Monday 7th MarchMarch 8, 2011
Urgh, I take a week off of work and end up regretting it on the first day back, sigh…. So I have to write up the As alike as trees Festival then. Its a little too late tonight for me to try and write about all twelve sets, so I will note my thoughts on the first day tonight and then add a write-up of Sunday tomorrow. I promise I’ll get around to some CD reviews soon!
The festival took place in a new space called The Rag Factory, which is basically an old textiles factory made up of several rooms, all in varying states of disrepair, but gradually being pulled together into a community arts/music/rehearsal space. The downside of the venue was the temperature, which was absolutely freezing, particularly on the Saturday, but the upsides including the proximity to Brick Lane and its multitude of good places to eat, and the venue cats, one of which, named Sparkle made quite an impression on the festival.
Similar to the Freedom of the City Festival, from which this event took a number of cues, there were four sessions of three sets each, two sessions a day, beginning afternoon and evening. All of the performances were introduced, in typically charming and amusing fashion by Eddie Prevost. First up were the duo of David O’Connor (baritone sax) and Matthew Olczak (acoustic guitar) the pair played a kind of tetchy, fidgety improv that held stayed mostly quite quiet, if relatively constant and fluid. O’Connor kept his massive sax down to mostly airy blasts of dry air and small stabbing sounds while Olczak flurried around with bits of rattling, abrasive agitation. the two worked well as a duo, clearly listening well and responding nicely to one another. Personally I’d have liked to have heard a little more space in the music to allow the bottled up tension room to breathe, as it felt a little claustrophobic and frantic, particularly as the set was quite long, but overall an enjoyable performance and a nice start to the festival.
There followed a solo set from the highly talented Pascal Battus, who sat behind a table of neatly laid out small electronic objects. he worked primarily with what seemed to be a pick-up taken from an electric guitar, and treated it with various electromagnetic fields and other mysterious phenomena to create a rough and edgy set of striking sounds. Watching Pascal perform was an adventure in itself, trying to work out how the sounds we heard were made another again, but the music he presented was thoughtful and difficult, a series of bleeps and squeals and fizzing and wailing. There was a strong percussive feel to it all, at one point Battus used the table as a makeshift drum, beating out rhythms at different spots on its surface which then caused various objects to react with each other, creating blasts of feedback and other curious responses. On another occasion he held the pick up firmly against his temple on one side of his head, and tapping out a rhythm on the other side with his hand he managed to play his skull like some kind of amplified tom tom. Great to watch, but also a difficult but rewarding musical challenge, this set was a highlight for me, only really dipping in its impact during its closing minutes when Battus allowed his sounds to combine into a drone that was of less interest, but this wasn’t enough to spoil a fine set.
The first afternoon ended with the trio of Marjolaine Charbin, a French pianist who has been seen in London quite often of late, her fellow countryman but resident of London Guillaume Viltard playing bass, and the Russian electronics player Grundik Kasyansky who has also become a regular name on concert flyers since his move to the UK a few years back. This set followed a pattern I guessed it might, with Charbin and Viltard playing together in an active, expressive manner, Charbin scraping chimes and wails from the inside of the piano as much as played the keys, with Viltard, as powerful and impressive a figure as always stood centre stage, weaving urgent bass tones and wrenches around the piano. Kasyansky then set about disrupting proceedings, dropping blasts of dissonant electronics, bits of random samples, spoken words, and (amusingly) an old trumpet led jazz tune at abrupt moments in the set. Having heard Kasyansky work this way before, acting as the spanner in the works, breaking up any flow, I was less surprised than many that may have been in attendance, but his contribution here completely made this set, leading it away from the predictable and creating something quite original. The group were almost upstaged however by the first of many appearances of Sparkle the cat, who after announcing his entrance into the room with a loud miaow, proceeded to make his way across the room via the laps of most of the audience, finally frightening the life out of one of the recording engineers, who having been sat with eyes closed, listening intently, was suddenly shocked to find a cat land on him, much to the amusement of the rest of the audience.
