Concert Reviews

Instal09 – Day Three

March 28, 2009

On Sunday, the final day of the festival, engaging conversation over lunch meant we arrived at The Arches too late to hear Phil Minton’s feral choir performance, and so the first act I caught was Seymour Wright’s solo set. Although I’d only actually seen him play solo three times in the last five years prior to this, Seymour’s music felt very familiar to me. Perhaps this may be because one of my most vivid musical memories from last year was seeing him play live in the audition studio to an audience of just myself and Alastair. You can still hear that show here. Tonight there were at least two hundred people watching, including a small child that gurgled and yelped its way through the first few minutes of his performance. Seymour’s solo live sets are riveting to watch, and as much about chance and the potential for failure as they are about his musical choices. He began by placing one of two clockwork radios into the bell of his saxophone, which he then laid down on the floor in front of his chair with the radio tuned into static, so that just a low, muted roar could be heard coming from the instrument. The radio was only partially wound so that it would run out of energy and stop at some point during the performance. He then placed a couple of handheld electric fans on their ends beside the sax, so that their natural vibrations would cause them to “walk” about the floor, maybe bumping into the instrument and causing a metallic clatter, maybe not. As these events went on by themselves he also took the small mouthpiece of the sax and used it to suck up metal tin lids, so that they snapped firmly against the brass with a shrill rattle. After this series of small interlinked events he took another small motor-driven device of some kind and dropped it onto the body of the sax. It made a loud, sudden series of crashes before going silent as Seymour took to applying one of the handheld fans to the small mouthpiece.

And so it went on, until the last section of the performance when he picked up the sax, complete with a second radio in the bell, reattached the mouthpiece and almost played it normally. He blew the odd splutter and hum with it while on and off pressing the bell against his leg so that the radio’s sound was muted further. The audience, including myself and eventually the small child were held captivated by the whole display. There is a sense of anticipation as you watch things unfold, wondering if a particular fan will fall against something else, or if the radio will wind down at any given moment. It is great fun to watch Seymour play as much as it is rewarding musically, with a sense of an audio domino rally unfolding in front of you. This is one set that I just could not close my eyes for, and I look forward to hearing the music played back at some point separated from the visual spectacle that captivated the attention in the room.

The baby also made an appearance in the next set of the day, a solo performance by Rolf Julius, a much respected sound artist whose music had not really crossed paths with me before. If the child’s exclamations fitted quite nicely with the playfulness of Seymour Wright’s set they were just a distraction during Julius’ quiet fields of tiny sounds. He set up a series of mini-installations across the front of the stage that involved things vibrating in upturned speaker cones, bowls of water and other unidentifiable little constructions. He also used a series of iPods to mix these sounds with pre-recorded material to present a highly detailed mass of rather pleasant, vaguely percussive layers. The problem though was that once this soundworld was up and running Julius did very little with it other than just leave it to mutate very slightly, very slowly. It changed very little over the next forty-five minutes and whilst to some degree it was nice to close your eyes and submerge yourself in the mix I couldn’t help but want more to happen. Although the sounds were nice and mixed together well they did not hold my interest enough by themselves as they were. If other performances of the festival were harmed by people walking about during them this one I think might have been better served as a longer event that people could pass through as they chose as its dynamics leant themselves more to an installation setting than a live set.

After this I watched what was for me the most captivating and intriguing performance of the weekend, the duo of Taku Unami and Sean Meehan. Discussions at The Arches on the day, and online reports since have been split between those absolutely entranced by the performance, those just confused and those that walked out through boredom.

What we witnessed was a highly creative, personal interchange between two of the most interesting musicians working today. Those that were bored were turned off by the apparent non-musicality of the set. Taku clapped his hands a lot during the forty-odd minute performance, often in little clusters of two or three claps at a time, but usually with little gusto, little dynamic force. He also allowed his computer/rice bowl set up to vibrate occasionally (I think on a pre-set or randomised  program again) though this time the vibrations were far more violent, the buzz of the plates causing most of the rice to jump free. Meehan’s performance was equally enigmatic, based around the act of cracking small grains on the surface of his snare drum with a small cymbal, and scraping the tines of a fork across the drumskin, very deliberately and sparingly. He also had a selection of rubber stamps on the floor beside him, and carefully selecting two he actually stamped their words repeatedly into the drum, a silent act that was not even visible to a good portion of the room. The words reading buzzing (many times) and CLOSER (just the once). Their meaning may have been carefully chosen, or they may have been purely random.

