John Tilbury, Marcus Schmickler et al at Café OtoApril 13, 2012
So last night’s gig then. Despite the future of Café Oto looking very rosy indeed, and with a nice bunch of concerts in the city on the immediate horizon, I somehow haven’t made it to a gig there in months. Changes to my day job have meant i have had to miss a few concerts I would have liked to have attended of late, so it was particularly nice to ensure I didn’t miss the really rather fine concert at Oto yesterday evening, the last British night of a festival called Counterflows that is taking place partly at Oto in London and partly at Ausland in Berlin. Last night’s concert involved two sets, a solo from the saxophonist John Butcher and the prepared piano / laptop duo of John Tilbury and Marcus Schmickler.
Café Oto was heaving last night, with maybe a couple of hundred people in there, which is of course great to see, though exactly who the audience were I have no idea as I don’t think I recognised more than a dozen or so of the people in attendance. Maybe the festival element brought a new crowd along, or maybe in the time since I last went to a gig in London the audience has suddenly flourished. Lets hope so. the opening solo from Butcher then was as you expect it to be- masterfully played and full of invention. John alternated between playing the sax straight, often in semi melodic short phrases that he would repeat, altering them slightly each time, before changing tack and going somewhere else, and using a microphone to create swells of feedback in the bell of his tenor sax. (he split the set half and half between tenor and soprano). We had a fine display of spluttering extended techniques, sustained notes through circular breathing and, with the bursts of feedback, some extremely intense, loud tones, the like of which I’m not sure that I have heard from him before, not at such volume anyway, which actually had me grabbing for my eardrum on a couple of occasions. A John Butcher solo is an absolute treat which is really hard to describe if you have never witnessed one before. He manages to connect completely with his instrument and its heritage while also searching forwards for new sounds. One moment from last night’s gig will stay with me for a long time. After blasting some short stabbing notes towards the microphone at one point a gentle wail of sound came back at him from the house piano, set up very close to him ready for Tilbury’s performance. Noting this, Butcher repeated the sound, and began to pick out further attacking figures that caused the piano to resonate in the same way. A lovely example of an improviser making the most of unexpected occurrence in the best possible way.
John Tilbury and Marcus Schmickler took a few minutes to really get going, with the pair opening very tentatively. I may be wrong, and probably am, but it really felt like Schmickler was trying to keep Tilbury from begin able to slip into his accompanist role, forcing him to lead as much as follow, set the pace and intensity of the music. In the end the pair slipped between this role, but naturally as Schmickler often worked with swathes of synthesised sound and Tilbury with shorter sounds the tendency inevitably would be for the pianist to punctuate the more extended elements from the laptop. Tilbury was amazing in his versatility and worked his heavily prepared and amplified piano through all kinds of sounds, from booming explosions caused by striking the miked-up frame with a drum beater to scrapes and shimmering tones through to his familiar little clutches of repeated notes. Schmickler however also impressed me a huge amount. Sat in a seemingly nonchalant, laid back pose, a face like stoic thunder throughout, he seemed to suddenly produce dramatic attacks and crashing sways across the range of his instrument without moving at all or changing the expression on his face. He worked with short samples of field recordings, or something similar, all unidentifiable but clearly not entirely computer generated, and mixed these with what I think were software synth sounds and some often ugly squelches that would appear all of a sudden. His sound is thoroughly digital in tone but had a sense of warmth, perhaps even searing heat to it at times. Victor Schonfeld, talking to me later described it as not that different to an accordion, and I can see what he meant, but with a much wider palette of possibility. It certainly felt thoroughly , lyrically human and gave Tilbury a fine sounding board through which to weave his amplified acoustics.
The music was full of drama and tension, often dropping to near silence, often brooding away, the pair simmering and waiting for the right moment to erupt, or perhaps just colour the air with something more gentle. Often they came together into arcing, AMMesque crescendoes, with one in particular, about two thirds of the way through what felt like about forty minute of music particularly memorable, with Schmickler feeding a cauldron of silvery abrasion more and more until met by Tilbury stroking the end of a wooden rod along the floor of the piano, the amplification raising the fine wails up to match Schmickler’s sheets of sound, sliding into them perfectly. This kind of immediate decision making underlined for me last night just why John Tilbury is such a fine improviser. There will have been few occasions in his considerably career when he will have been faced with a one to one situation with a laptop musician in front of a large audience, and even fewer with a laptop musician quite this good, but he performed like an absolute master of the form, captivating the audience completely. The set ended with a wonderful sequence when Tilbury worked his foot up and down on one of the piano’s pedals, the amplified body of the instrument so producing a loud rhythmic sound that resembled a creaking carnal bed until he gradually slowed it down until, as Schmickler brought his contributions to a close the creak was brought to a deathly grind as Tilbury very gradually lifted his foot off of the pedal to end the set. This was wonderful music by two exceptional musicians. I haven’t made it out to that many gigs so far this year but this one made up for the wait several times over.