Monday 15th JuneJune 16, 2009
and so to Friday then…
I was up really early despite the late night before and headed into the city centre to make an appointment with one of the Apple Store’s “geniuses” to get my iPhone’s smashed screen sorted. It turned out that instead of a genius I was met by a bit of an overenthusiastic nerd called Nathan who merely threw my phone away and gave me a new one. Not sure it took a genius to think that one up, but its nice to be able to use my phone without getting glass splinters in my thumb again anyway.
Getting back to the guest house I met up with Al again who was putting the final touch to some questions to ask Keith Rowe, Martin KÃ¼chen and Seymour Wright at an early afternoon interview. We went back over to Oto together, fought over who was getting the best quiche and then I sat in on the interview, with every intention of staying completely quiet, but of course that wasn’t possible. Then later after omelette and chips in the greasiest of greasy spoons the music began again.
I had been much anticipating the first quartet of the evening, a group made up of players that regularly attend the Prevost workshops, but also an intriguing blend of styles and instrumentation. Jamie Coleman and Ute Kangiesser played acoustic trumpet and cello respectively, while Grundik Kasyansky and Paul Abbott placed themselves behind tables of electronics with a vaguely percussive slant to them. The music they produced was just as intriguing a mixture. It felt like the two acoustic players were working together, not leaving a lot of silence, but not busting any blood vessels either, painting a nice musical picture, but then the two electronicists scribbled all over it, sometimes with delicate pitches and textures, but also often with a crash and wail as a lot of sudden sounds and provocative interruptions were thrown into the mix. All four musicians played really well, but in quite different styles, Kangiesser very expressive and flowing, always bowing the strings, and in quite a beautiful manner. Coleman hissed and purred and spluttered with his trumpet for much of the performance, switching to a handheld drum (or something like it) played with a handheld fan for a little while. Kasyansky and Abbott used metallic, sharp sounds and misfiring electronics, Abbott leaning more towards sudden, brief sounds spaced apart and Kasyansky vibrating little towers of metal bowls and the like he casually built on the table in front of him, creating longer, tonal sounds until every so often the tower would fall apart and crash to the floor.
I really enjoyed this performance, not because I thought that a particularly well-rounded piece of music was created, but because the danger, the awkwardness and the sense of invention and discovery on display was infectious. These are musicians that have learnt together that the final product is not as important as the experience getting there, that danger and failure in the music is all just part of the process. I found the mix of playing styles and instrumentation exciting, their jutxaposition continually pushing and shoving each other around, with no one musician or either side of the acoustic/electronic divide dominating for very long. If I have a criticism it is only that the performance may have gone on a little too long, and missed several good chances to end with authority, but again it felt like this kind of thing didn’t matter, the music ended when it ended, not when you expected it. Great stuff.
There followed the trio of Clve Bell (shakuhachi), Bechir Saade (ney) and Matt Milton. (violin) I have to say that I am not a big fan of the CD that Bell and Saade recorded as a duo a while back for Another Timbre, and when I saw them play live early this year I enjoyed the way their music worked in a highly resonant church space but not much beyond that. This is a personal taste thing though, nothing more. They played their instruments with no small amount of skill, and their improvisational interplay was never in doubt, but I just tend to not enjoy the sound of wooden wind instruments of this type when played in a non-traditional manner. I’m not sure what it is, maybe just something to do with the loaded cultural history of the shakuhachi but I struggle to get beyond its surface sound and into the music. For this gig, the addition of Matt Milton worked very well, adding a little grit and an oddly rhythmic undercurrent to the dueling pipes. He seemed engrossed in his instrument, tangling several bows up in it at once, and shaping little patterns of sound from whatever state things were left in. He added a nice extra dimension to the music. There was nothing wrong with this set at all, and I don’t doubt that many enjoyed it a great deal, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea, sorry.
Then we came to the first performance by the trio of Keith Rowe, Martin KÃ¼chen and Seymour Wright. Talking with Keith beforehand he has said some interesting things about saxophones, how he actually took more interest in their progress up against no end of cultural baggage than any other instrument. Keith and Martin had been staying with Seymour and the trio had been up late working their way through Seymour’s substantial collection of jazz records, and so although they had not played as a trio before the chemistry was already bubbling away nicely, with the subject of the saxophone very much in mind. When they sat down for the last set of the night in London on Friday though there wasn’t a lot of straight-up sax to be heard, and the group explored the potential of the instrument far beyond its traditional sound. What was immediately obvious from the very first moments of this performance was the degree of thought and consideration that had gone into it in advance, both individually and collectively. There was an almost immediate sense of tension that was almost palpable . Seymour Wright has been creatively right at the top of his game for several months now, with Rowe at his exceptional best and KÃ¼chen feeding off of both to bring something extra to the music again.
