Concert Reviews

Saturday 23rd January

January 24, 2010

So, getting back to the music I saw at the weekend, tonight’s picture came from Thursday night’s concert, and is an attempted photo of The Sealed Knot. Somehow though the photo went a bit hazy and blurred, and at first I discounted any chance of using it, but then this morning it occurred to me that in some ways it provides a nice visual metaphor for how the music of this group developed Thursday night.

The Sealed Knot played last on a bill of three sets organised by the relentlessly productive Simon Reynell of the Another Timbre label. Thursday was the first of four nights showcasing new AT releases, the first two took place over the last couple of days, the third and fourth will be in February. The evening began with the first live duo performance by Stephen Cornford and Samuel Rodgers. The pair have a new CDr just out on the Another Timbre Byways subseries that I have so far not had a chance to listen to. Cornford sat at floor level behind a massive wooden plinth onto which he has mounted the inside of an upright piano. He then attached contact mics and other bits and pieces that allowed him to capture a rich array of feedback that he then processed via a mixing desk. Rodgers worked more with the standard piano housed at Cafe Oto, with (I think) some degree of electronics applied. The pair created some very nice sounds, Cornford in general providing longer extended feedback, with Rodgers adding more percussive incidental parts. Like all three sets last night this one got better for me as it went along. The opening ten minutes felt a bit tentative and flat, all very lovely sounds but used a little predictably. As things progressed and Cornford in particular began to use more sudden, aggressive sounds so the duo came alive a little more, with both showing a nice ability to respond to each other quickly and with greater dynamic variety as the drones began to break up into smaller incidental segments. This is one duo I think shows good promise and I look forward to listening both to their CD and future performances they may play.

Next up came the duo of Chris Burn playing inside piano with again a small amount of electronics (mainly a delay pedal linked to a mic inside the piano case I think) and Simon Fell, playing double bass with nothing extra added. This duo were launching a new disc they made as a trio alongside Philip Thomas named The Middle Distance, (another I have yet to put into the CD player) Thomas sadly could not make it to this performance. I was really looking forward to this duo as it is years since I saw either musician play and have long enjoyed their work. The set began quite busily, a bouncy, restless blend of piano scrapes and tones and bowed sounds from fell, both of the strings and the instrument’s body. Then things slowed a little and as Fell took to plucking deep notes in disjointed patterns so Burn let some very beautiful drifts of light swathing sound drift from the piano, folding around the bass. Things then became even more delicate as the double bass was laid on the floor and Fell brought his output down to a breathy whirr through bowing the supporting spike at the instrument’s base as Burn matched him for pace and volume. This was really great music to just sit and become involved in, great old (mostly) acoustic improv played by two very fine, skilled musicians. What they created was  beautifully nuanced and balanced, and yet it seemed to all be no effort to them at all. Highly enjoyable.

The evening ended then with the much anticipated return of The Sealed Knot, three years after I saw their last performance in Ireland. As my recent review of their AT disc explained, I have long admired this group, and their gradual movement over the years towards a super-tight, almost telepathically linked trio that would fold together improvised rhythms and recurring motifs like clockwork. the thing is, all three of these musicians are  known for their need to constantly reinvent themselves, changing both instrumentation and musical styles frequently. I imagine that as proud as the group might be of the understanding they had developed they would also be wary of any perception of them as settled or predictable. So The Sealed Knot in 2010 is a completely and utterly different proposition. Each of the musicians worked with instruments they had not used in the group before, and each brought an electronic element into their set-up. While Rhodri Davies still used a harp it was a small amplified model laid flat on a table. Mark Wastell played tam tam, the instrument he has worked primarily with since the last Sealed KNot performances, but here amplified it via a contact mic attached to the surface. He then seemed to filter the audio signal through a laptop placed at his feet and then out through a mixer which he adjusted continually. I don’t think he actually touched the laptop throughout the set and its exact role I am not certain of, but I think it ran some kind of patch that treated the sound of the tam tam very slightly before it was again shaped into new forms via the mixer. Burkhard Beins worked primarily with a zither, a handheld oscillator and other  advanced looking electronics to create a completely different sound for him. The fire igniters remained from his old percussion set-up but that was it. Not a drum or cymbal in sight.

So as my opening comment regarding the photo hinted, they made music that was in many ways the polar opposite of where the trio have gone before. For the most part the music had a drone feel to it, albeit one made up of individual and often very nice details. The tight, rigid geometry that informed the acoustic group was replaced with a flowing electronic stream. When the group began playing they really sounded like they were searching for a way to progress, but only really bringing the music into a kind of generic electroacoustic drone pattern. For a while I was concerned for where things might go but these are fine musicians we are talking about here, and gradually the music began to form into shape, gaining body and a momentum other than the strictly linear. Wastell began to mix things up with strikes to his tam tam rather than the usual warmly rolling thunder, Davies added more of a percussive approach, letting rattling mechanical tools bounce about between strings and tapping pegs pushed between strings to bring an element of rhythm back into the music. Beins in particular pushed things out further, introducing a loud descending series of three electronic notes that repeated over and over with different spacing placed between each sound. This element brought a sense of structure to the music, keeping it from washing away completely and spurring the group into introducing further shapes and patterns. If The Sealed Knot get to play in this fashion more often over coming months then I suspect they will develop what they do through this new completely different soundscape and the understanding between the musicians will bring about some excellent music. For now though this felt like music in transition. Apparently if you take a blue natural sponge and a red natural sponge and liquidise them together into one fluid, then slowly as the liquid is exposed to air it will use some kind of instinctive memory to form back into two separate sponges of different colours. This little possible fact (I’m not certain its true!) reminds me of The Sealed Knot here. It really is as if the glue holding the group together had been temporarily removed and after washing around for a short while the spine of the group had begun to reform through this new set of sounds. Given them a few more concerts together and I imagine that they will be as closely knit as ever, just working with new materials. While never quite finding the electricity yet that their acoustic performances often gave off this performance was absolutely fascinating and pointed the way along a further journey for these three fine musicians.

I know I suggested I would write up both nights of the mini-fest this evening but time has caught up with me and I will write about the Friday night tomorrow, probably around midday before heading to London for the Matchless showcase night at Café Oto.

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