Freedom of the City 2012

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It has been good to relax a little today after four days of hectic concert going. I have spent today resting, trying to shift a headache and cooking some nice food while listening to some of the CDs that arrived here while I was away. Tonight though, as I am going to write a little about my thoughts on the Freedom of the City festival, I have put on AMM’s Generative Themes album. I have done this because its a disc I bought back in 1994 at the third LMC Festival, an event that first introduced me to AMM, and also to improvisation as a form of music in itself. I was 23 and had recently come through an ugly and painful break-up with a girlfriend, and had thrown myself into music to try and get away from it all, attending a silly number of concerts wherever I could find one to get myself out of the house and away from the small town I lived in. I went to the festival on a whim, primarily because Thurston Moore was playing, and I was something of a Sonic Youth fan, but once at the Conway Hall, a venue I would go to many times more over subsequent years, I found myself way out of my depth, wandering about amongst what felt like a room populated only by much older men with beards, but somehow was taken with the music enough, and in particular AMM, SME, Morphogenesis and the duo of Otomo Yoshihide and Yamatsuka Eye to buy a CD on my way out and to return for further LMC concerts later in the year. So why do I mention this in relation to this year’s Freedom of the City? For a few reasons- for one the performance that closed Saturday night by Phil Minton and Christian Marclay reminded me a lot of that first Otomo/Eye experience, but also because on that weekend eighteen years ago i felt something I had not felt before in a concert hall, a feeling of communal support and safe, open, unconditional friendship. I was too shy to talk to anyone, but the way everybody else seemed to talk to each other, no matter who they were felt good, and for this reason as much as any I wanted to go back. The improv scene in London has been through all kinds of ups and downs since then, and sadly the LMC is no more, but at FotC this last weekend I felt all of those feelings over again, this time filtering them a little through my girlfriend Julie, who came along to a festival with me for the first time and was made to feel welcome by everyone she spoke to. One moment sticks in my mind- having a coffee before the opening session of the weekend in the great little café at Cecil Sharp House, Victor Schonfeld came over to share our table. I introduced Julie to Victor, telling him she was new to the music, and he told her to think of herself as a primitive human savage, discovering music for the first time. He told her there was nothing to understand, no secrets to figure out, to just listen to the music with an open mind like the rest of us, and if she didn’t enjoy it, well, there was nothing wrong with that. Victor is probably now in his early to mid seventies, and I would be very surprised if he hadn’t been in that same hall as me back in 1994. For some, the fact that he is still at concerts of this kind all this time later points to what is wrong about the London improv scene, but for me it just shows that the core reasons people get involved with this music are lasting and valuable. those reasons kept showing themselves to me all weekend.

So a fair amount of the music at FotC wasn’t really to my taste. There was a fair amount of music that sat squarely at the free jazz end of the improv spectrum, and those performances, while all very valuable in their own right just didn’t appeal to me. I enjoyed greatly the chance to listen to them, and Julie and I did not leave the hall at all, taking in every second of the music that we were in attendance for, missing only the two last sets of the festival because we had a train to catch. In places I did feel some connection, but not that often, and the feeling of frustration was frequent. Often, in fact very often, I was taken by the degree of skill involved and found myself wishing that the individuals concerned could just play differently, leave more space in the music etc, but ultimately I was just trying to project my personal taste onto them. So I have decided to not write at all about any of the sets that leant in that direction. My criticisms would not be any more helpful than they would just be a reflection of one person’s taste.

