Live review: 'An Evening with the Bel-Air Glamour Records Gang: Ragnar & friends' at the Barbican, London, 19.7.

 Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory

Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory

9/10

Ragnar Kjartansson, it seems, has an undeniable affinity with the past, for its style and its adventure. For example, any normal record label of today would not, perhaps, set their business ideals purely on making their artistic dreams come true. For Kjartansson and Bel-Air Glamour Records, however, this is everything. In the programme notes for his 'Ragnar and Friends' show, he reminisced about Icelandic record companies from his youth, such as the legendary Reykjavik label Bad Taste, that were ‘more of a joyous social force than a business venture’. He went on to mention a project involving Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National performing a six-hour version of their 2010 song (and Kjartansson’s favourite) ‘Sorrow’; elongating beauty to its limit appears to be a fascination of his. In the Barbican Theatre, a number of Kjartansson’s theatrical, slightly bizarre and mostly Icelandic dreams were brought to life in an evening of magnificent eccentricity.

At first the audience had nothing to go on but pure blackness and the rumbling of low end piano stabs – then the blindfold was removed, and an image of pure decadence greeted the curious eyes. A full length backdrop of brightest gold accompanied the now-visible piano improvisation of Davíð Þór Jónsson, resplendent in a tuxedo. Rising and falling with intensity, often soft melodies would lift out of the ashes of thundering rhythmic passages that had just preceded them. Jónsson utilised repetition and subtle development to great effect, and each change felt natural, to the extent that the music didn’t feel improvised at all.

What came next were a series of artistic events that mixed the sublime and the ridiculous. Kjartansson initially came across a slightly nervous MC, but quickly grew into the role: across the night he performed a country music number (again in overly formal attire), a very short Icelandic folk song and held awkward, monosyllabic conversations in broken English with a number of the performers as they arrived onstage. However, he really came into his own when performing loose, entertaining songs from Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’ cycle, smoking cigars, wheeling the piano offstage at breakneck speed and essentially doing everything he could to break the rules. It reached a point that his mere presence onstage brought a slight chuckle from audience members, and provided almost the only form of continuity.

It would be very easy to describe each and every act in excruciating detail, as each would hold a kind of unique corner in this depressingly and ironically "safe" artistic world. The standout, in persona and performance, came from former múm front-person Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, providing tense, child-like quivering vocals over a simple piano backing. There was an almost shaking anger at times exuding from her as her light tremolo shook harder and harder. Listening to Valtýsdóttir's shudder, often recoiling from the microphone in what looked like horror, was akin to listening to the anguished child inside your brain, but with a voice to strike you dumb. 

Elsewhere, art forms were combined to create a multitude of cultural synergies: choreographer Margrét Bjarnadóttir arrived on a metre-high platform with a drumkit, only to give a charming, funny monologue about self-discovery and challenging yourself to let yourself create beauty. Furthermore, there were masterful displays of cello performance, poetry and modern German Lieder to make sure you were always guessing.

 Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory

Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory

The finale was the perfect culmination of madness and daring experimentation. In a piece of inspired choreography, the Dessner twins were each paired off with Valtýsdóttir and her twin sister Gyða, and took it in turns to walk across all the way from Stage Right to Stage Left, singing a verse each of a simple yet beautiful song of a summer’s day. The result was what felt like a cyclical performance, with the use of twins creating the illusion of a never-ending musical installation, perhaps inside a music box  – this will come as no surprise considering Kjartansson’s current exhibition taking place at the Barbican.

It should not have been shocking to audience members that the show ran on a full hour longer than it was scheduled to. As much as he professed otherwise, Kjartansson couldn’t help but stretch the beauty of Bel-Air Glamour Records over a full evening. Nobody should be complaining though – with the pure wealth of imagination, comedic charm and emotional investment involved, this was certainly not an evening that could or should be trimmed, and undoubtedly precisely what Ragnar aimed to do.

 Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory

Photo: Michael Wilkin Photography / The Vinyl Factory