This all fitted together amidst a state of highly charged silence. There were few lengthy pauses in the performance, things were almost always happening, and yet they were all somehow well defined by the spaces around them, so much so that the relationship between one event and the next was always able to be considered, if not often easy to ascertain. The one moment of violence that punctured the otherwise prevalent sense of repose came when right after one of the blasts of vibration from Taku’s metal plates Meehan grabbed his drum and shook it firmly, its rattling frame making quite a noise. Unami sat and listened patiently, responding at the end of this moment of expression with a single listless clap of the hands.

The music was all about contradictions. If for a moment one thought of some kind of zen-like beauty the next we were presented by an awkward ugliness. Meehan chose not to play in the manner he is best known, with the vertical dowel rods creating soft tones. Instead he chose the uncertainty of cracked grains and completely noise-less gestures. With the clapping, Unami made his instrument of choice the most simple method of percussion known to man, but this choice seemed unmusical, bereft of any degree of virtuosity, an affront to any of the audience that had turned up to witness beautiful musicianship. For all of its confrontational aspects though the performance also portrayed a quite charming conversational aspect. Oblivious to what was happening in the room outside of their interaction (in fact many people were leaving noisily) the two musicians took turns to place moments of sound (and non-sound) before the other, some of which were responded to, some merely considered and ignored.

It is very very hard to describe what it is I took from this performance. Once again no attempt to describe physical events literally can really portray their seeming importance at the time. There was a strange sense of depth to the playing, that each sound was in some way loaded, a response to the sounds that preceded it but not in the usual way we have come to expect.  This was at once graceful, thoughtful music but also  very challenging in the manner it ignored if not confronted the expectations of the audience. For me it was something of a revelation. I wouldn’t blame anyone that merely found it an irritation.

The impact Meehan and Unami’s performance had on me was marked. It put me in a state of mind that made staying in the room for Jerome Noetinger and Jean-Phillipe Gross’ duo performance for more than a couple of minutes impossible. They sat in the centre of the room with a speaker at each corner as the audience crowded around them, looking over their shoulders at their every move. They let rip a blast of wrenching electronic noise that, following the set before left me reeling in defence. Although twisting and turning in and out of itself the volume kept at high levels and so I retreated to the bar next door where the music was still clearly audible. It wasn’t all out and out noise though, there were quieter passages and periods of very highly pitched sounds, but all things considered I just couldn’t take this performance so soon after the one that had preceded it. Apologies to the musicians concerned, things might have been different on another day.

The break did me good as it prepared me for a trio of performances from Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide, a solo apiece followed by a duo as Filament. There was a lot of people packed into the room to see them, and this obviously created a degree of external noise. As if to counter this the pair played through a sizeable P.A. with the sound cranked up quite high, so each pop and crack of Sachiko M’s brief opening contact mics performance shot out of the speakers and rattled about the room. As I wrote here and here I saw Sachiko and Otomo play very recently in London and their performances here were very similar. Sachiko stood under a single spotlight and scraped, stroked and squeezed contact mics in her pockets and behind her back in a very simple and yet remarkably refined manner. The performance did not differ from the one in London but was equally engaging. Otomo followed with another solo for feedback piano, this time working with a pair of old uprights, one keyboard in each hand. Watching more closely this time it seems that he routed the feedback from a pair of guitar amps through the strings of the piano, using a volume pedal to cut the feedback calls dead just they reached peak level. He created a collage of rising wails, each one curtailed abruptly as the next bilged out below it. As In London this was a simple, beautiful performance performed with great skill.

Given the sheer ability sat on stage for the Filament performance I was a little disappointed to feel slightly less than blown away by Otomo and Sachiko’s duo. I imagine if I had not seen them so recently in London I might think differently but this just felt like a run-of-the-mill Filament set performed through a mighty P.A. system. The usual elements were there, the tiny pops and crackles from each, plus the rotating turntable textures from Otomo and one well placed sinewave from Sachiko. What was missing for me was any sense of surprise.I don’t think for one minute they were just going through the motions but this set differed so little from what I had heard before from the duo, not only recently but in years past. That does not mean it wasn’t very good indeed, but at a festival that saw Radu Malfatti move his improvisational playing along some way, and saw Taku Unami confound all expectations it seemed that Otomo and Sachiko as a duo had not come that far over recent years. Still, it was great to listen to again and they went down a storm with the audience.

