Ghost Quartet

“Side One. Track One. ‘I Don’t Know’.” So starts Ghost Quartet, a spellbinding song cycle-come-musical that mixes an intricate multi-instrumental score, live instrumental sound effects and rich, chestnutty vocals.

Whilst the whole is hard to assemble, Ghost Quartet never loses its audience.

The four musicians perform Ghost Quartet relatively stationary behind standing microphones, facing each other in the round. This staging gives the performance an extra intensity, as their energies spark off one another. The story feels summoned somewhere in the air between them, an electrifying presence, untethered to conventional blocking and choreography.

The score itself (written by Dave Malloy and arranged together by the Quartet) is as varied in texture as it is in style. There are influences from modern classical, alternative pop and lots of rootsy flavours. Around the circle, we hear Brent Arnold’s deep, warm, menacing cello; Brittain Ashford’s glistening autoharp; Malloy’s own raconteurial keyboard; Gelsey Bell’s prittle-prattling metallophone and rafter-smashing percussion. At times, it sounds something like Beth Jeans Houghton; and other times half familiar, half new-and-strange.

Each new ‘track’ on this spectral cassette tape is a portal into a new tale of the weird, spooky and unexpected. Malloy’s book and lyrics play with the supernatural subject matter, incorporating a leisurely humour that takes nothing away from the musical’s enveloping soundscape. The tales, scenes and incidents presented interlink to form a patchwork narrative that plays loosely, uncannily even, with time and place. As a narrative, however, it falls back on quite procedural motifs, and is difficult to piece together in the live setting, especially with so little staging.

Whilst the whole is hard to assemble, Ghost Quartet never loses its audience. Moment by moment, the vocals are full of mood and conviction. Bell, particularly, has a singing voice expansive in range and expressive power. She is certainly the standout vocal performance.

There is a compelling sense in this show that something is created beyond the performers themselves. On the night I saw Ghost Quartet, the audience were so wrapped up in this creation that the outro was matched for several minutes by an atmospheric, almost ritualistic clapping rhythm that seeded spontaneously within the crowd. Ghostly indeed, but ‘Quartet’? Now, that must be an understatement.

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The Blurb

Ghost Quartet is a haunted song cycle about love, death and whisky. A camera breaks and four friends drink, in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries: a warped fairy tale about two sisters, a tree house astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher; a purgatorial intermezzo about Scheherazade; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder. Murder ballads, doo-wop, Islamic adhan, and raucous campfire drinking songs collide in this chamber musical from Dave Malloy, composer of the Broadway-bound Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

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