fondness for bowing the edge of the tabletop, or using a drinking straw to blow bubbles in a half-full champagne flute, or your tongue to lick sound from the strings’ electric pickup.
Over the course of their hourlong performance, Karbido demonstrates not only the joy of making sound, but that music lives not in the documentation of recorded sound, but in ephemeral performance.