Variable Formations. Café Oto, February 16th 2013

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I guess it was always inevitable that Saturday night’s concert at Café Oto would produce exceptionally beautiful music. The six musicians that curator Simon Reynell brought together were each skilled performers whose normal areas of activity showed considerable overlap. The plan was for established sub-groups and solos to present their work in the first half of the evening, and then for all six musicians to combine into one large group, who, according to Simon’s introduction, would take elements from their first half performances into the longer second half set. The entire evening produced very beautiful music. The group consisted of the pianist John Tilbury, alongside violinist Angharad Davies, ‘object manipulator’ Lee Patterson and computer musician Phil Durrant, plus two visiting Berlin residents, the violinist Johnny Chang and electronics musician Jamie Drouin.

The evening began with the trio of Davies, Durrant and Patterson reprising their realisation of Eva-Maria Houben’s trio piece Von da nach da, a previous recording of which closed the Wandelweiser und so eiter box set. The piece dictates how frequently a musician plays their sounds, but does not instruct which sounds to play. For this performance a subtly different set of sounds was put to use than those from the box set, but the realisation was just as lovely, just as simple. The work is one of those scores that places elements very simply beside one another so that, over time, the work begins to make sense, with a soft, deathly slow pulse half forming. As I have written before, Café Oto isn’t really the best place to listen to intimate, quiet music, but the large audience were pleasingly attentive enough to allow us to focus on the music’s gradual progression as well as just taking in the beauty of the soft, textural sounds chosen by the musicians.

This trio was then followed by something quite unexpected, and yet very clever, playfully humorous and darkly poignant all at once by John Tilbury. He explained that the work he was to perform was named An homage to Professor Moriarty, and that it was based upon a 1930′s Sherlock Holmes film, in which a mysterious melody haunts a young woman in strange, sinister ways. Tilbury’s performance mixed him playing assorted variations on the brief melody heard in the film alongside various audio grabs from the film- bits of the melody played on a flute, a grainy piano, and Holmes questioning the girl about the melody- “Can you describe the music that frightened you?” – “Yes, it was very strange music, it had a beginning but no end, it just went on and on…” As well as reworking the simple little melody Tilbury also stroked the strings inside the piano, hammered completely deadened notes in the lower reaches of Café Oto’s new piano with the damper bar forced down and rattled some kind of wooden percussive stick. The piece impressed me a lot for several reasons. Firstly, it was a finely balanced blend of extremely beautiful piano playing, as only Tilbury could do, focussed around the tiny fragment of a melody, alongside more brutally blunted attacks at the lower reaches of the piano. Then the way the acoustic sounds were mixed with the disembodied voices played alongside in the room brought an even mix of contextual, yet oddly disturbing narrative and levity to proceedings. Above all though,  the performance really impressed me because it was something so very different to anything much I have seen or heard in recent years. Like his really quite different, yet equally creative reworking of Beckett’s Worstward Ho!An homage to Professor Moriarty shows that John Tilbury is currently on a creative high, not only playing piano as well as I have ever heard him, but writing new works like this. One last detail worth noting- the piece is named after Holmes’ nemesis rather than after the detective sleuth himself. As Tilbury told us in his spoken introduction to the piece, Holmes called Moriarty “the epitome of all evil”. That Tilbury decided this work should be an homage to such a character is intriguing in itself.

Then we heard the delightfully sheer, remarkably subtle duo of Johnny Chang and Jamie Drouin. These two have played together a good few times now, with an excellent CD already produced between them, and their understanding really showed. Drouin seeps the softest of sine-like tones and thin, gauzy layers of radio interference into the room. His sounds often exist before you realise they are there, and while many will stay a while before slipping away again you have to work hard to hear them at all. Chang’s violin is then naturally a bolder, simpler addition to Drouin’s sound, but the two work very well together, with Chang’s simple small, dry shapes etching triangles into the soft copper plate of Drouin’s barely present frameworks. Oto’s audience (and so many new faces again) fought with themselves to stay quiet, as London outside bristled with its usual blend of shouted aggression and twirling emergency sirens. Again, not the place I would choose to be sat in if I wanted to hear music this quiet, but credit was due to the well behaved listeners. The set, like all of the night was recorded by Reynell. The recordings could come out unusable, but it wouldn’t be as a result of the lack of any audience’s effort. All in all this was a beautifully restrained, immaculately frail set that I could have listened to for hours, but alas we only had twenty minutes.

Which is five minutes longer than we had for an interval as musician’s travel arrangements meant we were on a tight schedule. The second half of the evening then consisted of the sextet work which began as it would go on, with Tilbury leading off with little shards of teasing melody, around which the rest of the group softly wrapped thin sheets of very pretty, texturally pleasing muted shades. For maybe the first twenty-five minutes of what would be a forty-five minute set, it felt like Tilbury was continually trying to increase the tension, leaving his familiar little arpeggios hanging in the air, slightly building the pressure on keys as little figures were repeated. Perhaps this is more about me and my history with Tilbury’s music than what really happened on Saturday, but it felt like he was trying to kickstart one of those familiar eruptions in AMM that rise out of the calmer, prettier sections and for a few moments break out into uglier distortion. This never quite happened though, and it all sat a little too linear, if also incredibly beautiful. As the set went on I began to long for someone to join Tilbury and let things go a little- a Patrick Farmer to suddenly throw a pot of pebbles at a microphone, a Toshi Nakamura to twist a dial and let a searing rip of feedback loose. For a long time the set felt like it needed a release from its own safety.

Then, after around twenty-five minutes, as the set naturally broke itself down to near silence it found a new way to regrow, with the ever-perceptive Angharad Davies, whose violin was amplified for the evening, plucking tiny, but penetrating notes from her instrument, that caused Tilbury to join her, trading dry thudding violin pings with firmly attacked, yet still softly rounded piano notes. From here, as the rest of the group joined the fray again, the feeling was more broken up and much less predictable. Some of the prettiness of the first half was replaced with an angularity and imprecision that was missing from earlier in the set. It felt less certain, with more at risk as sounds became slightly more exposed, less able to sink into the whole. Chang, who had been struggling to restrain a cough all evening, stopped fighting it and coughed at an opportune, quiet moment. Patterson made a mistake and clattered something into something else with a resounding chime that sounded anything but unfortunate. The music quickly breathed a sense of uncertainty into itself and also somehow it also relaxed a little at the same time, and the closing fifteen minutes of the performance were thoroughly captivating as well as extremely beautiful.

All in all, a fine evening of consistently very beautiful music played by six exceptionally skilled musicians who gradually seemed to work out ways to play together before our ears. Being part of the evening, experiencing the way the group unfolded and began to push at each other as the evening went on was a fascinating and enthralling experience. Many congratulations due to Simon Reynell and his co-organiser Helen Frosi of Soundfjord.

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