The Saturday evening performances began with one of very few sets at the festival that I didn’t enjoy very much, a strange quintet made up of Tim Yeats (some kind of small recorder/flute and various bits of percussive metal) Carol Finer (a metal backed lute?) Russell Callow (a table full of old tins, a megaphone and other obscure objects) Anat Ben-David (vocals fed through some kind of voice-altering system, electronics and who knows what else) and Chris Hyde-Harrison (double bass). The music ended up as absurd and quirkily ramshackle as that collection of instrumentation might suggest, all a bit of a mass of odd, disconnected sounds thrown together in a not particularly cohesive or interesting manner. Ben-David’s contributions were the hardest for me to form a link with, a constant array of sudden, semi-psychadelic electronic scribbling and a kind of forced treat vocal that was often louder than anything else and sadly just annoyed me a bit, verging a little too close to performance art for my liking. The whole set didn’t really hold together into anything coherent enough for me, but I was impressed by the bass playing of Hyde-Harrison, or rather the lack of it, as he spent large amounts of the performance stood making no sound at all, as if struggling, understandably to know where he could contribute meaningfully. When a live set is actively busy and noisy, it becomes harder than ever to remain restrained and make only necessary contributions, but Hyde-Harrison showed a strong character throughout, which was great to see in a musician I had not witnessed play before.
There then followed a completely different set by the excellent trio of Jennifer Allum, (violin) Ute Kanngiesser (cello) and Matt Davis (trumpet). This trio were great, presenting a fragile, beautiful cradle of strings held together by Davis’ rattling, humming, mostly noteless trumpet. If I can fault Kanngiesser’s playing (and it is hard to, such is the passion and intensity she piles into it) then it would be to wish that she could fit a pause button somehow, that she could leave some room in her playing, add a little space and silence between the beautifully light and airy, yet somehow relentless patterns she creates. This little wish aside, this trio were wonderful, a fine example of how the sounds and approaches of chamber music can be brought to improvisation. Allum, who has a newly released duo with Eddie Prevost just out on Matchless Records has developed very quickly, via a lot of playing, into a very adept and thoughtful improviser. Here, alongside the flourishing expressionism of Kanngiesser and the well rounded talent of old hand Davis she constructed a weblike pattern of criss-crossing string lines and cloudy trumpet that was beautiful in its structure, a real pleasure to listen to, and judging by looks on all of the trio’s faces, a joy to play.
The Saturday then closed with the all French (with a hint of the Swiss!) quintet Hubbub, who are made up of the dual, highly talented saxophones of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Bertrand Denzler, the electric guitar of Jean-SÃ©bastien Mariage, FrÃ©dÃ©ric Blondy’s piano and the drums of Edward Perraud. Hubbub have played together for some years now, and in the past released two albums on PrÃ©vost’s Matchless label (a third, double album is due in the future as well). On Saturday night they sounded water-tight, very much in tune with one another, but while the music often poured together in seamless fashion it was also constantly changing and frequently surprising, often thanks to the drummer Perraud. While the massed instrumentation would generally swell slowly from soft, tonal sax lines and purring, ethereal guitar, usually struck gently or played with an eBow, Blondy would add smaller, incidental sounds while Perraud would often break up the flow with sudden, incredibly violent crashes on the drums that he would silence instantly. These attacks were spaced throughout the performance, and often served as signals for the music to shift up or down gears, often changing direction completely.
Hubbub’s music had a glorious, orchestral feel to it, a rich, dramatic beauty that reminded me of the work of the Dropp Ensemble or its related group Haptic, who, despite using quite different instrumentation create a similarly bold, thoroughly beautiful music that billows and swells in a manner that is at once both aesthetically pleasing, detailed and finely crafted enough to be structurally interesting, and still hold enough surprises to stay vibrant and exciting. The skill of the musicians was very much apparent. Precise pitches and textures were gathered together in an instant, with every one of the musicians, from Blondy’s flamboyant dances around the strings of the piano to the understated simplicity of Mariage’s guitar and the grouped intensity of the twin saxophones spot on with pitch and timing. The group sounded like they play together often, though I suspect that this is probably not the case.
A fine, rousing end to a nice collection of performances on the first day of the festival then. Even better was to follow on the Sunday, but I will write about that tomorrow.