Concert Reviews

Tuesday 23rd February

February 24, 2010

otoqt2So the last couple of nights’ concerts then… On Sunday I was very tired when I sat down to listen to the first performance of the evening. As i explained in Sunday’s brief post I had traveled a great deal throughout the day and had had very little sleep the night before after a late finish from work and an early start. So my experience of the evening was all a bit strange, slightly removed from normal, though its hard to explain exactly how or why. The first set came from Rhodri Davies, sat behind his small tabletop harp and electronics, and John Butcher, playing saxophones, with some use of feedback. This duo have a great album out soon on the Ftarri label, which I am privileged to have already heard and enjoyed a great deal. I had some expectation of how this pairing might sound then for what I think might have been their first public performance, but I was quite surprised at how they sounded Sunday night. The main difference seemed to be Davies’ approach to the set. For some reason, albeit it a well chosen, very good reason, he played in as loud and aggressive a manner as I have ever seen him (barring his part in that crazy Otomo noise set at an LMC festival a few years back) Although the deep bassy tones and percussive chimes we have come to expect were all still there, he also let rip with a noisy barrage of sudden, almost violently placed sounds, often cutting them completely dead to leave sudden silences in the music. Butcher seemed to revel in this new level of activity. John Butcher’s sense of musical dialogue, his ability to listen to what is happening and respond naturally and inventively is in my opinion second to none, and there were two occasions when as Rhodri suddenly cut off his contribution so John matched him in the same instant, leaving chasm like silences from where the music rebuilt itself slowly. The theme of the weekend’s sets for me was the skillful, attentive listening on show and in turn the responses, of many kinds that followed. This duo was the first of several excellent portrayals of improvised, instantaneous music. The duo managed to seem completely fragile, on the brink of sudden collapse much of the time, and yet quite often they really rocked. Great stuff.

There followed the duo of Toshimaru Nakamura and HÃ¥rvard Volden, around whom the two nights of music were built. While Nakamura needs no introduction to readers here, Volden may well be a new name to many. I only owned the one CD by the Norwegian guitarist before Sunday evening, a duo with Daniel Meyer Grønvold on Creative Sources that I am ashamed to admit to having owned for about six months now but have still yet to put into the CD player. (Sorry HÃ¥vard, Daniel, this will shortly be rectified). Volden plays an acoustic guitar in a manner that inevitably, but unnecessarily brings Keith Rowe to mind, the instrument laid flat and played with fans, eBows, a bow, springs and a multitude of other items. I’m not sure of his age, but his youthful looks suggest he has been playing for a relatively short period of time, though I could certainly be wrong. Either way, his playing was excellent, and he is a name I will watch closely in the future. HIs duo with Nakamura has already produced a recording due to be released in a month of so on Another Timbre, and an excellent recording it is too. The duo set on Sunday showed the understanding already there between these two musicians and resulted in a delicate, detailed performance that followed the other firm theme of the weekend’s shows, the fine balance between acoustic and electronic sounds. Volden’s playing tends towards a very slow, gradual unfolding of sounds, perhaps the perfect bed into which Nakamura could plant little streams of feedback, some barely audible, slipping over and through Volden’s textures, while some virtually exploded into place, pulling a much faster response from his collaborator, The music had a continually shifting feel to it, slow and sensual, but spiked every now and again with either Nakamura’s little outbursts or Volden’s use of occasional plucked guitar chimes. This was lovely stuff, gentle enough to show a real sense of beauty, ragged and fesity enough to keep things from slipping into too much of a groove.

Something I did notice during this performance… which had nothing to do with the music, but somehow shows the odd way I was feeling…There were three people in the reasonably large audience who were coughing now and again during the set. I didn’t notice them cough during any of the other sets on the night, only this one, but for some reason I was very aware of them. There were two male coughers and one woman. All three were sat well apart from each other and were almost certainly not linked in any way. There were three brief coughing moments. On each occasion two of the three coughed twice, one following the other in quick succession. On each occasion there were two coughers, always one male and one female. Why was it that when one person coughed another immediately responded with a second or so? Perhaps more pertinently, why did I notice any of this? I wonder if the fact I had been talking with Manfred Werder for an hour beforehand had had some influence over my listening for the evening, given his interest in ambient, incidental sounds. We hadn’t talked about coughing though. Of course this has nothing to do with the music, but the experience was an odd one for me.

