Thursday 1st SeptemberSeptember 1, 2011
So last night’s concert then. Gigs down in Brighton often struggle to draw much of a crowd, and last night’s show had the added problems of being on a Wednesday night that also had another vaguely avant garde concert taking place somewhere in town, so I was actually quite pleased when about ten people finally came along to a not really that nice upstairs room in a not really all that nice pub in the centre of town. To be honest though, by the time the evening’s headliners were halfway through their set I had forgotten all of this and was just engrossed in their performance. More on that one in a minute though.
The night had opened with a solo set from the concert’s organiser Paul Khimasia-Morgan, who until just a few minutes before playing had been unsure if he should, as he was recovering from a bad chest infection and still wasn’t 100%. Paul is a good musician, and I wrote enthusiastically about his recent solo album Empty Frame here, but last night, despite him using a very nice palette of simple sounds, scrapes, rubs, clicks, tones and bleeps etc… his brief solo set felt somewhat disconnected, and Paul didn’t look like he was really fit enough of focussed enough to perform. Near the end he turned on a recording of something he had made previously, a lovely little vignette of what sounded like stones being clicked together. This little piece showed how good Paul can play when in better condition, and I look forward to hearing him play again some time when he can produce that kind of performance.
The trio of Stephen Cornford, Daniel Jones and Patrick Farmer then followed. All the usual caveats regarding how often I see these musicians play should apply, blah blah… However I didn’t enjoy their trio that much last night. This was in part due to the venue’s P.A. which was huge but not very subtle to say the least, probably more at home having indie rock blasted through it if the posters around the pub were anything to go by. When the three played, Jones working with acoustic turntable, singing bowl and electronics, Cornford all kinds of electronics, many of them home-made, and Farmer a combination of turntables and contact mics, they all went through the P.A, which then dictated that they played quite loud, as smaller, subtle sounds were somewhat lost. It all became a bit of a muddy mess, often quite thick with feedback and/or distortion, with each of the trio adding in short, sharp shocks to jar the music into changes of direction, but I found myself having to watch the lights on the musician’s mixing boards to be able to work out who was making which sound, and I suspect the musicians were never fully sure where all the sounds came from either. When things get this cloudy, and only way to impact on the music seems to be to play louder, or to add sudden blasts of sound I tend to lose a bit of interest, and while these were some of my favourite musicians playing right now they didn’t gel so well last night. Or maybe they gelled a bit too much, depending on how you look at it.
There then followed a set by two of the Korean musicians involved in the Seoul-based Balloon and Needle organisation, Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki. Having long been a fan of their music, I was blown away by their live performances in London early this year, which leant towards a more inclusive, maybe theatrical manner of performing that extended beyond the purely aural. Last night’s duo set continued in the same vein, and was a remarkable performance. They began with Chulki sat behind his turntable in the centre of the room, letting it spin and applying small pieces of metal to its edge, the lids from baked bean tins or something similar, so creating a thin, squealing sound that thickened and thinned as he crouched over it, carefully retaining the same sound by holding his hand steady. He did similar things with various other objects, sheets of thin metal and a small transistor radio, which he allowed to spin around on the turntable, its blast of detuned white noise flicking on and off as the speaker turned to and ‘fro. After the had done this for a while, Joonyong set off with a roll of aluminium kitchen foil, initially cutting off lengths of it as he wandered about the small room, dropping them as he went. Then, much to the amazement of the audience, he climbed on a spare seat amongst them and began to tape these lengths of foil to the blades of the currently switched-off ceiling fan. He then went over to the wall switch and turned the fan on, slowly at first, increasing the speed so that the streams of foil fluttered around, creating a very satisfying whirr that complimented the similarly circular sounds from Chulki’s turntable. Joonyong also then tried to do something similar with a small electric fan mounted high on one wall, but here the intended stream of foil failed to work, and instead we watched him studiously trying to push the foil in to the machine so as to create a sound, settling for a deep rumbling in the end.
Then Joonyong wandered off out of sight, but I kept track of him in a mirror as he opened and closed a window at the far end of the room, so letting the sound of the pub garden below flood in and out. Then as Chulki sat motionless and focussed, continuing to produce sounds int he manner we have come to expect from a Â musician, Joonyong began to place several of his modified portable CD players around the room, some on the chairs amongst the audience, each doctored so that the disc span even with the lid removed, and each producing whirring, clicking sounds as bits of paper, little screwdrivers and other odds and ends were stuck or rested against the discs as they rotated. Then, as we were all sat completely engrossed, he went to his mixer and sent a low roar through the room’s P.A, before I got up and, picking up one of the weighty speakers, he opened a door and took it out onto the narrow balcony overlooking the street below, leaving it outside, facing in, but with the door shut. He then took the other speaker out of the room through onto the landing outside, closing the door behind him as he returned. He then adjusted the volume now and again, reminding us that the speakers were there, and using the doors themselves to adjust the sound coming into the room. Finally, returning the speakers to the room, he turned a microphone towards Chulki, who had until now played entirely acoustically and for a few short blasts amplified the sound back to the audience before gradually the duo set about turning everything off, ending with the blocked-up wall fan to finish the performance.
Its actually quite difficult to explain what it was last night that really captivated the few of us that were there. Describing what happened here as I have done makes it all sound like a novelty act, but there was a real sense of playful improvisation to everything last night. When he brought the foil into the room Joonyong had no idea what he would do with is, and while he had settled on a few ideas while sat listening to the others perform, he practiced nothing, and everything he did felt alive and full of danger. When he walked out onto the tiny, rubble-strewn balcony with the speaker I genuinely feared for his safety. A few things were decided in advance- Chulki clearly played the straight man to Joonyong’s inventive experiments, and use of spinning, whirring patterns were a common motif, but while he was still clearly just improvising, Choi Joonyong chose to use more than just what he brought along in his suitcase as his instrumentation. The usual limitations of the musician, the artist on stage, were broken down and he seemed to just enjoy himself immensely exploring and testing out the various things around the room in search of what seemed to work well alongside Hong Chulki’s turntable sounds. A real performance as opposed to just a concert then, and a sense of freshness and possibility above and beyond what we are normally used to. This was improvisation at a really pure level, and indeed the old adage that “you really had to be there” applies, as any description or audio recording of the event just couldn’t do it justice. Fascinating, inspirational work on a very humble, unassuming and honest level. The duo are playing in Newcastle tonight, Glasgow on Friday and at London’s South Bank Centre on Saturday. Catch them if you possibly can.