All three musicians have used radios in combination with their instrument in the past, and here they were used as one of the central focusses of the set. Both Wright and KÃ¼chen placed speakers into the bell of their instrument at different times, KÃ¼chen’s tuned to an almost pure static and turned on and off by a foot pedal, and Wright adjusting his as the mood took him. Radio grabs took an important role in the music, which developed slowly into a taut, nervously energetic performance, with Rowe working with very few continual sounds, mainly scraping and scratching at different objects placed on and around his new tinier than ever guitar.
And it all worked just wonderfully, really wonderfully. The volume never really rose above a hushed average but the energy within the music, the anticipation, the sheer intensity was spellbinding. Although Wright didn’t use his sax as quite the percussive tool he has in other recent performances there was still less traditional blowing through the sax from him. He took to using the small speaker placed in his sax a great deal, with the others doing the same, meaning that on occasions the primary sounds from each of the musicians came from the radio. No sounds were wasted at all, everything meant something, each of the musicians could be seen considering each move carefully before choosing to make it, and this sense of powerful contemplation came through in the music. This was a stunning performance that left me so taken aback that I almost forgot to clap.
I returned home on the Friday night, grabbed a few hours sleep and set off again on the Saturday morning on a four hour train journey up to Leeds. I very quickly booked into my hotel near the railway station and then Patrick Farmer and Jez riley French arrived and we set off in Jez’s car to the Seven Artspace, which is situated several miles from the city centre (a good thing!) but my impeccable navigational skills took us straight there with no trouble at all. We were soon joined by Simon, the other musicians and also David Reid and Jonathan Watts, both of whom it was very good to see again and a nice afternoon was had eating and drinking in the sun before the last night of the festival began.
Jez and Patrick began the evening by playing a quiet, restrained duo made up of scratchy contact mic on assorted surfaces sounds and pre-recorded field recording material. Although a little hesitant in places, the duo worked up a nice little soundworld of quiet, understated drones and small sounds. One of the nicest moments came after Farmer had been rubbing a branch from some kind of dead tree against a miked-up metal plate and French had let a low, murmuring drone hang in the air, when Farmer took to snapping dry twigs away from the branch and Â dropping them onto the floor, the room so quiet that each could clearly be heard. The one part of the set that I didn’t enjoy so much came when French drew an extended field recording of what sounded like something being banged about at the other end of a long stone coridoor into the music at the end of the set. Although I find this kind of approach often very successful when used on CDs it can sometimes be too obvious when used in a live context. It turned out later that the sound was not so obvious as it was actually a recording of stones being dropped into an old iron drum, but the problem remained with the way that the recording was clearly recorded elsewhere and then when brought into the live situation it felt a little out of place. Otherwise a nice, serene set that felt perfect for early evening on a sunny day.
Then we had part two of the Rowe / KÃ¼chen / Wright trio. (The third part was to continue at a recording session on the Sunday) We got something related to the performance on the Friday, but clearly also quite different. The music was slower, perhaps because they were given a little more time to play, but also perhaps because the day had been more relaxed. The slowed pace just amplified the tension however, and there was an electric sense of anticipation right throughout the performance. From the beginning of the set there was a little less use of radio than the night before, and a little more traditional blowing through the sax, though still we didn’t come close to anything resembling a stream of notes. At times the music seemed troubled, as each of the group seemed to take in turns to stop playing and just sit and listen, and at one magical point in proceedings Wright spent a good few minutes silently trying to balance a reed from his sax on the edge of his instrument’s upturned bell, persevering for ages until achieving success. This little soundless cameo was a nice little metaphor for how good improvised music should always be, living on the edge, often failing but eventually finding a way to work.
Then as the trio began trading quiet bursts of radio under the crackles, hums and scratches, Rowe found from somewhere a local dance radio show, and he left a grime track playing, with its volume slowly rising for a good six or seven minutes until it ended and the energetic DJ appeared, eventually curtailed by Rowe only for Wright to follow it almost immediately with a blast of radio of his own, a few seconds of some kind of soft acoustic guitar music that worked as the perfect counterpoint. The music continued in its simmering, powerful manner for a few minutes more before falling into silence, at which point none of the musicians moved an inch and the small but respectful audience responded with a mutual silence, allowing the tension and perhaps the music to continue after the sounds had disappeared. There was a good five minute silence at the end, until someone in the audience shifting on a creaking seat broke the spell and the clapping began.
This was a very special trio. I hope that the recording session was as good as the live sets as a very special CD would probably be the result. It was great to watch Rowe play in such thoughtful, creative company. The second and third nights of the festival cancelled out any disappointment I may have felt in the first evening, and the final trio in particular made the journey north completely worthwhile. Congratulations to Simon for a very successful three days and thanks to all of the musicians and friends that made the whole event such a great pleasure from a social perspective as well. Still no pictures, anyone have any?