Murmuration at Café Oto. 13th October 2012

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I think I was one of the few who actually didn’t think that last night’s monumental affair of a concert organised by Simon Reynell in London was likely to produce music of any great value. To be clear, this wasn’t because I didn’t rate the musicians on display very highly- quite the contrary, the line up of some forty-five musicians was exceptional. No, my concerns centred mostly around the choice of venue. While I love Café Oto to bits and think its fantastic that despite its burgeoning success events like this can still take place there, it really isn’t the kind of venue you want to squeeze two hundred people into so as to listen to a quarter of them playing music by the likes of Manfred Werder. Its in a noisy part of town, with a bar at the back of the room, and even when you turn off all of the air conditioning and all of the fridges something somewhere still hums. It also then gets really hot and uncomfortable without the AC and as there aren’t enough chairs for an audience of that size about have of those attending had to stand, somewhat uncomfortably for the two and a half hour concert. On the previous occasions I have been at Oto with this many people jammed inside it has been unsurprisingly noisy in there as well. So while I had no doubts that the five performances of generally speaking quite quiet music would be very well realised by the group, I feared the night could potentially turn out to be a difficult listening experience leavened by the chance to say hello to so many good friends in one room.

Certainly the evening was a wonderful social affair, but while some of my fears were inevitably realised (the heat, the standing room-only discomfort) the audience were remarkably respectful, seemed to understand the music very well (and I don’t mean to patronise here- this was a large audience containing a lot of people, far more than this area of music usually manages to pull in) and on the whole remained deadly still and quiet throughout. This was helped by the venue’s spot-on support, turning off fridges and silencing the bar on Simon’s cue,  and also probably by the fact that the musicians, out of happy necessity were spread about the room, sat and stood amongst the audience, so meaning you were never far from a performer, which probably increased the need to try and be quiet around the room. All in all, the music was allowed to be heard and so the event worked very well.

The evening began with a group of (I think) a dozen musicians performing one of Sam Sfirri’s Beckett pieces named For the choice of directions. I like Sfirri’s work a lot. Little known at present (though the inclusion of several realisations of his work on the new Wandelweiser und so weiter box set on Another Timbre may well change that) the young American composer wrote the Beckett pieces by selecting single lines from Beckett’s great trilogy and adding simple brief instructions. The piece played last night simply asks the musicians to select two sounds and find a path from one to the other throughout the course of the performance, which eight minutes. It was hard to stand (my back was aching having been at work at 6AM that morning) and the heat in the room took less than eight minutes to have an impact, and so my enjoyment of the work was a little more impaired than I’d have liked, but the piece of music in good hands was beautifully, quietly realised with a real tenderness that set the mood for the evening. Its such a simple work that bad choices made by musicians stand out a mile, but there were none and the work whispered its way through the crowded room very pleasingly indeed.

There followed the entire forty-five strong Murmuration ensemble playing Michael Pisaro’s Fields have ears 4, a work originally written for Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes, members of the Set Ensemble, who recorded a version for an earlier Another Timbre release, and whom were part of last night’s event. This is a distinct work, that despite not being prescriptive about which sounds should be used sounded familiar last night from other realisations I have heard, despite the fact it was performed by such a large group. Similar to the Sfirri piece the score asks musicians to move from one chosen sound to another, but a set of timings are prescribed, mapping out alternating sections of silence and sound, but quite beautifully requesting the sounds to be “only a very slight indentation into the character of the silence”. Forty-five musicians making barely audible sounds added up to a low hum that pervaded the room not that unlike the air conditioning and fridge fans that had been whirring just a few minutes earlier. Depending where you stood, who was making sounds closest to you coloured the music slightly, but on the whole the mass of slight intrusions coalesced into a soft, finely textured glow that worked really well.

If the first two pieces sat in “traditional” Wandelweiser territory, the third set, a reprise of the No Islands Quartet’s approach to John Cage’s Four6, an earlier recording of which appeared on their AT release a year or two ago was a different affair entirely. The quartet consist of four good friends of mine, Stephen Cornford, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes and Kostis Kilymis, and so take my opinion here with a pinch of caveat-loaded salt, but this was my favourite set of the evening. The score allows the musicians to choose twelve sounds, merely pointing towards where and when they should be played. The chosen palette was quite a raucous affair, mixing a lot of percussive clatter, rubber balls bounced on chairs, tapes of hyena calls, radio grabs, assorted blasts of feedback and various other amplified detritus. Everything was tumbled together, the placement dictated by Cage’s chance-formulated score, and certainly the result did not sound improvised. There was a sensation of clinical precision, despite the raw quality of many of the sounds, almost even a feel of polished accuracy right down to the precise, stopwatch driven mutual ending of the set, and yet the result felt like someone had neatly arranged forty-eight rusty old cars into precise formations at a scrapyard- no matter how neatly it all felt arranged, there was no escaping the vibrancy of the chosen sounds. The balance between structure, choice, chaos and chance was perfect, exactly as I imagine Cage would have wanted it.

There then followed the quietest performance of the night, a page from Manfred Werder’s 9 ausführende (9 performers) that was realised by musicians mostly out of my immediate view across the packed room. This worked in my favour, and I spent the twelve minutes of this almost completely empty performance with eyes closed and head down just listening to everything in the room. How much of what I took in was sounds deliberately made by the musicians, and how much was other activity in and around the room I don’t fully know, but I managed to listen closer and allow myself to absorb everything much more intensely for this set than any other last night. The evening closed with James Saunders’ Things whole and not whole, a fascinating piece that explores the way group behaviour unfolds itself in a musical context. Saunders tries to replicate the actions of a flock of starlings (known as a murmuration) for this piece, asking the musicians to pick out another of the ensemble each time they choose a new sound, making that sound only when they see the person that have picked also make a noise, and then choosing a different musician as the trigger for their next contribution. So the music seemed to consist of little flurries of activity that billowed together quickly before filtering back to near silence as all of the group responded to one another. Watching all of this unfurl around us was fascinating, particularly as the packed room made the act of picking out new trigger musicians difficult, and many sounds were preceded by the craning of necks or the straining of tiptoes. While a very clever, simple work that produces very nice sonic effects quickly and easily, Saunders’ composition also provided a fitting end to a night that had felt very communal and mutually supportive throughout.  A fine, fine evening then. Looking forward to the next one Simon.

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