The final set of the evening and the festival was less of a performance and more of a room-sized installation. A Signature of the Room is a very complicated mathematical composition written by Jean-Luc Guionnet and performed here by Taku Unami. “Performed” may not be the correct word however, as the piece was generated by pre-programmed laptop and left to run, with Unami often wandering about the room along with the audience, and Guionnet doing the same, actually recording the results with a small portable recorder as he walked.

Amusingly announced by Unami as “chill-out disco music,” the result was a deafening roar that undulated between the six speakers set up in the corners and midway along the longer walls of the room. The music was created from minutely shifting bass frequencies that made your clothes vibrate on your body and, if you faced in the right (wrong?) direction it felt hard to breathe with the force of the sound against you. The audience were encouraged to wander about the room, which we did, with some of us visibly swaying against the sea of sound, others laying prostrate on the concrete floor. What did I take from this music? Probably not much other than a ringing sound in my ears for the next half an hour, but somehow it seemed a fitting end to the weekend, a fun and cleansing experience after so much silence.

Instal09 was a festival so in tune with my musical preferences and sensibilities that it was never likely to less than impress me, but it actually exceeded my hopes. Musically and socially I had a great time. Hats off to Barry and Briony once again.

And not a deep fried Mars Bar in sight…

Comments (4)

  • RFKorp

    March 29, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Other than the stamping, which I have never seen, those are techniques that have been in Sean’s improvising vocabulary for a very long while. Particularly the forks and the crushing of resin on his drum with a cymbal. (I only saw him shake the snare in such a manner one time about a year and a half ago).

    So, perhaps it was less a desire to not play in his expected manner as it was a desire to finally let the global community know how much more there is to his work than people realize.

  • Instal09 Review | Avant Music News

    March 29, 2009 at 11:52 am

    […] The Watchful Ear provides detailed reviews of each day of Instal 09. On Sunday, the final day of the festival, engaging conversation over lunch meant we arrived at The Arches too late to hear Phil Minton’s feral choir performance, and so the first act I caught was Seymour Wright’s solo set. Although I’d only actually seen him play solo three times in the last five years prior to this, Seymour’s music felt very familiar to me. Perhaps this may be because one of my most vivid musical memories from last year was seeing him play live in the audition studio to an audience of just myself and Alastair. You can still hear that show here. Tonight there were at least two hundred people watching, including a small child that gurgled and yelped its way through the first few minutes of his performance. Seymour’s solo live sets are riveting to watch, and as much about chance and the potential for failure as they are about his musical choices. He began by placing one of two clockwork radios into the bell of his saxophone, which he then laid down on the floor in front of his chair with the radio tuned into static, so that just a low, muted roar could be heard coming from the instrument. The radio was only partially wound so that it would run out of energy and stop at some point during the performance. He then placed a couple of handheld electric fans on their ends beside the sax, so that their natural vibrations would cause them to “walk” about the floor, maybe bumping into the instrument and causing a metallic clatter, maybe not. As these events went on by themselves he also took the small mouthpiece of the sax and used it to suck up metal tin lids, so that they snapped firmly against the brass with a shrill rattle. After this series of small interlinked events he took another small motor-driven device of some kind and dropped it onto the body of the sax. It made a loud, sudden series of crashes before going silent as Seymour took to applying one of the handheld fans to the small mouthpiece. […]

  • Richard Pinnell

    March 29, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Yeah I’ve seen Sean do the fork on resin thing a good few times myself Richard. I didn’t mean to suggest that he only ever does the dowel-tones material, but I was exhausted and unwell when I wrote that so it probably came across badly.

    Anyone know what a Trackback is? Should I leave that comment below there or not??!!

  • RFKorp

    March 30, 2009 at 5:48 am

    I guess it’s just documentation of another website that chose to link back to this blog post with a little intro sentence. I don’t think it hurts to leave it here. avantmusicnews.com appears to be a solid enough site to enjoy knowing people are visiting from their link….

    Kinda cool that it automatically showed up like this.

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