A night in an old biscuit factory

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So last night’s concert at V22 organised by Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label then. The evening took place in the cavernous, natural echo chamber that is the old Peak Freans biscuit factory in Bermondsey, South London. (I can sadly report that a thorough search did not produce even the crumbling remains of a custard cream). The evening consisted of three sets, an intriguing trio made up Jennifer Allum, (violin) Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither and objects) and Sarah Hughes (zither and fractionally less objects) bookended either side by solo saxophone performances, one from Seymour Wright and the other John Butcher. The thing about this particular venue, and its quite ridiculous acoustic that saw Simon genuinely struggle to be heard over the sound of his own voice echoing back at him when he made between-set announcements, is that while the natural reverb is fascinating to work with, you can’t ever turn it off. If you don’t wish to make music drenched in layers of echo well tough, there is no choice. The old factory also sits under one flight path or another, and regular planes not only pass overhead, but have their sounds hammered around the space for a few seconds long after they have gone. Also, in an attempt to keep the space dark, sheets of aluminium foil have been nailed up over the windows high at the top of the ten metre high walls. As these sheets have naturally worn and torn in the breeze so every gust of wind that folds its way around the building causes these sheets to flutter gently, and with the windows stretching right around the building so the foil whispers seem to move around the space as the wind passes along the windows. Obviously this sound is then echoed and amplified in the space, and a strange kind of elemental feedback system seems to exist to accompany the musicians.

Its inevitable then that a saxophonist will play loud, and so Seymour Wright played what Simon and I agreed later to be the only solo set we have seen him play in which his sax stayed intact throughout and no added objects were brought into the equation. Such is the intensity of the echo that when he began with tongue clicks against his reed these careered around the room, the returning sound mixing with whatever he had moved onto by the time it had gone around a few times. Seymour was pretty much duetting with his own musical shadow from here on, calling on loud screams on his alto, low purrs, sudden staccato attacks, and everything soaked in the echo of itself , so making the act of listening extraordinary as it became hard to work out which sounds were freshly played and which hung around a few seconds. I was reminded of the music of one of Seymour’s regular playing partners Sebastian Lexer, whose electronic treatments of piano sounds undertake a similar pattern of intertwining with the sounds that gave birth to them in the first place. Ever since Julie started coming to some concerts with me I have asked her to tell me her thoughts on performances, in the hope that one day I can convince her to write a review. Last night she said something beautiful about Seymour’s set- that his playing resembled a small working tugboat sent out into tumultuous seas to fend for itself. The rustle of foil above our heads sounded like waves, (it did) some of the sax cries resembled whale calls and the whole thing felt like a small, seemingly powerless soul fighting to overcome the natural elements that repeatedly pounded it. I might trust get Julie to write every review from now on.

The trio of Allum, Lazaridou-Chatzigoga and Hughes was particularly interesting because when Reynell put the group together they hadn’t played together before, and in some cases I don’t think even knew one another. Exactly how this one would fathom out I wasn’t sure at all. Allum’s playing is much busier and expressive than Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s  and even more so again than Hughes’, and it wasn’t clear how the trio would sound- who would move in which direction or would some kind of democratic middle-ground be found? The latter option seems to have been the case, with Allum playing more sparingly than I have heard before and the others more full, with a lot of extended glassy tones and bowed, amplified strings. Sarah Hughes even seemed at times to drop her bow across bass strings repeatedly quite wantonly and in contrast to the very controlled, clear way she normally works. The music was very lovely indeed, all ringing tones, the occasional drilling vibration and singing strings, with a lot of eBow work front he two zithers and the potential to pull the recording into a long form recording session as the group seemed to be growing in confidence and self-understanding as they played on. There did seem to be an obvious ending to the set they missed and added a further unnecessary five minutes, but on the whole this trio made very lovely, warming music indeed that I would like to hear again sometime.

John Butcher had been meant to play with his feedback sax set-up, so differing his approach to the instrument to Seymour Wright’s earlier set, but technical issues meant he was left to work with just his twin tenor and soprano saxophones. He, like Wright ended up blasting quick flurries of rapidly changing sounds around the natural acoustic of the space, but in a fantastically controlled way that again seemed to allow him to work with his own echo, improvising patterns alongside it. Its a shame that Butcher was forced to play in this more standard manner as the inevitable end result is that people compare his set to Seymour’s, but I won’t say that one was better than the other, more that each highlighted the individual strengths of the musicians, with Seymour’s sharp percussive attacks working well amongst the echo chamber and Butcher’s use of circular breathing and rapidly changing melody sounding great in the space.

There is at least one more concert of SoundFjord’s remarkable run of gigs at the V22 space (just about one a day for a month!) that I will make sure I attend, and I wholeheartedly recommend getting along there if you haven’t already. The acoustic is amazing, there is a bar, café and coffee shop open during the day, things happening all day all the time and as it is easy to get to off the normal beaten track it appealed to me a lot. Great concert anyway, now I hope the next one on Thursday goes just as well.

Speaking of which, I have put the programme of events for the concert in Oxford up online as a PDF file, which can be downloaded here. If anyone is thinking about travelling from London for the concert, or similar, and wants to know about public transport, (the Oxford Tube express bus service runs cheaply 24 hours a day from Oxford to London and back) or parking, or where David Cameron’s house is, drop me a line and I will happily help you out. Sorry for those of you on the other side of the world sick of hearing about this concert, not many more days of it to go…

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