Catching UpDecember 26, 2007
Well I had intended writing at length about all of the concerts I caught towards the end of this year, but time and creative and physical energies haven’t allowed for that, so here’s a very brief round-up to bring things up to date. A few days after returning from Huddersfield I attended the three night LMC Festival in London of which I still aim to get a “proper” review up at Bagatellen before too much longer, so I’ll move on to the 11th December and a London show at the Red Rose Club promoted by the increasingly influential No-Signal people.
The admirable premise that seems to exist behind No-Signal’s concerts is to blend different forms of music and their audiences together within one event. This show entitled STFU followed on from other concerts this year that have attracted fans of both noise music and improvised music to the same event. This has resulted in some impressively large audience turn-outs, although the noise contingent have tended to outnumber their improv companions about three to one at the shows I’ve attended. So this concert sold out in advance, something I can’t imagine has happened to a Red Rose show for quite a few years.
The main reason for the high attendance numbers was probably the appearance of Stephen O’Malley, the front man of Sunn O)) (sorry if I spelt that incorrectly) in a duo with Oren Ambarchi that closed the show. These two have played together a good few times in the past and I have been able to listen to recordings they have released together, so I kind of knew what to expect. Loud, deep and very very slow guitar chords from O’Malley trudged out around Ambarchi’s scribbling electronics and heavy tones. I don’t dislike this music as such, but as it went on for quite some time with only gradual shifts in form and slowly increasing in volume it was just very very obvious and somewhat boring in its construction. I felt the need to reach out and hold down the fast forward button to see where the performance ended up, but in the end as my companions decided to leave before the conclusion of the set I followed them out, left somewhat unfulfilled by the evening in general, but by this last set in particular. Maybe it ended in spectacular fashion, but I somewhat doubt it.
Before the O’Malley / Ambarchi conclusion to the evening we had had to suffer (I’m sorry but I can’t think of a more suitable choice of word) the combination of the Portugese duo Osso Exotico and the percussionist Z’Ev. I’d wandered to the back of the overcrowded room for this one, fearing high volumes, so I didn’t see what instruments the Osso Exotico trio were playing, but they made a kind of lolloping, off-kilter drone that lost my interest after just a few minutes. Z’Ev’s contribution seemed to be scraping metal sounds and almost ceremonial strikes of a gong in a semi-rhythmical manner underneath all of this, but the end result, played at high volume really sounded flat, lacking in any detail and generally just wholly uninteresting. Whilst not displaying any of the onstage aggression of much noise music the performance still seemed to me to be reliant on the force of the music’s volume to motivate the audience, which is never a good sign to me.
Working backwards then, the second set of the evening had come from the duo of Mark Wastell on tam tam and Joachim Nordwall on laptop and electronics. I had seen this duo play at the first concert I attended in 2007 in the basement of Sound323. Here, with the added dimension of a big PA the duo were able to play much louder than in that earlier performance. Nordwall, who runs the iDEAL label in Sweden and is one of the group The Skull Defekts works mainly within a narrow range of grey textures and post-industrial rumbling, occasionally bringing the volume up to levels approaching what could be categorised as “noise” music. Into this somewhat bleak backdrop Wastell fed his now trademark washes of subtle tam tam, all soft roars devoid of attack, and carefully placed strikes with a variety of beaters. For anyone that has not witnessed Wastell perform with this instrument live the degree of dexterity with which he addresses the metal disc these days is quite remarkable. Sounds seem to slip in and out of range with only the barest of physical movement applied by the musician.
The patterns in the music created as the acoustic and electronic sounds collided were interesting, but somehow I didn’t take much more from this performance. The basic structure seemed to be for Nordwall to create a backdrop and for Wastell to add (admittedly very beautiful) sound to it at carefully chosen points. There seemed to be little communication beyond this one way conversation, not unlike a two-man graffiti team, with one filling the void with big patches of colour, and the other drawing the outlines, giving the work form. The end result was not displeasing in any way, but was perhaps a little safe and predictable.