All of this said, there certainly was some music played that I did find extremely interesting and enjoyed a great deal. Throughout the festival, following on from an unwritten theme that has flowed through a lot of musical performances in London over recent years, there were sets that seemed to combine older musicians that could perhaps be said to have come from more traditional approaches to improvisation with other, often younger names. It was one of these performances that was the stand-out set of the weekend for me, the duo of drummer Steve Noble and piano+ manipulator Sebastian Lexer. This wasn’t the first time the duo had played together (I think maybe the third?) but it was the first time I had managed to catch them. There is always something wonderfully structured about the way Lexer works, something that takes his performances into a kind of almost symphonic realm, with everything building slowly, elements all relating to one another (often elements are reprocessed versions of sounds already heard) and the music making a lot of sense as a composition, albeit an immediate one. Part of my issue with much of the busier end of improv that was on display a lot at FotC is the speed it operates at, and then therefore a reduced amount of attention paid to how elements relate to one another, how one particular sound might refer back to something five minutes earlier as everything flies past in a blur. Noble played powerfully, but without the breathless momentum I have heard from him before, and this worked superbly with Lexer, who fed longer sustained sounds around the pummelling drums and bowed metals. There were huge cavernous crescendoes from both musicians, and some of the quietest, brooding sections of the whole weekend, but it all worked together and made perfect sense. Julie also (independently of me) also considered this to be her favourite set of the festival, and when I asked her thoughts on it she described it as dark and atmospheric, a bit like wandering through a horror movie not knowing what was around the next corner. This brief appraisal is bang on, the feeling of oppressively looming intensity was constant, but I would add that the presence of structure and seeming attention to how elements all worked together is what brought about this sensation- every sound arrived with the anticipation of what was to follow it following behind. The closing section stood out from the majority of everything else of the weekend as well because it felt defined and complete as an ending, not just somewhere that the musicians all happened to stop playing. Wonderful music anyway that is just begging to be put onto a CD.

Another set along similar lines was the trio of Lee Patterson, Caroline Kraabel and John Edwards. Having played (however unlikely as it may have been) with Kraabel in Belgium recently and enjoyed the experience a lot, this trio then came about. Kraabel is a saxophonist from the more traditional end of free improv whom I hadn’t seen perform (outside of the London Improvisers Orchestra, which doesn’t count) for many years. She and Edwards have played together often, and their combination worked well, often spraying out into little flourishes of fidgety improv and enough energy for Edwards to break a double bass string at one point, but they were put here in the position of having to account for Patterson’s much slower, more gradual sounds. In places it all suggested it could work, with Patterson actually providing the loudest contributions to the performance with some brutally loud electric cracks at one point and the other two firing off of this, but when Lee began to dissolve chalk in water his wonderfully detailed bubbling and squealing sounds were little more than a backdrop for the other two to play over rather than into, and when a little later some bright, loud crackling (I think from dissolving fizz whizz powder) appeared the other two fell silent, apparently pushed to find a suitable response, with Edwards eventually seemingly mimicking the sound with pops and flicks at his bass strings, but it didn’t feel organic and really did seem to be a case of a valiant and well-meant attempt to bring together sound worlds that don’t naturally fit together that on this occasion, for me at least, didn’t work out.

To those that have probably never heard them perform (there is very little on CD) the musicians of the weekly convening improvisation workshop in London would probably be thought to be playing in the style of the older schools of improvised music as well. While certainly the traditions and values remain there is a marked difference in musical style. What seems to be continually present is a feeling of adventure and exploration. There is also a tradition of combining musicians from this close knit group with others from outside, and two sets at the festival followed this approach. The trio of Ute Kangiesser (cello) Grundik Kasyansky (electronics) and Roger Turner (percussion) was very nice indeed. Turner, showing me again how great and versatile musician he really is (his Oche disc with Christian Munthe is a long time favourite) opted to use a stripped down kit of a single snare and selected metal objects and played them mostly with thin, spindly drumsticks that kept his sound in a prickly, tinny area. Kangiesser played beautifully, perhaps more sparingly and in a more classical vein than I have heard her in the past, but Kasyansky was the main joy to behold here. Starting sat behind his table he immediately stood up and pushed the chair aside when the set began. He then could be found on the floor under the table, over by the piano, and just about everywhere else with his amplified crocodile clips, and added in found clips of music, old jazz and classical strings from handheld walkman players that he used to physically disrupt the content of the tapes by stopping, starting and slowing them down. One great little moment came when, having piled up the tape players and various microphones into a precarious stack on the table Kasyansky leapt into the air, bringing his feet down hard in an attempt to disrupt the pile and change the music. Wonderful stuff both visually and musically.

The other similar affair saw Ross Lambert (guitar and all kinds of other stuff) and Jennifer Allum (violin) play with visiting percussionist Seijiro Murayama. As unpredictable as ever, Seijiro (having blasted by eardrums away with a display of powered drumming the night before) restricted his input to just a few stray snare strikes and some deep gurgling vocal sounds. He caused Lambert and Allum to slow up and as a result there was plenty of space and silence in this set, punctuated frequently oddly by Lambert as he used various vibrating objects, plus a metronome, a couple of metal goblets and a repeated desire to loudly kiss and rub his contact miked guitar in inventive ways while Allum drew acute lines around the other two to pull it all together. This is a set that was full of creativity in the moment and a clear sense of humour. its also probably one that wouldn’t work on CD. You had to be there to see it.

