Tuesday 8th MarchMarch 9, 2011
Day two of the As alike as trees festival was thankfully a little warmer, and the audience numbers were far higher for the afternoon session, which promised some real treats and didn’t fail to deliver. The day began with a more difficult performance however, a quartet by Walter Cardew, (Electric guitar) Jerry Wigens, (clarinet) Romauld Wadych (electric guitar) and David Papapostolou (cello). This one seemed to meander a bit for me, staying in a kind of middle ground as far as density and speed were concerned, and not really ever sparking off in any real direction to take the music above the average. The dual electric guitars were a bit of a problem for me as well, as they tended to dominate proceedings a little, though in the second half of the performance when Wadych switched to more abstract, less ‘guitary’ sounds by using tin foil (or something similar) against his pick ups this was a little less of a problem. The cello and clarinet worked very nicely together, but at times it felt that, on this occasion at least, that the group would have worked better as two duos, as the combination of acoustic and amplified sounds didn’t really fuse together, to my ears at least.
There then followed the set that I had looked forward to the most at this festival, and it turned out to be great. The duo of Seymour Wright (saxophone) and Klaus Filip (laptop sinewaves) had not played together before, but seemed to me, even before they sat down to perform, to be a great pairing. The set turned out to be very fine indeed, a nice blending of the musical characteristics of each musician without being in any way predictable. Seymour Wright is in himself somewhat unpredictable, and throughout this performance he worked across quite a range of dynamics and volume, from searing blasts to the quietest tiny clicks and pops. He took his sax apart and put it back together several times during the set, using assorted parts to create his varied sounds. Filip remained a picture of unflustered poise, and responded at speed and with some fine choices, his skill and musicianship masked behind his motionless posture, grand gestures made with the tiniest shift of his stylus across the trackpad he uses to shape his sounds.
There were several lengthy silences in the music, and several areas where the musicians pushed things hard, Wright in particular launching some searing blasts at times that were met by a rich wall of often several sinetones at once from Filip. At one point the thinnest, barely audible computer tone might be matched by the slightest scratch at the sax by Wright, and the parallels with Filip’s duo with Malfatti sprung obviously to mind, but within seconds this state of microscopic calm would be torn apart by a dry, grainy sax roar, or a momentary piercing shriek, only to return to silence and a passage of tiny sounds soon after. Filip gave as good as he got, never reaching the same kinds of volume but forcing layered tones hard through the speakers in places, and often using the peel back and reveal technique of placing tones under Wright’s louder wails so that when the sax stopped abruptly the space left behind would be beautifully and often unexpectedly coloured.
This was a great performance by two experienced and highly talented musicians who really pushed the envelope and set out to make difficult, challenging music. While the audience were very respectful and mostly very quiet, the near silent parts of the set revealed how close the venue was to a busy part of London, and how noisy the various doors to the building really were. When Sparkle the cat entered the fray, at one point stood on hind legs pawing and mewing at Wright for his attention (I don’t think anything could distract Seymour in full flight and he seemed oblivious to the cat’s presence) his feline presence felt a distraction rather than an addition to the set, for the only time all weekend. A great performance, but as Simon Reynell and I both agreed afterwards, maybe this duo would work even better in a quiter studio environment, though I somehow doubt you would get Seymour Wright to agree with that…
Then there followed a real treat- a duo AMM set with Eddie Prevost on good form, but with John Tilbury in utterly astonishing mode. Before they began, Eddie, in his announcement of the set had commented that as established groups move on they have to work harder to mine their material for new sounds, and not repeat themselves. Tilbury seemed to take this as his cue, as as soon as Prevost took his seat he brought both forearms violently down across his keys to create the most enormous crash of sound, pedals to the floor, so it took a good fifteen seconds or so for the sound to die away, and slightly longer for Sebastian Lexer, recording the concert to recover his composure… The thing is, while this explosion made for a great opening, Tilbury didn’t stop there, and did the same thing again, and again, and again, every twenty seconds or so for the first five or six minutes of the set. I was sat in a great position at the front, and watching John’s face he was clearly filled with passion and anger, and each time he assaulted the piano with such force it was as if he was taking pent-up anger, maybe at our current government, maybe at recent events in Libya, and feeding this through into the music. This storm of an opening pulled PrÃ©vost along, leading him to build a similar cacophony of bowed metal and booming tam tam, eventually dying down as Tilbury lessened the impact of his blows and gradually brought them down to a silent position, so allowing PrÃ©vost to beautifully fill the space with delicate swathes of sound.
Tilbury moved on into more melodic areas, his little repeated sections of four or five notes arriving again, but about a third of the way into the set he got up and took three eBows, something I have not seen him do before, and fumbled around with them for ages inside the piano in an almost Beckettian manner. In the end I think he only got two of them to generate any sound, but as they did they introduced a beautiful soft hum that remained present for the next fifteen minutes or so, providing a bed for the musicians to work into. Some beautiful gamelanesque prepared piano and small bowed metal interchanges followed, always with the underlying sense of tension caused by the tumultuous opening remaining present, a feeling of uncertainty and angry, powerfully fraught intensity that I maybe have not heard from Tilbury since Duos for Doris. His playing felt more than beautiful or skilfully adept, it seemed right on the edge, wild and unpredictable and yet still able to flick into stunningly perfect beauty in a split second. Eddie PrÃ©vost has seemed a charged, inspired musician of late also, possibly because of the blooming partnerships he has forged with his young workshop colleagues recently, but here it was an old friend, someone that maybe knows him better than anyone that pushed him harder and forced some wonderful, measured responses from him.
