Tuesday 30th JuneJune 30, 2009
Well I have spent a thoughtful, very pleasant (despite the heat) day lazing in the garden reading and running the battery down on my iPod. I’ve also been thinking a bit about the concert I saw last night and the environment it took place in. I attended CafÃ© Oto to witness what was maybe the fourth or fifth concert in the Workshop Concert Series of gigs that all involve musicians that regularly attend the much-discussed weekly improv workshops run by Eddie Prevost. These events take place monthly, but always on a Monday, which is a very difficult day for me to not be at work, so I have not attended any of them so far. As I have a weeks holiday though I decided to take the rare opportunity and went along last night.
I should say now that I actually feel somewhat uncomfortable trying to review the concert. I don’t think anyone there would expect it to be reviewed, or particularly care if it was or not. The entire event had a feeling of friends convening to either play or watch others play music together. No one was trying to produce a perfectly polished performance to win over a hot and sweaty old critic sat at the side of the hall, and while I am sure every effort was made to produce good music, there was no sense of having to perform better in front of an audience. I have never attended a meeting of the weekly workshop, as I am not a musician, but I am guessing that the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of last night’s concert was not so far from how those Friday night meetings might go.
The concert series is programmed each month by one member of the workshop, who, excluding himself selects the pairings that are to perform, using his/her experiences from the workshop as guidance towards what may or may not work. Musicians are not then bound to this playing schedule, they can say no to a particular grouping if they really don’t think it would work, but it seems this rarely happens. So maybe you can see how the concert last night felt like more of a friendly meeting between friends (as often happens between London musicians) rather than a public event, and why it feels a bit odd to be publicly sharing my thoughts on the music here rather than over a pint in the room afterwards.
Anyway this particular concert was programmed (I think!) by a clarinetist I don’t know named Lawrence Williams. The first pairing to play was one that intrigued me a lot, the duo of Walter Cardew (yes, son of Cornelius, striking physical resemblance, no need to mention this again here) playing electric guitar and Sebastian Lexer, playing piano+. At first the pairing didn’t seem to gel, with Cardew playing more in a Thurston Moore mode than a Derek Bailey, stood up playing guitar in a rock-like manner with a number of effects pedals, letting fly with little bursts of feedback-drenched guitar and even the odd chord here and there, and Lexer fighting to find a common ground through urgent attacks at the strings of his piano amplified into mini explosions via his laptop. Over time they began to work together well though, a moment where Cardew took a bow and began to use it in small stabbing motions to produce a high pitched series of sounds gave Lexer a nice bed into which he planted a series of expressive little vignettes, small droning passages interrupted by sudden incursions into dramatic areas, at one moment just caressing a string gently with a hammer, the next nearly falling headfirst into the piano’s casing.Â I enjoyed this duo increasingly as it went on and the pair worked out ways of making interesting music together. Sebastian continues to make music I like a great deal, and I’d like to hear more from Cardew, whose sound and approach to the guitar is unusual in this area of music. Again, it feels wrong to cast definite opinion on the performance simply because of the informal feel of the meeting, but I justify doing so because this was after all a concert open to the public. A good one then.
The next performance came from Rodrigo Montoya (shamisen) and Matt Hammond (acoustic guitar). This duo did the opposite of the first performance for me, in that it started really nicely but then moved into less interesting areas as it progressed. I must admit to being very impressed and interested in Hammond’s playing. He had the guitar laid flat on the table before him, and in places, particularly when a handheld fan and a radio were used the Rowe influence was hard to ignore, but I also think he had his own voice, and a very quiet, simple one at that. I really had to prick my ears up to hear everything he was doing, but in the main he worked with small, textural sounds, fans purring against different parts of his unamplified instrument, and other bits and pieces, an upturned wine glass deftly rubbed over the strings was used a lot, and at one point a table tennis ball placed under the glass added a nice broken rhythm.Â
At the start of the set Montoya also played in a restrained manner, working with small scraping and tapping sounds, and here his shamisen worked really well with the guitar, adding little points of deatail tot he whirrs and flutters beside him. As the set moved on however, Montoya, who I have seen play once or twice before in much “busier” company seemed to try and shift the music up a gear, playing nicely, but much more outwardly expressively, filling in the spaces far more and driving the music on. While this did see a response from Hammond the resulting music felt far more uncoordinated than the earlier passages had been, perhaps more adventurous and dangerous, but less successful to my ears.
The evening closed with the trio of Jamie Coleman, (trumpet) Thomas Rohrer (rebeca) and Phil Somervell (inside piano). They played two sets together of fluid, scratchy, mid-tempo, straight-down-the middle acoustic improv. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Maybe no one rewrote the rulebook for this set, but it was a really good, engaging, involving music that put a smile on my face and was perfect for a very hot, balmy summers evening with a cold beer in hand. I have no idea how often the trio had played together before but they sounded very familiar with one another, nicely balanced with all three musicians finding enough room to colour proceedings in their own way but still allow the music to flow as a whole. Tomorrow there will be time to play CDs of definitive musical statements and conceptual experimentalism, but last night, for forty minutes or so I just enjoyed listening to this music, created by a group of musicians that interact within a defined musical community.
Community is just the word that springs to mind for last night’s performance. There was a sense of friendliness and support running through the evening. There was a reasonably sized audience in attendance, but I would guess that two thirds may well have been other musicians attending (and paying to get in I noted) both in support of friends and in genuine interest about where things went to musically. I should add that I was made to feel very welcome. I know a good number of the musicians but still spoke to several that I don’t. If this is a community it has its arms opened to others interested.
Crucially the question that has been asked is if this community spirit, this way of working together regularly, and with the freedom that the acceptance potential failure allows is good or bad for the musicians involved. It is very clear to me though that one of the key lessons taught and learnt at the workshop is the rigorous practice of looking at what you are doing yourself as a musician, where are you going, what do you want to achieve? Like any musical community there will be stronger players than others, but I can think of half a dozen very good and totally individual voices that have really come to the fore in recent years via the workshop. Any question of whether this community could be stifling their individual voices has been nullified by the original, excellent music that has come from a number of these musicians of late. I doubt I will be able to attend one of these concerts again this year, so I am very glad I took the opportunity when I could.
I have listened to a lot of music today by the way, CDs by Phil Julian and Tomas Korber, Ivan Palacky and Andrea Neumann, Schubert, Vanessa Rossetto, Laurie Scott Baker and Jin Sangtae… Right now the very beautiful Bailey / Fernandez disc A Silent Dance is playing softly behind me. I’ve enjoyed all of these to one degree or another today and maybe I’ll write something on them tomorrow. Or maybe I will just spend the day hiding in a darkened room away from that damned heat .