Review: Larkhall at Turner Sims, launching Southampton Film Week

Review: Larkhall at Turner Sims, launching Southampton Film Week

by Sam Wise.

Larkhall is a duo, consisting of Charlie Williams, concert pianist and composer, and Otto, his visual collaborator, his creation, maybe even his child? Otto is a system Charlie has built, consisting of a listening algorithm on a Macbook, and a visual processor on a ruggedised PC. The listening algorithm has two mics on the piano, and a machine readable version of the score. It hears what Charlie plays, reads the tempo, and predicts from the score what will come next, feeding this information to the PC, where a system called TouchDesigner creates animations which synchronize with the music. Of course, Otto is not creating these from nothing, Charlie has chosen the styles and shapes, but the software responds to tempo and volume, so that the exact colours and sizes of what is being generated change every night. 

It might seem disingenuous to describe Otto as a collaborator, but as Charlie refers to him by name throughout the performance, you can’t help but be sucked into the anthropomorphic thinking. Charlie’s life wasn’t always thus; leaving university with a degree in concert piano, he came to the sudden realization that very few jobs require high level piano playing. Finding himself a role at an app company, Charlie began to learn to code, and was successful in tech roles, but the desire to create work that was meaningful to him never really left him. He began to develop Otto in his spare time, and launched the first version with a show shortly before Covid hit. That first show told him just how much more work there was to be done, but lockdown gave Charlie time, as it did for most of us, and he sank that time into Otto. Tonight’s beautiful performance is the product of that lockdown time investment. 

And what a performance it was, marking the launch Southampton Film Week. Charlie and the Turner Sims audience (crowd would be the wrong cultural term) interacted in a concert hall fashion, rather than a gig style; lots of bowing and polite applause rather than whooping and screaming, but he established a wonderful rapport that you rarely see in such an environment. Charlie describes the relationship between his performance and Otto’s as analogous to a conductor and an orchestra, and from the opening piece, we saw a wonderful dance between music and imagery. Charlie’s flowing, cascading piano figures rolled over us as Otto created constellations over starfields, intricate patterns of blocks which turn and resolve into labyrinthine patterns before soaring up into a three dimensional wall unrecognisable from what went before, and then folding itself back into a flat pattern once more. 

It’s hard to describe such a visual experience, but we were treated to forests full of dancing blossom and leaves, roads unfolding before us, and wonderful folding and unfolding wireframes. On one piece in particular, rolling green landscapes unfolded and danced around a central blue crystal which changed shape and size, and appeared to be conjuring the landscape in some kind of creation myth. Charlie’s playing throughout is aquiline, rolling and a beautiful accompaniment to the images. In fact, as the performance gathers pace, that’s the way it feels; you can become completely lost in the visuals, and the music simply carries you along like an undercurrent. At the end of the performance, however, Charlie treats us to a couple of new pieces which are much more jagged and staccato, and the visuals likewise take us to a different place, rushing and punching and sharp in a way that is a shock to us, lulled into a reverie as we have been by the flowing beauty of the performance up until that point. All in all, a wonderful evening of music which points the way to a new paradigm for classical music. What would Otto make of Bach? Haydn? Elgar? Maybe in time, we will find out, but for now, Charlie’s beautiful compositions provide us with a vision of the future. 


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Read more about Southampton Film Week:

The 15th Southampton Film Week launches on Friday, bringing a whole range of cinematic treats to the city