Review: HUG

A cappella is a genre that has been much in vogue recently, most notably with the success of the American musical comedy film Pitch Perfect in 2012. I have often unconsciously pigeonholed the genre as ‘light’ music, associating it with doo-wop bands, cheesy barbershop quartets, and groups like Fascinating Aida, who have used a cappella for vicious and risqué – not to say salacious – satire (try YouTubing the songs Cheap Flights and Dogging). I had been aware of the musical sophistication of the genre and the amazing effects can be created with the human voice alone, ranging from German metal band Van Canto’s a cappella simulation of metal to the stylings of Bobby McFerrin, but nonetheless I had never felt the same sublime emotional resonances that I would associate with a symphony, concerto or opera. That all changed today, when I went to see Verity Standen’s new ‘a cappella sound bath’, HUG, at the Southbank.

They often say that art is about pushing boundaries – if so, this show is art par excellence, questioning as it does the conventional relationship of performer and audience. Blindfolded from the start, a small audience (around 25-30) is surrounded by song, and each is assigned an individual ‘hugger’, who holds them tight as they sing, in order to create an unusually strong sense of intimacy and connection between performer and audience. So much for the premise.

The show itself was quite extraordinary. We were led into a small dark room, just beneath the skating park by the Southbank, and under instruction we sat down and donned our blindfolds. Then, after a taut silence, voices began to swell around us, building gradually, chanting the word ‘you’ in hypnotic tones, eventually alternating with ‘who’ – the meaning was clear, the connection deliberately being made, the harmonic incantation of our shared humanity. Yet it was in no way insistent or forced; the voices melted into each other, and to my ear they began to conjure up some kind of mystical Arabian melody, crescendoing passionately before dying down into a new phase, of rhythmic patterns of breathing, a sound like steam trains. It was as if we were being reminded of the physical source and limitations of the human voice, the physiological counterpart to the soaring hymn that we had just heard.

Before long, the huggers were upon us. With gentle hands, we were guided into a firm embrace, belly to belly, almost disconcertingly intimate – no wonder they had informed us at the start that we could ask to leave. The breathing patterns continued, but now against me, and again gradually built up into mesmerising song. I could hardly describe all the beautiful interactions of the voices that washed around me, but I began to feel more and more of a sense of the all-encompassing: this was the world around me, this incessant human hubbub, a profoundly powerful visualisation through sound of all the human experiences of the world jostling against each other. Together with the advertised ‘sound bath’, it was like being in an empathic jacuzzi, soaking in a feeling of oneness with all within that room and beyond, concentrated in the embrace of that unknown figure, and our mutual trust.

It is virtually a cliché that we live in a world of digital isolation, stress and alienation, a world where true human connections can be hard to come by, and fragile when we do make them. The great virtues of HUG is how it cuts through this, both by offering the audience a pure and unconditional connection with another human, and by the vast sense of humanity it evokes; I will hold tight to the flickering epiphanies that it awakened in me.