Its grim up north (but the music’s great)May 15, 2007
A nice time was had at the weekend. I drove up to Gateshead for the Saturday night of the Music Lover’s Field Companion festival, collecting improv archivist and man of great taste David Reid en route. I managed to watch the four sets I really wanted to see at the festival, that was held in the really quite impressive Sage Arts Centre, an enormous shiny metal cocoon-like structure that is less than eighteen months old and sits overlooking the equally impressive Millenium Bridge on the Tyne.
The first was the trio of Angharad Davies, Tisha Mukarji and Andrea Neumann, a group that promised great things and delivered most of them. Angharad and Tisha played acoustically, their respective violin and inside grand piano reflected around the high wooden walls of the room blending nicely with Andrea’s amplified inside piano and electronics played softly through a stage monitor rather than the hall PA system. I’m very conscious of using clichÃ©d descriptions of an all-female group as sensitive and beautiful, but those words do spring to mind as the trio played a considered set of slow chamber-like improv. Davies’ violin work roamed between abrasive circular rhythms and plucked stacatto notes, merging with Neumann’s sinetones, scrapes and hisses with Mukarji supplying quite beautiful interventions into the gaps in the sound. The set started a little slowly, but found its feet after a few moments, and ended with a captivating passage of gently brooding tension worth the five hour drive up the motorway alone.
I was helping David record and film the music, and a frantic, stressful rush to move his equipment from one hall to another meant that I spent the first few minutes of Los Glissandinos’ set catching my breath, glad that I don’t usually have to worry about that kind of thing. The ensuing set was very nice though, from one perspective standard Los G music, thick minimal sinetones from Klaus Filip’s laptop criss-crossing with Kai Fagaschinski’s long wavering clarinet notes, but compared to their set last year I caught in New York they hit a new level of intensity here. In places the music really tore at your eardums, the dense syrupy tones hanging heavily in the air at high volume, with Fagaschinski at one point blasting high register figures into Filip’s already brain-fryingly high pitched sine until most of the audience clutched their ears in defence. Los Glissandinos have a sound very much their own that I have long enjoyed, and here in all its intense physicality it really gripped me.
The greatest pleasure of the weekend for me was the opportunity to buy Radu Malfatti a drink and spend some time with him discussing my recent review of his work. We then sat together in the circle of the Sage’s Number Two Hall to watch the Northern Sinfonia tackle a specially comissioned Malfatti piece Gateshead 21.
The performance certainly divided the audience, and it seemed the performers also. As the ridiculously austere, quiet music went about its way around half the audience got up and left, the harsh, unforgiving acoustics of the hall amplifying every closed door into a massive event.
The nineteen musicians (two of the 21 that gave the title its name dropped out in advance) were divided into four groups sat on and in front of the stage. The music was then divided into four sections, each separated by an extended rest and silence even longer than the gaps already in the music. Each of the groups of players were instructed to play unbroken bowed sounds together, separated by timed lengthy silences. The instruction being that the return of the bow should not be audible, and that for each of the five sections a particular part of the body of the instrument would be bowed, with the strings never played.
During the first section of the composition, all of the players (all string instruments, violins, cello and double bass) bowed the body of their instrument slowly, beginning sharply at a sign from the conductor (not Malfatti) who, using a stopwatch then indicated the point where the sound was cut off abruptly. These lines of dry, hushed sound varied in length, with the gaps between each one varying also. For each following section of the music one group at a time moved to bowing just the head of their instruments, resulting in a slightly quieter sound each time, until for the final section all four groups had followed suit and the sound was at its most fragile.
This piece extended Malfatti’s investigations into how our memory affects our perception of a piece of music. It took a great deal of effort to remain focussed on the music for its 45 minute duration, and the changes in the sound were spread over such a long period of time that without the visual element of the concert it may have appeared that the musicians made the same sound every time, yet for each section of the composition the music changed in a very subtle manner.
Watching this performance was a fascinating and thoughtful experience for me that was made all the more intruing by being able to watch the composer’s reactions beside me as the music developed. The sad thing to me was the apparent disinterest of a few of the Sinfonia players, who seemed to smirk disdainfully throughout the performance and not give their full attention to the strict concentration the composition demanded. Radu seemed quite pleased with the performance however.
The last set of the evening came from Polwechsel, a group I last saw live when Radu Malfatti was a member, and have undergone considerable change since their inception nearly fifteen years ago. The music Polwechsel produced resembled that of their 2006 album Archives of the North, a tight, well crafted blend of mainly acoustic compositions that was as pleasing on the ear as it was perhaps a little predictably safe. Of the four pieces played tonight I think three were semi-composed works, with just the opener being fully improvised. The second and fourth pieces involved the group beginning with a rehearsed short section of music that was grabbed as a sample at the mixing desk and then fed back into the music via speakers at the rear of the stage as a loop that was treated as the piece went on, slowly degrading into an elctronic mass. The group played into and over this backdrop, making it hard to figure out which sounds were live and which the sampled loop. These two pieces were the most interesting to me in a set that was very pleasing on the ear yet perhaps a little too comfortable for its own good.
Overall the music of the sets I managed to catch was of a pretty high standard. I have less commendable things to say about Gateshead, a city only separated from Newcastle by the river Tyne, that David and I crossed over to go and find our hotel for the evening. At 1AM in the morning Newcastle is a frightening place, a mixture of booming nightclubs spewing out mini skirts into the drab streets and seedy looking kebab shops from which the drunken inhabitants shouted undecipherable exclamations at equally inebriated passers by. Oh and call me a snob but I’ve never seen so many shellsuits in all of my life!
When we reached the hotel (unsurprisingly situated above a teeming nightclub) sleep was impossible for a few hours, so David and I each took to recording the sounds and sights of urban England at 2AM from our hotel windows until exhausted enough to sleep through the din. Breakfast the next morning was pretty tasteless, grey in colour and curling up at the edges, serving as a lasting metaphor for Newcastle itself as we drove away, complete with a parking ticket as a souvenir!
The drive home was great however. Five hours in heavy rain would normally be a hellish journey, but having had David select music for the journey from his impressive CD collection, the soundtrack to a stormridden drive down the M1 was a joy. Modern improvisaion based on early music by Paulo Pandolfo, John Cage and David Tudor’s spoken word and electronics Indeterminacy set and a stunningly beautiful rendition of Bach’s Violin Concerto by Gidon Kremer provided a great accompaniment to David filming the journey home.
All in all a great, if rather tiring weekend.
Interior of the Sage photo by Alastair Wilson