The xx's Armory Show: Step by Step
March 21, 2014
The British electro-pop trio the xx is no stranger to vast concert spaces, having headlined the Governors Ball Music Festival and Radio City Music Hall. But the shows the group is staging in the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory are more ambitious and more intimate than anything it has attempted before.
The group's 11-day run at the Armory, which ends on March 29 and includes two or more shows a night, embraces the themes of closeness and unease that course through the trio's music and "flips the whole idea of a show," the singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft said.
The xx's residency is the latest elaborate, site-specific production presented at the Armory. Three years ago the Royal Shakespeare Company performed five plays there on a near-replica of its main stage in Stratford-upon-Avon. In September and October the British band Massive Attack and the filmmaker Adam Curtis collaborated on a 90-minute concert and film during a weeklong residency that featured 11 huge screens and the band performing live.
"What we've been able to do here is allow artists to do things that they can't do anywhere else," said Rebecca Robertson, the president and executive producer of the Armory. "It scares the hell out of us, but artists love it."
So how do the xx shows work? (Spoiler alert.)
Instead of entering the hall through the Armory's main foyer on Park Avenue, the 45-member audience is directed to an entrance on 66th Street that leads to an underground, bullet-ridden passage, which once served as a shooting range. At the end of the tunnel, audience members find themselves inside a stark, white, cubelike structure just 60 feet wide. There they form a perimeter around a sunken stage on which the band is already waiting.
"We're literally touching distance away from the people," the soft-spoken Ms. Madley Croft said. "We're probably more nervous than they are."
The set begins modestly, aided only by onstage speakers programmed to mimic the sound of an echo in the small space. Internal lighting is angled against the walls of the cube, giving the impression that they are solid. As the music grows in intensity, projections from outside the cube illuminate the walls, revealing them to be made of fabric, and mysterious audio tones rumble in the distance.
During the musical climax a suspended truss raises the ceiling to twice its height, and clips holding the walls are released and the fabric falls away. The full Drill Hall is revealed, the air clouded with smoke and swirling projections, and enormous stacks of speakers boost the level of the band's music to its usual festival proportions.
"We wanted to allow the audience to have a sense of confusion, a discomfort of exactly where they are and what they're about to see," said Molly Hawkins, the creative director of the xx's record label, Young Turks. "We want them to be able to interact with the artist in a way that's unencumbered by their own expectations."
A similar production was staged at the Manchester International Festival in July 2013. (The festival's chief executive and artistic director, Alex Poots, is also the artistic director of the Armory.) There, the band built its fall-away cube in a dilapidated concert hall roughly a third of the size of the Armory.
Adapting to the Armory posed several challenges. The designer, Tobias G. Rylander, expanded the cube to be more proportional to the eight-story Drill Hall; he also introduced huge projectors to display psychedelic designs on the sides and ceiling of the cube to interplay with smoke from machines. A last-minute glitch cropped up when the fabric ceiling was found to have been ordered with incorrect dimensions and had to be rushed upstate for restitching days before the premiere. "It was kind of an ordeal," Ms. Hawkins said.
The New York Times
by Stacy Anderson