Time was getting on, and I hoped to be able to catch the last set of thee evening, a quartet of all four musicians before having to rush off for the last train home on a Sunday. I sort of did, but the performance ended up being unusually interrupted after fifteen minutes or so. The opening of the set felt like a nervous, but exciting search for common ground between the four players. If anything the music brooded away quieter than either of the duos had done, with a strond sense of anticipation building in the set. This sense of expectation seemed to reach a climax when Nakamura threw a dial and a sudden piercing scream of feedback flooded into the set. The musicians didn’t get a chance to respond however, as immediately a young Japanese girl got up from her seat near the front and walked quickly but uncertainly towards where I was sitting before collapsing, hitting her head hard on the concrete floor on the way down. This bought the performance to a halt as members of the audience got up to go to her aid. Interestingly, it took a while to get Toshi to realise the situation and stop playing, a good twenty seconds or so after the other three had come to a halt. Such was the degree of focus he had upon the music that Volden had to virtually grab him to attract his attention long after everyone in the room had turned their attention away from the musicians. Anyway there followed a long break while the girl was attended to (she was OK in the end) and I had to leave to catch my train before the quartet were able to reconvene. I’ll leave Simon or anyone else that was there to fill in the gaps on the final set.

On Monday I headed back to London rested and in the knowledge that trains were less of a problem, so I could really relax and enjoy the music. I truly did enjoy every last second of it as well. the evening began with a long duo performance by two of London’s brightest lights at present, Sebastian Lexer, playing piano+ and Paul Abbott, working with his electronics set up, which evolves and changes every time I see him perform. On this occasion he worked mainly with raw feedback, creating it by applying  piezo mics and live output jacks to assorted surfaces, metal sheets, cymbals, a small laptop computer and a single snare drum. His approach last night seemed alive with nervous, raw energy, his sounds often the result of a kinetic, physical response to the music, a sudden jerk, a wrench of the entire body, with sounds resulting as much from happy accidents as things would fall from his table, or a wildly flung mic might land on an unintended surface. The sounds were dirty, cracked spasms of sound suddenly ripping across the music and disappearing just as fast. Yet his contributions were completely in tune with Lexer’s the result of a strong connection with the music happening around him, a visceral response, but still a carefully timed and weighted response. Lexer for once played a gentler role. His sudden attacks at the piano still came, but less frequently, and he left much of the fireworks to Abbott, choosing instead to wrap his blend of tonal and textural sounds through the shrapnel laden minefield of sound.

This might have been another first public performance as a duo, but certainly these two know each other well and have played together as part of larger groups. Here it was fascinating and enthralling to hear these two exciting distinctive musical voices that I have come to enjoy so much tussle together. Little flurries of piano strings would bloom into digitally enhanced sprays of colour only to be ravaged by a violent crunch of brutal electronic squall or a sudden drop into silence and the lightest of percussive touches. This set was an absolute blast. Abbott and Lexer played for what must have been about forty minutes but the music was completely captivating, full of energy, passion and again that ever-present feeling of mutual dialogue.

If this duo was hard to top the following quartet came very close indeed, perhaps even succeeding. The same pair were joined by Nakamura and Volden for a long final set that retained much of the same energy, but fleshed it out into a more colourful, detailed display.  If Abbott began the set in a slightly more restrained manner he began to disrupt any comfortable flow much more often as the performance continued, again dropping sudden attacks of sound into the equation at regular intervals. Nakamura in particular seemed to revel in this, receiving it almost as a request to duel, and he matched Abbott’s bursts of energy with carefully picked out chunks of feedback, sometimes a wild scream, sometimes a low-end throb. As these two jostled around, so Volden and Lexer painted beautifully detailed backdrops around them, far from mere ambient colouring, but responsive, thriving meshes of more restrained, partly acoustic sounds. Together the quartet made wonderful music that unfurled in front of us with cat-like beauty as much as it seethed and raged every time you rested on your listening laurels. The feeling around the room afterwards was that something really good had just happened, and so its not just a case of my inevitably hyperbolic excitement at work here. The performance wasn’t perfect, it might not result in a well-formed CD recording, but that didn’t matter last night. What we witnessed was four musicians playing together at the top of their game, at times clearly enjoying it, at other times deep in tortured concentration, but taking part in that wonderful, powerful things that is improvised musical dialogue.

