Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 25-27 May 2005
For three days in May, people were queuing to go to bed with Jennifer Walshe. The bed in question is a musical instrument, a two-metre sound box, looking like a table, on which you lie, while the composer lies underneath, hidden by the white shrouds that cover the bed, and plays the strings underneath that stretch for the full length of the box.
The Project Arts Centre have to be congratulated for having commissioned the ‘bed of soft’ as most of the hard work behind this musical experience is not so much the individual performances of Jennifer Walshe but the great effort that has gone into making a very special instrument. Ably assisted by the craft skills of her father, Ed, Jennifer Walshe has brought into being a kind of giant guitar capable not only of holding the weight of the person lying on it, but withstanding the tremendous tension of metal wires stretched across two metres.
The point of the design, which incorporates centuries of knowledge of the properties of different woods, is twofold. On the one hand it allows the listener to feel the vibrations of the instrument that they are lying on, but also the great length of the plucked string means that there are many more nodes on it than a conventional stringed instrument. The effect of strumming several strings at once is to send out a lush wave of sound full of the froth of uncountable harmonics. The closest parallel to the sound produced by the bed is that of a sitar.
The actual performance begins with the listener entering the room and lying on the bed. All the potential of the instrument, and the composer herself, are hidden away beneath a white cloth, so you could simply be lying on a table. Then the lights dim, and in the dark you both feel and hear the cascades of music generated by the strings being strummed beneath you. In an age where the fastest growing sales of music are downloads to mobile phone it is daring, non-commercial, but all the more impressive that the listener is given a personal performance by the composer herself in such a focused setting.
As is often the case with Jennifer Walshe’s compositions, the effectiveness of the music that wells up around you and through you, is not so much its narrative, but the physical, sensual, impact of the sound. The enjoyment of being immersed in this rich effervescence of harmonics is such that you feel real disappointment when they finally die away. Now that the ‘bed of soft’ exists, other arts centres and performance spaces should bring it into their schedules and give more listeners the opportunity to experience a unique and highly original form of musical pleasure.
Published on 1 July 2005
Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).