Concert Reviews

Tuesday 2nd June

June 3, 2009

So last night I rushed away from work and caught two overground and one underground train to be able to get to Goldsmiths College way down in New Cross, South London some two and a half hours later, but just in time to catch the start of the evening’s Interlace event in the college’s Great Hall. Although the place felt weirdly familiar and I may have been to a concert there some time ago I know I have never made it along to one of Sebastian Lexer’s Interlace concerts before, despite there having been about forty of them over the last seven years. I’m not completely sure why this is because many of the musicians involved have been to my liking. The difficulty for me getting to the venue certainly hasn’t helped, but somehow I always just seemed to find out about these concerts just after they had taken place. Never mind, I made it finally last night, and I also discovered that normally the performances manage to end by about 9.30PM, which makes my attendance very much more likely at future shows.

So last night’s show included three duo performances for piano and saxophone. The first came from Lexer himself in his ongoing, exceptional duo with Seymour Wright. This was the third or maybe fourth time I had seen them play in the last few months, and previous occasions were great experiences. This time I had only just arrived in the room, got my coat off and sat down when the music began, and I found myself taking in the grandeur of the hall and my surroundings rather than really concentrating on the music, so it took a few minutes to really engage. They were great again though, just so in tune with one another, to the point that much of the real power of their performance comes when one or the other deliberately tries to push the music out of its stride, turning things on their head. The last time I saw them, at the Freedom of the City Festival it seemed to be Seymour that took the provocative role more, but last night it seemed to be Sebastian, as several times he dramatically attacked his piano with sudden bursts of aggression right after periods of calm in the music.

Despite these moments of relative violence the performance was more subdued than I have heard the duo play before though. Lexer used a lot of live digital processing of his sound, particularly in the early stages of the set to create a drifty, floaty sound to his playing, which he then regularly undermined with sudden shifts. Wright began as I have noticed he always has done of late, with the main body of the saxophone on the floor in front of him. Generally speaking as a performance progresses he will tend to gradually put the sax back together and towards the end play it as “normally” as he ever does in this kind of group. Last night he was more restrained than I have seen him recently, still making the right decisions, picking moments for his sudden intrusions, but there just seemed to be a few less of them in this performance, as if allowing the resonance of the massive concert hall space to find its own room in the music alongside them. Certainly there were a few moments when Wright played with the acoustics of the room. Putting his sax down at one point on the wooden floor caused a light thud to echo around the place, so he used this to his advantage, rocking the instrument on the floor at one point, dragging it from one foot to the other on another. There was also a great moment midway through the set when a brief two-note xylophone sound came from somewhere. Anyway great stuff again, thoroughly engaging and captivating, very much an another chapter in an ongoing musical relationship.

There then followed an acoustic performance by John Butcher and John Tilbury. I was really curious as to how this would turn out, because although the pair have played together before, in AMM settings and also when Tilbury guested with Polwechsel, I am pretty sure this was their first duo. They played for a long time, at least forty five minutes, and throughout they moved through sections as if recording tracks for an album, though the pieces flowed together seamlessly. I am very happy to report that John Tilbury appears completely recovered from his bout of ill health. He played around 50% of the set stood up, working inside the piano with both hands. I can also report that he was at his best, summoning all kinds of sounds, percussive and tonal from the piano using just a tiny bag of preparations. As ever though, the sounds Tilbury made were only half of the story. Their placement, so patient, so well chosen was perfection in itself. John Butcher has been playing stunningly well of late as well, and last night was no exception as he blew, clicked, popped and whistled his way through a beautiful performance. The music was spacious, considered, and slow, never really drifting into jazz territory, but occasionally hinting at tiny specks of melody, with Butcher often picking out a couple of notes from the beginning of a Tilbury arpeggio and playing them back, using them as a springboard to take the music elsewhere.

This duo was such a joy to sit and listen to. The musicianship shown was incredible, and the way two such identifiable musical voices were able to adapt to each other and so simply, so easily, find a common music was something special. All three of the performances tonight put the musicians in a place where there was nowhere to hide, stood or sat right there a few feet from the audience, but Butcher and Tilbury seemed to revel in this, sensing the occasion and pulling out all the stops. Butcher looked more focussed, more attentive to what was happening around him than I have seen him before at dozens of other gigs. There were quiet, gamelanesque moments of stunning beauty, busier, expressionistic vignettes placed here and there and moments of silence. Neither player tried to rewrite any rulebooks, both played just how we know them to play but they did so with unbelievable sensitivity towards one another. Watching this performance was just so good.

The evening ended with the French duo of Bertrand Gauguet (sax) and Frederic Blondy. (piano) I think in any other company, on any other occasion I would have been raving about this duo. Blondy was great at the piano, starting slowly but emphatically with big swoops of almost orchestral sound which he achieved by tucking the hair removed from a violin bow under the strings of the piano and then, holding each end of the hair pulling it back and forth, so each string touched rang out as if bowed with a very long bow. Later in the performance he became far more percussive, energetically pouncing in and out of his instrument and throwing streams of small sounds out in vaguely rhythmic patterns. I liked Gauguet’s playing a lot also, leaning towards the drying, fluttery, whooshing sounds rather than hard notes. His playing reminded me a lot of another Bertrand, his compatriot Denzler, as each seem to find it easy to produce a wide range of sounds with only limited means as both pair down the palette of sounds they work with. Inevitably as Blondy’s piano pyrotechnics came thick and fast Gauguet took to placing lines of sound behind them, as if providing a bed of sound for the smaller, faster piano sounds.

So yes they were very good, and if they had not just followed the Tilbury / Butcher performance it wouldn’t matter, but it was inevitable that their playing would be compared, if only in my head. For me then, there was just a little bit too much reliance on the same sounds for too long. The rhythmic circles of technically great piano gymnastics that Blondy used to end the set went on for just a bit too long and Gauguet’s restrained response didn’t change very much. As Butcher and Tilbury’s performance was a beautifully timed conversation the Blondy/Gauguet was more of  teeming rush of technique. It seemed to lack a little subtlety, which is probably very unfair, but perhaps inevitable when you follow musicians of the calibre we had heard. Still, another great night and three strong performances, at least one of them being superb. I imagine this won’t be the last Interlace event I make it along to.

Sorry for not writing a further post today as I had hoped to. This one took longer than expected and I haven’t actually listened to much today. I ended up gardening again in the ludicrously hot weather we had today, and although I began with my iPod headphones in my ears I stopped trying to listen as I feared one false move with the hedgetrimmer might sever that white cord. I couldn’t hear a bloody thing anyway, but the hedge looks good.

Comments (3)

  • Phil Julian

    June 3, 2009 at 6:32 am

    I very much enjoyed the evening too and will certainly be keeping a eye on the forthcoming performances in the Interlace series.

    “There was also a great moment midway through the set when a brief two-note xylophone sound came from somewhere.”

    The timing of this was impeccable and it was interesting to note that it sounded like it came from somewhere other than the main performance area. Maybe Sebastian or Seymour has started to use “planted” objects and performers within the audience. Certainly an interesting concept if so.

  • slexer

    October 4, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    the three duos mentioned here are available for free from the INTERLACE archive.


  • Richard Pinnell

    October 4, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    This is great news Sebastian, thanks for sharing.

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