Throughout the weekend much mention was made of Tony Marsh, the drummer who was meant to have performed in two sets at the festival but sadly passed away a couple of weeks back. There were some fitting tributes in words, and also through music. The London Improvisers Orchestra played a piece in his name that saw the massed players all performing percussively, no matter what instrument they were holding, and the various musicians who played with Marsh, or were meant to at this festival played with his memory in mind. The one that really hit me though was the opening set of the weekend, a brave solo performance by the young bassist Guillaume Viltard who was a close friend of Marsh and dedicated his powerful, passionate set to him, also including a passage of percussive sounds played on the body of the instrument. Viltard is a wonderful musician whose energy and passion are infectious. His playing is deeply expressive and darkly romantic and on the two occasions I have now seen him play solo I have been thoroughly moved. His solo album by the way can be downloaded for free here. I recommend it if you haven’t already heard it. While Marsh’s memory cast a sombre veil over the weekend, and news of Lol Coxhill’s continued ill health was far from welcome, one great element of the festival was seeing Terry Day play a full drum set again (though he also wandered off into poetry and piano at varying points) Now, I didn’t like the music he played all that much, but given that Day spent a decade away from the drum kit because severe back problems forced him to not play it it was fantastic to see him play with such energy and joy again.

Mention should be made of Saturday’s closing set, the duo of Minton and Marclay whose music was cartoon improv at its best, jumpy, jerky turntables and accompanying squawks and shrieks that really did put me in mind of Otomo and Eye all those years back on the several occasions I was able to catch them. Julie in particular almost fell of her chair for restraining herself from laughing out loud, something she was ahsmed of initially until I pointed out that half the room was in the same boat and that laughter is not a bad way to respond to music. I enjoyed their set a lot without really ever taking anything that lasting from it. The most poignant moment came right at the end, when Marclay, for some reason played a snippet of a quirky version of We wish you a Merry Christmas, which dried Minton up completely, perhaps like me unable to find a suitable response to Christmas these days.

So there was one set on the bill that seemed the most obvious winner for me beforehand, a septet version of Rhodri Davies’ continually evolving Common Objects group that on this occasion involved himself playing electric harp, Lee Patterson and his table of fizzing, groaning stuff, Angharad Davies and Lina Lapelyte’s violins, Heledd Francis Wright’s flutes, John Butcher’s saxophones and Matthew Lovett playing laptop. Lovett was the carefully handpicked wildcard in this one. The group opened in utterly beautiful, but somewhat uneventful fashion, layering very soft, quiet tone sand textures onto each other. The music rested at very low levels with the exception of two or three odd bloops of sound from Lovett that kept things from becoming too obviously, if still beautifully textural. Butcher and A.davies worked hard to build up some energy in the music as the rest settled with the finely laminal playing, but Lovett then began to add occasional elements that threw everything out of sync in a very John White fashion. there were ray gun type sic-fi sounds, burbling voices and other elements that gave the music an oblique and yet very interesting side that would have been quite dull had they not been placed into such immaculately crafted filigree loveliness. This was the last set I saw of the weekend, and in many ways it was hard to process in light of everything else we had heard, but certainly there was something very interesting going on here, with Rhodri requiring much credit not only for once again including lesser known names in his showcase groups but for adding in an element that he would doubtlessly have known would rock the boat in an interested way. This is one set I would very much like to hear a mastered recording of.

So all in all, musically the weekend was a mixed bag, but as I said in last night’s blog post, I enjoyed attending Freedom of the City a lot. Back in 1994 I found it hard to process the idea that the musicians I had just watched would come and siting the audience beside me when they had finished playing. This felt odd to me given my previous concert experiences. Back then John Butcher had performed with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Last night I looked to my left midway through one of the sets to find John had sat down beside me, and again those memories came back, and my thoughts on how little had changed, even as everything has changed struck me again. I just hope I am still going along in 2030.

Some very fine photos of the festival can be seen here taken by Andy Newcombe.

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