Saturday 27th JuneJune 28, 2009
So how many improv Â groups are there out there that can boast two members called Phil, two called Ben, a Jonathan, a John and a Jane and still have room for six others? So yes last night I made a hellish, hurried journey in ridiculously hot weather to catch the latest installment of Mark Wastell’s constantly evolving large group. Before they played though I arrived just in time to catch Patrick Farmer’s last gig in London before he and his good lady Sarah disappeared into the white fluffy black hole that is Wales to live. He played a duo set with Rob Curgenven, who used a turntable and other electronic bits and pieces that included an electric fan borrowed from a cafÃ© up the road, Patrick did something I knew he could do, but had never actually witnessed, and played the drums. I have of course seen him play percussion before, but that is not the same thing, here he really kicked arse. If you thought that Patrick is just the kind of guy that snaps twigs in half over resonant surfaces, or sticks contact mics into beehives then this performance would have come as a surprise. Curgenven began the performance by delivering a loud, very low bass hum that made my badly needed beer shake in my hand, and let the needle of his turntable, stuck in the run-out groove of an old record churn over, giving the music a cyclical rhythm that Patrick began to play with, initially hammering at a cymbal placed on his floor tom, then switching to bowed metal sounds. Then, when Curgenven allowed his sounds to settle into a gruelling bass drone Patrick set about the drums in frantic free jazz style, pouring out skittering, dangerously fragile rhythms with a lot of power. I found my feet tapping and body swaying as the two went at it, a nice release after a stressful afternoon.If I’m honest I prefer Patrick’s quieter, slower material by some distance, but this was still nicely done, and it was great to see this side of him at work. He doesn’t play this way very often these days and he looked like he was having a lot of fun and the set made for a great send-off.
Then, after another ice-cold beer (CafÃ© Oto was pretty full and very very hot and sweaty) I managed to find a seat that did not have a musician sat on it for the performance by The Seen. This time round the group were as follows (deep breath)- Mark Wastell, (tam tam) John Butcher, (sax and feedback sax) Dominic Lash, (contrabass) Matt Davis, (trumpet) Jane Dickson, (piano and electronics) Phil Durrant, (maschine) Phil Julian, (small electronics-?) Jonathan McHugh, (analogue synth) Paul Abbott, (electronics) Benedict Drew, (roland sh101, small electronics) and just flown in from New York Ben Owen (shortwave radio). As with all of these groups that Mark has put together down the years (I’ve seen five or six of them now but they weren’t all called The Seen) there was a nice mix of the acoustic and electronic to be heard, though everyone played through the overworked PA.
Like the last time, we got a real mix of styles, sounds and dynamic. Repeatedly throughout the set the music often fell into a rich, detailed drone, perhaps as you might expect with so many musicians spread around a room. They began this way, with hisses, splutters, fizzes and groans shifting over each other in a pleasant, but none too dangerous manner. After a while things fell away though, as if on a signal, and a very quiet passage took place with the acoustic instrumentation swapping gentle sounds, and som ereally delicate, subtle interplay between Lash, Butcher and Davis really catchin my ear. The drones started up again after a few minutes, only this time to be cut short by a volley of sudden interventions from Abbott and Drew, metallic crashes and sharp electronic stabs broke the music up and things took a wild, vibrant turn as the volume was raised and the interchanges sudden and aggressiveÂ for a while before things were allowed to settle again.
The music continued in this kind of schizophrenic manner for the best part of an hour. It often settled, nestled into safer ground only to be brought out again, with Drew and Abbott repeatedly the catalysts but with each musician playing their part at the right times. Butcher switched to pops of pent-up feedback to overcome the rising volumes around him, and Wastell took to hammering the tam tam at one stage in a manner more savage than I have ever heard from him before. That said, he also broke through the group’s sound at other times just by tapping on two tubular bells, with the sudden change in soundworld having as much impact as Abbott and Drew’s seismic ruptures.
As I have written before, this group is all about opening up possibilities, but not in a clearly prescribed or composed manner. I am not sure if there was any prior instruction to any of the musicians by Wastell (as there has been in the past) but I suspect there may have been some simple thoughts about how often musicians should play as opposed to staying silent, which many of the group often did for lengthy periods. I didn’t ask any of the musicians last night, partly because I barely had a chance to speak to anyone due to arriving late and having to leave straight after as I was up for work early again today, but partly because I like trying to guess and Mark may well chime in here later. I don’t think anyone was told how to play this time, but maybe they were told how much they could play, or at least when they could drop out. I’ve probably got this very wrong, but that is half the fun of The Seen’s performances for me really.
So yes, possibilities, surprises and sudden changes. The Seen tend not to make superbly cohesive music (though this one was maybe the most well-rounded yet) but they do keep you on the edge of your seat wondering where things might go next. This is how improvised music really should be, worked out as it goes along, following a course it maps for itself but with those carefully placed diversions thrown in along the route. Another good one.
I will be back in London and at Oto tomorrow evening to catch Tetsuya Umeda’s return to London in a performance with Ben Drew and some mystery Japanese guests. Who have I seen play more times this year I wonder now, Mr Drew or Seymour Wright? Its a tribute to each of them that I keep coming back because they continue to inspire and impress. Ben will be playing at Oto for the third night in succession after he performed tonight (Saturday) as well at a gig I sadly couldn’t make it along to. if the place is as hot tomorrow as it was last night and inevitably would have been today then I imagine Ben has lost a couple of stone…