Two really great nights then, top notch performances all the way through and a fantastic social event to boot. Congratulations to all involved.

Comments (12)

  • jkudler

    February 24, 2010 at 7:08 am

    sometimes you make me so jealous of you londoners!

    we had some coughing at the cage/pisaro/beuger concert last week, and it was SO noticeable in the really sparse pieces with lots of silence. aargh.

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 24, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Sometimes I get jealous of Londoners as well. I often think it would be great to finish work and just pop down the road to see a concert like this. But then I spend some time in London outside of a concert space and am suddenly very pleased I don’t have to live there all the time…

    I really wonder if something triggers in people’s heads when sat quietly that leads them to cough. Someone should do a study into how frequently people cough when listening to quiet music when compared to other times of the day. While they are at it they can research why it us that emergency vehicles only switch their sirens on when driving past concerts of quiet music and why it is that air conditioning gets louder the minute musicians start playing 😉

  • simon reynell

    February 24, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Good write-up, Richard.
    I really enjoyed both concerts too, and have very much enjoyed re-listening to the music while transfering it to cdr for the musicians. There’s some great stuff in there.
    I agree that the second evening in particular was one of those when you feel that you’ve witnessed something special (though the 10/15% of the audience who left early presumably wouldn’t agree…)
    One nice thing was that neither Toshi nor Havard knew either Sebastian or Paul’s music at all before, and when I spoke to Toshi in the interval after Paul and Sebastian’s duo, he was really blown away, and somewhat in trepidation as to whether the quartet could possibly be as good.
    There wasn’t a weak set on either evening, including the second half of the first night’s quartet, which you missed. Excellent stuff all round.

  • mark

    February 24, 2010 at 9:37 am

    I always thoroughly enjoy reading your live reviews Richard, very engaging.

    John and Rhodri don’t post here, though read I’m sure, so I trust they won’t mind me commenting on their behalf. You alluded as to this being their first public performance. Not quite so. They have previously toured Japan, about three years ago, and around that time also undertook a UK tour too, though I’m not sure whether that included a London show.

  • lukaz

    February 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    for everybody interested to hear some more of HÃ¥rvard Volden there is a free download release available from sublabel of and/OAR – either/OAR:

    FLYMODUS: Milky Seas

    HÃ¥vard Volden: acoustic 12-string table top guitar & lo-fi electronics
    Martin Taxt: tuba

  • Gary Rouzer

    February 24, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    I just downloaded it and found it most enjoyable. Thanks for the link!

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 24, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Mark, thanks for that. I missed that tour somehow. Guess they didn’t come to Didcot 😉

    Luka, I am downloading that piece as well, and will listen to it sometime before Christmas. Thanks for the pointer.

  • Massimo Ricci

    February 24, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I’m envious of Londoners, New Yorkers, Australians, New Zealanders and many more. Coughing? That’s nothing. Usually there’s someone who TALKS behind me during most concerts in Rome, whatever the genre and the location. In 1987 I saw John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg stop playing and ask two guys standing right in front of them to go away, as they couldn’t hear what they were playing due to those idiots chatting right then and there!

    You didn’t mention the creaking chairs, Richard. Every time silence falls, at least ten people start stretching legs or moving in their seat so that the “creak, squeak” contribution becomes a fact.

  • lukaz

    February 25, 2010 at 11:54 am

    this was just posted on IHM, quite a good deal and quite a good place to take a peek a t contemporary norwegian (and beyond) improv, etc …. music:


    Campaign period, March 1st – December 31st 2010

    SOFA 501-527
    1 cd – 50 NOK (approximately €6)
    5 cds – 125 NOK ( approximately €15)

    + shipping

    For ordering, please contact: sofa(at)

  • wmeyer2

    March 4, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Butcher and Davies also played in Chicago some years back. The harp never sat on a tabletop, though.

  • jon abbey

    March 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    looking at John’s page for the Rhodri duo project, we somehow all forgot that not only did they play London in 2000 (their first duo set), but that performance came out as half of Vortices and Angels on Emanem:

  • Richard Pinnell

    March 4, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    and of course I own that CD. So yep, I am both forgetful and stupid. Nothing new there.

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