So some thoughts about the concert I attended last night at the Kings Place venue in London. As I write this I am very tired, and so my apologies in advance if portions of what follows make no sense at all. First of all something about the event. Kings Place is a pretty horrible venue, sort of a cross between an airport terminal and The Barbican, a harsh, clinical and unfriendly environment with escalators and tastefully positioned cacti. The concert I attended last night, an evening named Gold Mines that was organised by Ilan Volkov was part of the dreadfully titled Out Hear: Break your Sound Barrier series of otherwise pretty awful looking concerts. It was then, a somewhat annoying affair, but the evening’s curator went some way to removing much of the veil of cheesy establishment with his friendly, down to earth announcements between performances. Volkov also played violin with the trio that opened the evening, a group named Mines that includes his fellow violinist Yael Barolsky and the percussionist Ram Gabay. Volkov is better known as a symphony conductor, currently employed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra as their principal conductor. I am by no means sure, but I suspect that his two fellow musicians in this trio could also have their roots in classical music performance. Certainly they both showed a great amount of technical skill with their instruments, which isn’t to say that improvises normally do not share these skills, but there was something about their playing styles that point me this way. I didn’t enjoy the set all that much. It was, for the most part a quite busy and really quite predictable set. The two violins were played primarily with a bow against the strings, and with the kind of vigour and passion you might see in a chamber music recital. The drums filled the spaces between, when they were allowed to appear, but for the most part the set lacked any real excitement for me. There was little dramatic that occurred, little in the way of notable events, just a steady flow of twisting, colourful streams of sounds that were well matched for one another but ultimately he kind of thing I have heard so many times before. Gabay’s lightly played drum work was on the whole nicely done, but overall the set really just sounded thoroughly predictable. It really did sound like a group of classically trained musicians improvising, and actually this was to the music’s benefit to some degree, as while the tendency for them to find little glimpses of melody and then repeat them as if scratching together a traditional composition of some kind was a little annoying, these moments did also provide a window on the musicians’ characters.
There followed the duo of John Tilbury and the heavily pregnant Maya Dunietz each playing a mammoth Steinway piano arranged top to toe in front of the stage. The pair played Morton Feldman’s Two pieces for Two Pianos, a brief work 1957 work that saw the pair play quite quietly, with several deadening treatments applied to the visual side of the music. This piece is as percussive in tone as it is string-based, and that pleases me no end. If Two pieces for Two Pianos was short, blunt and deadening on impact however, the duo’s realisation of one of Feldman’s other piano works works Two Pianos that I found so very powerful. the piece is utterly gorgeous, played with pedals pushed down, so every keystroke hung in the air for hours. The way the two pianists connect and interweave their sounds is remarkable, with long silences infiltrated by gradually fading aureola of decaying sound. If you know this piece of music you will be aware how gorgeous it can be when performed by someone like John. Hearing it played live, with Dunietz’ performing “voice” very much in tune with Tilbury’s, produced a stunning twenty minutes of glowing, hovering sound. If the brief Feldman performances were as good as it gets however, the duo improv session took a while to get going. To begin with the music felt a little tired and clinical, with Dunietz giving as good as she took as she mixed tiny tinkles with booming crashes alongside Tilbury’s masterful contributions, but again, for the opening few minutes at least it all felt a bit flat and obvious. Again whether Dunietz has improvised all that often in the past wasn’t clear, but it seemed to take a while to get her on the same page as Tilbury, but once she arrived some truly beautiful structures formed between the two of them. John generally playing the disruptive role to Dunietz’ accompaniment, reversing Tilbury’s usual part in the music, causing him to let loud roughly defined crescendoes and sudden explosions amidst Dunietz’ minutely defined webs of smaller sounds. If the improvisation felt like a work in progress (don’t they all?) then the performance of the second Feldman score ranks as one of the best twenty minutes of music I have heard in a good while.
The evening finished with a performance of Christian Wolff’s Stones, played by Eddie Prevost, John Butcher, Gino Robair, John Tilbury, Maya Dunietz, Dylan Nyoukis, Steve Beresford, Kaffe Matthews, Daniel Spicer, Yael Barolsky, Ram Gabay, Ilan Volkov and Patrick Farmer, an extraordinary line-up convened to play Wolff’s score, which actually might have been the only way that list of thirteen musicians could succeed in playing together. Stones is one of Wolff’s late sixties collection of pieces known as his Prose Scores. The performance requires the group to each use stones and to follow the following instructions:
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours);
for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with
stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.
Now this was an extraordinary group of musicians, some of whom do not play composed pieces, even very loose pieces like this one, very often. When they began to play in the Kings Place hall, with various musicians spread around the room, in front of, between and even amongst the audience, they quickly formed a relatively steady flow of soft rubbing, scraping and occasionally clicking music formed from the stones. Every so often the sound would spike, perhaps when one of the group did something unusual, but on the whole the room filled with a low-key yet fully present set of sounds. It just wasn’t actually all remarkably interesting when heard as a whole. The room was a little too large to be able to hear what was happening all over the place last night, and while I think a recording of the tracks would work well if all of the elements could be mixed decently together, it was hard to connect what everyone was doing, if indeed a connection was actually there to be found. Gino Robair sat in the audience, at first unknown to those listening, causing people to jump when he suddenly dropped stones to the floor. Others spread around the stage and the side of the building. It was interesting to hear people that usually improvise playing a composed work, perhaps the reverse of the opening sets of the evening. John Butcher somehow managed to get a set of sounds from grinding two stones together that actually sounded exactly like his saxophone playing, and Prevost even took to bowing a cymbal at one point, presumably as it touched a stone of some kind, but even when playing a scored work it amused me to hear that familiar bowed metal sound drift into the otherwise grey sound palette.
It all just felt a little nondescript and predictable, which given the size of the group perhaps shouldn’t have been the case. Patrick Farmer maybe offered his own response to the performance by sitting for the first ten minutes or so completely motionless, before taking off his shoe and filling it gradually with small pebbles taken from a little wooden box, making very little sound at all as he did so. Once the box was empty he sat for a while and then reversed the process again, one pebble at a time, completely inaudibly until everything was back where it started, shoe put back on foot. Besides a few, again completely silent attempts to roll a few stones in his hand later in the realisation, Farmer actually added little to nothing to the performance when considered as a purely aural affair, but his seeming dislike (I am guessing here) for how the set was progressing apparently triggered his measured, unusual, unpredictable response that stood out for me as something a little more thoughtful, if sonically invisible when compared to most of the rest of the group’s approach, which seemed to be to just improvise using the stones to hand. All in all, this ended up sounding like a group of musicians many of whom were unfamiliar to one another improvising with very simple, unusual instrumentation in a hall that was too big to be able to hear what everyone else was doing. Unsurprisingly it was visually spectacular but aurally a bit of an unfocussed blur. It wasn’t bad, but I can’t help but think that a group half the size in a room half as big would have worked very much better.
I forgot to take any photos last night, so the image above is one found on the internet that I think captures the feel of Kings Place quite nicely.