The opening act of the evening was the acoustic guitar duo of Tetuzi Akiyama and HervÃ© Boghossian.The pair sat opposite each other in the centre of the room and played a kind of duelling blues improvisation, not far in style from Akiyama’s early acoustic style circa Relator and reminiscent of John Fahey duetting with Derek Bailey, only not quite at that level. I quite enjoyed this set, which wasn’t what I had been expecting, given Boghossian’s usual preference for coaxing drones from his instrument and Akiyama’s occasional penchant for throbbing electric riffs. The interplay between the two was left very naked in the centre of the room with the large crowd gathered around and they handled things very well, building a finely assembled web of picked notes and scrapes, and the occasional grab of false-starting melody. Maybe nothing dramatically original took place here, but I found this intimate little performance engaging all the same.
The next day I drove over to Bristol to catch a small concert in the cafÃ© space of the Spike Island Arts Centre housed in an old Brooke Bond tea factory on the banks of the River Avon. the gallery was closed for the evening when I arrived, which was a shame, and the cafÃ© area was perhaps not the best of spaces to hold a concert, the long thin room reflecting the musicians sound back at them a little too easily, but having never attended a gig in Bristol before it was nice to venture out to somewhere new.
First on the two-performance bill was the trio of Ben Drew (laptop), Helena Gough (laptop) and Lee Patterson (all kinds of stuff!). In mid November I had barely heard of Helena Gough, but here less than a month later I was attending my third concert involving her. The first I wrote about a couple of posts back, a duo with Patterson in Huddersfield, the second had been a solo performance at the LMC Festival that I had also enjoyed. Here, Lee’s input was considerably different to their previous show, as he utilised pre-recorded material more in combination with assorted guitar pick-ups and contact miked metal. It was very difficult to tell Gough’s input apart from Ben Drew’s as they played through a PA and the sound swirled around the small space, but generally speaking he seemed to provide cleaner, more linear sounds to her minutae field recordings.
Combined, the trio created a heaving mass of sound, shifting glimpses of detail, bits of field recordings strewn between bursts of colourful tones and Patterson’s naturally occurring abstractions. The effect reminded me of looking through a kaleidoscope that is turning continually, the overall sensation one of beauty, yet made up of thousands of relentless individual events, none of which stay around long enough to study in detail.
The second half of the evening featured a rare solo performance by John Wall, who has recently taken to improvising live with a laptop, often in the company of Lee Gamble with whom he has struck up a seemingly fruitful partnership, but here he performed a short, sharp set alone. I should make it clear that John Wall’s recorded work, meticulously constructed over many months on a computer has had a major impact on my life over the years. If I was to list my favourite albums of all time at least two, maybe three of his albums would make the top ten. John’s improvised work is a very different beast however. On the surface it resembles many other Max/MSP styled laptop improvisations by other musicians. Many of the telltale characteristics of this kind of playing are there, the dramatic shifts of dynamic, the phased sounds, the familiar stretched qualities of music made with a soundcard pushed to its limits, but for me its impossible to forget that this is John Wall playing, and the bigger picture that that brings is considerably more interesting.
John has taken to improvisation almost out of desperation as his compositional work, always very slow to progress at the best of times has ground to a halt. In his own words he feels he had forced himself into a corner, and going out and experimenting with the wild freedom (by his standards) of live improvisation has given him a vehicle to break free from the cul-de-sac he felt he was trapped in. The music played at this concert was clearly the work of John Wall, the trademark sounds and intricate structures were still there, but here they were wrapped up in an almost violently intense shell, careering viciously at times, dropping into tension filled hollows at others.
Wall only played for about twenty minutes, maybe less, and spent the duration of the set stood up, rocking about around the computer, his face wrought with energy until the wrenching end of the performance when he stood up, shrugged to the small audience and went to sit down. Chatting with John after the show the creative energy flowing through him right now since this switch to improvisation was very evident, and whilst for all its power and tension this performance didn’t come close to capturing the sheer magic of his composed work, John’s hope is that this way of working will bring new energy and ideas to his more contemplative music. Personally speaking if anything helps this inspirational man continue to make the music I’ve come to admire so much then its got to be a good thing.