Watching this set reminded me of how it felt for me to first watch AMM some fifteen years or so ago. I have really enjoyed what I have heard from AMM in recent years, but sat front centre between these to masterful musicians on Sunday afternoon as they unleashed this beast of a performance was a fantastic experience. I have no idea where Sparkle was for their set, but I suspect he was sat at the back, mouth open, looking as stunned as cats can possibly ever look. Wonderful.
One vegetable bhuna later we reconvened for the last session of the festival on Sunday evening. The night began with a quartet performance from four of the improv workshop’s most established and respected musicians; Paul Abbott (playing what looked like a full drum kit laden with microphones and speakers all linked to a mixing desk) Ross Lambert (out of my view but I think mixing guitar with small objects, a metronome, a wind-up radio etc) Jamie Coleman (trumpet) and Philip Somervell (mostly inside piano). They created an angular, broken up set of very interesting music that would sit for a while in close to silent restfulness before either suddenly crashing into life from an Abbott blast of percussive electronics or a squeal of radio. The piano and trumpet seemed to offset the other two more unpredictable elements nicely, though perhaps Coelman’s intention seemed to be to pull the music into a more linear form as his contributions were longer than those of the others, though he was rarely allowed to achieve this. The music had a disrupted, angular feel to it, never slipping into anything like a traditional flow, always pushing against itself, trading in spiky exchanges and jarring juxtapositions rather than anything fluid, but this is what made the set enjoyable and thoroughly engaging.
There then came the duo of Gabriel Humberstone (percussion) and Matt Hammond (tabletop electric guitar and objects) Its probably very unfair to do so, but its very hard not to mention Keith Rowe in reference to Hammond’s playing, particularly coming so soon after an AMM set. The thing is though, many of the sounds Hammond created, using a mobile phone rocking against the pick-up, a radio, a bow etc reminded me of Rowe. To be fair he also diverted off into other areas, but for me the influence seemed unavoidable. This isn’t a bad thing at all though, and Hammond’s playing was great, a nicely balanced performance matching Humberstone’s more aggressively dissonant scrapes and vibrations well. Though in places the communication faltered and the music broke down into little false endings, in general this was a pleasing blend of the two sets of sounds, Humberstone working mainly with rubbing, groaning sounds, Hammond mixing up his palette much more and repeating certain sounds and motifs here and there to bring a nice symmetry to the music. Maybe not in the same league as some of the real stand-out sets of the festival yet, but certainly this duo shows a lot of potential for the future.
So the festival closed with another meeting between different generations of the piano family, with Christoph Schiller’s prepared spinet combining with Sebastian Lexer’s digitally enhanced piano+. After the joys of the AMM set and the Wright/Filip performance I had almost forgotten the treat we had to close the festival, but this duo produced a wonderfully beautiful set to end proceedings. The focus was very much on combining soft textures with ringing tones and chimes throughout the performance. Lexer kept the electronics to a minimum here, but when they appeared they were used well, often pulling Schiller’s sound into the digital realm via a nearby mic as much as they treated the piano sounds. One loud and firm attack on the piano aside, the music was generally gentle and fragile, a very carefully formed blend of Schiller’s dryer, often harsher work and Lexer’s quietly orchestral sound. There was a lovely expansive slowness to the music that often gathered into little crescendoes. The sensation of hushed beauty and pregnant stillness throughout actually hid how much activity was really going on, but the two musicians work very well together indeed, their soundworlds close enough to reflect each other well, but also with enough to separate them to bring drama to the music when required. This was a very beautiful set indeed. The world needs a recorded document of this pairing one of these days.
So the festival came to a close. As alike as trees was a great success. It managed to capture the essence of the young London improvisation scene that has been heavily influenced by Eddie PrÃ©vost’s weekly workshops, but also pair this vibrant community with elements brought in from afar. Beyond the seminal AMM showing, and the similarly established statement of Hubbub, several of the best sets of the festival were probably those that matched workshop regulars with visitors, with Allum and Kanngiesser having never met Matt Davis before, who was visiting from Cornwall, Seymour Wright hadn’t played with Klaus Filip in advance of last weekend, and Christoph Schiller travelling in from Germany to play with Sebastian Lexer. The musicians of the weekly workshop will continue to meet every Friday, as they have for more than a decade now, and will continue to forge new relationships and new ways of playing together, but as this creativity begins to reach out through festivals such as this one the improvised music world can only be enriched and enlivened. For now, the enthusiasm and energy that drove this event, from the younger musicians through the evergreen inspiration of Eddie PrÃ©vost was something to be admired and learned from. Looking forward to next year…