What does yellow sound like? It's the kind of challenge neurologist Oliver Sacks might enjoy and is central to the current Market Theatre collaboration between pianist Jill Richards and artist Marcus Neustetter.
The evening kicks off with Without Time and Place in which Richards improvises to intricate abstract drawings created by Neustetter on the spot and concludes with Richards's performance of Rudiger Meyer's Antjie in Berlin, based on poet Antjie Krog's letters. The collaboration was Richards's idea, said the artist: "I'd been doing a series of drawings, In Motion, that captured abstract lines while I was travelling. Then Jill and I began talking about how one could create a dialogue between drawn image and sound."
These discussions and explorations had a first brief outing in the 2011 performance Marks and Sounds. This year's Market Theatre performance expands the concept. The audience sits around artist and pianist. They can watch Neustetter drawing, Richards playing – with a monitor on her music stand – and two huge wall screens that track the lines and shadings as they grow.
His previous work had, Neustetter said, searched "for a mark that embodies either experience or place" and taken him to sites as diverse as the Arctic Circle, Alexandra township, New York and Kilimanjaro. The title of this project expresses "hovering in a different kind of space, trying to marry sound and image without being too self-conscious – but as soon as someone looks, you're anchored back again."
It is not a simple matter of either protagonist trying to echo the patterns of the other; leadership literally changes hands. "I can try to capture, dot by dot, a rhythm Jill seems to be establishing – but then she changes, or my auto-response kicks in and takes my mark in another direction."
So serendipity, intuition and trust all inform a dazzlingly fast process. Sometimes, the results may coincide with expectations – a limpid, watery blue line flows across the paper and the phrases could be channelling French composer Claude-Achille Debussy. More often, magical transformations occur in the grainy quantum space between paper and ivory. "It's a total immersion," said Neustetter.
"Immersive" is also a word Meyer uses about Antjie in Berlin. Again, a conversation with Richards provided the genesis at a time when Meyer had been reading Krog's Begging to Be Black. "Jill had just worked on [German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen's Mantra and the combination of piano and electronics intrigued her. I've always had an interest in unfolding all the musical things that are inside human speech, that are sometimes unheard because of our focus on meaning."
There are three sonic streams in the work. The first is Krog's reading of her letters from Berlin, with their sense of displacement and fresh perspectives on South Africa. These travel through the audience using a battery of speakers. The second is the cadence, pacing, melodies and rhythms of her voice, transformed into piano music from Meyer's transcriptions of the poet's live reading.
He remembered: "It was a cold November day. Winter had started early in Europe that year. I found Antjie reading two of her letters on YouTube – and suddenly I realised: there is so much in that voice."
Finally, there are the sounds of Berlin itself. "I took two trips to the city," said Meyer, "but in the end I used only a few of the sounds: the lower-toned, more abstract ones. They're sounds you almost feel, rather than hear – the vibration of the city. I asked myself how they could be used to reveal things we feel but don't consciously register."
He recalled vividly a particularly textured patch of almost-silence in the Void room in Berlin's Jewish Museum: "Spaces like that open you up so you can hear and confront what's inside you."
Krog's voice provided the tempo structure. "But a piano can't go as fast as normal speech and struck notes decay more slowly than words. So although Antjie's and Jill's phrases start and end at the same point, spaces also open up between them."
In both works, it is the skill of sound man Shaughn Macrae that holds the elements together. Sound engineering is often a transparent role, noticed only when the performer's notes fail to reach the audience. Macrae carries huge responsibility for ensuring that intention and the all-important space, as well as sound, come through. "That's precisely why I enjoy projects like these," he said. "They're something a bit more interesting and push my creativity too."
Richards, the provocateur for both projects, seems on a one-person mission to break the piano out of constraining perceptions that it is only a concert or recital instrument. "Actually, these innovative projects are only a small part of my work, but important," she said. "In a sense, the musical relationships in collaborative work like this mirror what happens in regular chamber music – which I still adore. But they also challenge my skill boundaries, provide inspiration from working with others and let me do new stuff. I cannot stand still."
Antjie in Berlin/Without Time and Place are on at the Barney Simon Theatre in the Market Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday until October 14. Weekday and Saturday performances are at 8.15pm; Sundays at 3.15pm. There is no performance on October 5