Sunday 9th AugustAugust 9, 2009
It was much nicer outside today so I sat for much of it in the garden reading and listening to a new two disc release on Wandelweiser composed by Antoine Beuger. Oddly, and unusually for me though, when I came indoors to write something about it I found myself sat looking at a blank screen Â not really knowing what to write. I liked the music, but for reasons I can’t quite fathom I couldn’t think of anything remotely useful to say about it. So I will try again on another evening.
Tonight then, as a complete contrast, I have been listening (and watching) recordings of a group named Speak Easy, an improvising quartet made up of two vocalists, (Phil Minton and Ute Wassermann) along with Thomas Lehn’s analogue synth and Martin Blume’s drums and percussion. I say both listening and watching, because as chance would have it in recent weeks I have been sent both a CD (on Creative Sources) and a DVD (filmed by Pavel Borodin for his Panrec imprint) The film is of a concert performed at a loft concert in cologne during the Spring of 2008. it therefore has the title The Loft Concert. Some of the material from the concert, but not all of it, appears alongside further material recorded the day before in the town (city?) of Bochum on the Creative Sources release, which has the title of Backchats.
The music itself is busy, talkative (ha!) improvisation that does centre around the two vocalists. Wassermann generally works with higher squeaks and also blows on a series of small whistles, while Minton sits in the lower regions, more agitated and animated in his approach, looking thoroughly exhausted for most of the performance. (Wassermann also performs standing, Minton sitting) He also plays (does he “play”? what is the correct verb here? I’m not sure he could be described as “singing”) in Toot! with Lehn and Axel Dorner, and as a result he seems to link his sounds directly to Lehn’s here. Martin Blume is a percussionist I had heard of, but never seen or heard play before these releases, and I must say I am quite impressed, His playing is very subtle, quite often very gentle and only really bursting into life when the timing is correct. he works a lot here with textural sounds, rubbing the surface of drums and small metal objects rather than ploughing away with any full-on workouts. There are plenty of quiet moments amongst the flurries of activity though. These are all experienced musicians that know each other well, and so these performances are tight, thoughtful constructions full of vibrancy and power. It would be true to say that Speak Easy make music that maybe wouldn’t have sounded so different ten years ago. If your interest is solely in improvisation that pushes back the boundaries or what hasn’t been done before then look elsewhere, but as a solid, somewhat engrossing recording of some highly skilled listeners and performers this is good music. Thomas Lehn in particular is on top form here.
So that’s the music. Now how about a comparison between the visual and aural experiences that the CD / DVD releases provide. The interesting thing here is that the sound used on the DVD is the same as what appears on half of the CD, the same recording exactly. So, once I had linked up my computer (not owning a TV or DVD player I have to watch DVDs on my Mac) to my hi-fi to ensure decent audio playback I had two recordings of similar quality of the same music, but one of them had pictures. The filmwork itself is very good indeed. Often with video recordings of improv concerts there is only one camera, limited use of tripods and poor lighting. Borodin’s film uses four cameramen using what seems like good equipment. Borodin frequently changes the view, flicking from wide angle shots of the whole group to close ups of individual musicians regularly, and with some shots panning slowly from one of the quartet to another. Minton and Lehn in particular make good visual spectacles. As Lehn flies all over his instrument like some kind of mad professor on acid (Sorry Thomas!) Minton looks a bit like he sounds, sat hunched, purple in the face with a pained expression. I’ll let you work out what he often looks like. So watching this film is actually not a bad replacement for being in the room. The sound is good, we get to see everything, much of it close-up, and the technicalities of recording something like this never get in the way. Borodin never overcomplicates things. His directorship is simple, clean and logical. We don’t get overlong shots of someone’s hand quivering on a dial when the music is happening elsewhere, but then we also don’t feel like we are sat static in one place. Near the end of the first piece on the DVD (there are two half-hour long main performance and an encore ) everything at one point collapses into silence bar a very quiet slither of a squeak from Minton, which he holds for over a minute. During this we also get to see close-ups of the rest of the musicians, as we see them wondering if this will be the end of the set or not, listening intently. As it happens things do start up again, and Borodin films this beautifully, catching the moments on the others’ faces when they realise the music is to continue.
I very rarely enjoy watching improvised music DVDs, but then usually they are not straight DVDs on the performances. More often than not the sound we hear is accompanied by a separate often abstract film. Trying to focus on two separate creative streams is difficult for me, but when the film is just of the musicians at work I have less problems. In places this really felt like I was at the gig. The problem is, I often shut my eyes at gigs… and the urge often took me to do so here! Given the choice of listening to the CD or watching the DVD here I actually do think I would prefer the film. Not always, sometimes it is nice to just lay in bed listening with my eyes closed for instance, but I did really enjoy watching this. I should also add that I have seen three of these four play live a few times, some of them more often than others and so to some degree I knew what to expect. For someone that may not have been so fortunate however this film will probably be invaluable for decoding some of the mystery behind this music. Oh yes and the film also offers an interview with Blume (with English subtitles) and options to switch to 5.1 sound. All in all its a very professional presentation and not one that deserves to be buried.