A Winged Victory for the Sullen // Live Review

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Barbican – October 19th

This time last year, ambient chamber ensemble A Winged Victory for the Sullen played to a rapt packed out audience in Shoreditch’s Village Underground, premiering their original score for the latest dance piece by renowned British choreographer, Wayne McGregor: Atomos. The piece ultimately went on to great success, with the duo of Americans Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie – augmented by their faithful string quintet from Wiltzie’s adopted home of Brussels – scoring the dancers live every night. Now they’re triumphantly back in London, this time performing at the far loftier locale of the Guildhall School by the Barbican, returning as fully recognised, world-class composers, accepted by the academic music establishment.

After an opening wash of heavenly keyboards, Atomos barely wavers from the nether zone between lucid dream and deathly coma throughout its hour-long duration, blending layers of Wiltzie’s droning guitar and pirouetting string arpeggios to occasional climaxes, only to have O’Halloran reintroduce a pulsating keyboard line or tender chord movement on the piano once again. The score is ostensibly cut up into eleven movements on the album, but most definitely plays through as a single monolithic piece, with several themes coming and going repeatedly. Utterly different from the first self-title Winged Victory album, the dancers of Atomos inspired the introduction of discernible rhythms to this music, passively inserted as a light pulse that runs throughout most of the piece’s many gentle ups and downs. The entire ensemble become often silhouetted by the Guildhall’s lights, almost disappearing from view entirely, leaving nothing but washes of beguiling tones and heartbreaking string mediations in their wake.

The languid speed of their music readjust the audience’s internal clocks, slowing down time in the process, sending every member of the audience on an internal search for meaning. McGregor’s Atomos piece was supposedly themed around the creation of atoms, and the many motions of molecular science – although this was more of an aesthetic starting point than anything else, and the music aptly finds its meaning in the eye of the beholder. After the show, we discuss how the score took us way back, tickling awake long-dormant memories from the recesses of the mind, taking us to another time and place. Music is rarely as transportative as this – but navigating the darkness of those near-empty labyrinthian Sunday night streets around the Barbican centre afterward brings us sharply back to reality. Dustin O’Halloran’s many film scores and solo piano works are some of the finest of their kind, and Adam Wiltzie’s legendary ambient outfit, Stars of the Lid, arguably defined an entire generation in the genre – but Atomos represents a new high-point for both.

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Buy: A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Atomos