Wednesday 15th AprilApril 16, 2009
Before the concert I attended last night I had a drink and a chat with Seymour Wright about some of our earliest experiences of attending improv concerts. By the end of the evening I felt very similar to I had done back then, excited, inspired, eager for more and yet slightly confused by it all.
Last night’s gig at CafÃ© Oto was organised by Daichi Yoshikawa, one of the eight regular attendees of Eddie Prevost’s weekly workshops that made up the evening’s bill. Probably all of these musicians have played together before in one formation or another, some of them quite often, but the last thing I took away from tonight’s concert was any sense of comfort or safety.
That said, the most natural partnership of the evening came from the opening duo of cellist Ute Kanngiesser and double bassist Guilllaume Viltard. Neither musician did anything particularly unexpected. They both either bowed or plucked the strings of their instruments in a relatively traditional manner. No extended techniques as such were attempted. Like the very best improvised music however their collaboration transcended questions of technique or instrumentation and became an intense tussle, a conversation between two voices. I was actually reminded of a moment on a bus to work one day last week when I somehow found myself sat in between two middle-aged women talking loudly and excitedly to each other in an African-sounding language. Their voices were full of joy and expressive vigour, they were clearly pleased to have met and have had the chance to talk. Sat between them, I couldn’t understand one word of what was said but the emotions shone right through. Kanngiesser and Viltard’s performance felt a little like this. The language was of plucked and bowed strings but the expression and emotion was very clear. This was a delightful, thoroughly captivating performance. At one point an electric cable attached to a small lamp that had been taped to the ceiling above the performance area since the concert the night before chose its moment to break free and swing down across the stage, the plug attached to its end striking one of the two instruments. A purely coincidental moment but the timing was beautifully ironic. As I sat and listened with eyes closed the wooden thud came at a well placed moment in the music, its intervention enough for me to open my eyes wondering who made the sound, but still I was surprised to see it had not been an intentional act. At the end of the performance the two musicians put their instruments back into their cases, took their seats amongst the audience and started conversations with other people.
Two of the musicians playing tonight have a short piece of music forthcoming on the Cathnor label. Talking with Seymour beforehand I had explained that I had really enjoyed the way this piece of music had left me feeling like I had walked into an ongoing performance by the musicians, and as the CD ends I am left with the impression that the music is still continuing without me. Perhaps then it wasn’t a surprise, given Seymour’s penchant for pulling pre-performance inspirations into his music that he began tonight’s quartet when most of the audience and at least two of his fellow musicians were still at the bar. Sebastian Lexer (piano+) and about half of the audience then joined him. The rest of them, plus Jamie Coleman (trumpet and other bits and pieces) and Grundik Kasyansky (electronics) followed a few minutes later.
Wright began the first few minutes or so of the set trying to balance a quietly purring wind-up radio in an always improbable position atop of his upturned saxophone that was placed on the floor before him. Its precarious position was maintained by the lightest of touches by Wright, but if left for a second it could have fallen away in one direction or the other. A better metaphor for the performance that was to follow probably couldn’t be found. Lexer initially stayed in the background, emitting just the lightest of burbling from his digitally enhanced piano, but Jamie Coleman came to the front, flicking little pops and parps of trumpet into Wright’s gentle static and Kasyansky’s faintest of electronic whistles. But that is just how it started, nicely refined, balanced exchanges of sound. Things didn’t stay like that.
Throughout the set each of the musicians seemed to take it in turns to try and turn the performance on its head. So Lexer would at one moment play some of the most gorgeous Feldmanesque strings of notes into the mix, and the next utter forth a crashing electronic chord from the insides of the piano. Wright spent a lot of time blowing loud, rasping, metallic notes at full pelt across the room, Coleman seemed to shift from passages of almost Kind of Blue era Miles Davis trumpet to periods when he put the trumpet down completely and played around with some kind of motor driven device under what looked like a tambourine but probably wasn’t. Kasyansky worked a series of sharp bursts of electronic tone into proceedings, some of them seemingly coming from the glass of wine he had been drinking as at one point he attached some kind of microphone to it. He also occasionally smacked a pair of wooden spoons against each other.
If all of this sounds like a recipe for chaos it somehow wasn’t. Everything seemed to make sense, though the music did fly about all over the place and I find it impossible to describe the performance in few words. These were four musicians out to test each other, try new things, push each other into uncomfortable places. The resulting music was unclassifiable, outside of any genres, continually surprising. At one point Coleman seemed to be trying to match Wright’s blasts of vibrating brass, the two of them letting rip loud lines of sound until they both just stopped simultaneously, as if on a cue, and all we were left with was the most beautiful of Tilburyesque meandering piano and a gentle whirring tone that changed the tone of the performance at a glance. There were also several false endings, each one brought back from the dead by a succession of very different rebirths. All in all they played for the best part of forty-five minutes, and throughout they held my attention completely. I cannot help but think that there was a whole lot going on in this performance that flew over my head, maybe references to past performances, exchanges that reflected previous meetings, I’ve no idea. I’m absolutely certain that all four musicians seemed determined to push the music on to areas that felt less comfortable. The entire performance was thoroughly fascinating however and one that left me pondering on its form and content for a long while after.
There followed the icing on the cake however, a duo from Paul Abbott and Daichi Yoshikawa, both playing with quite simple and yet highly refined electronic set-ups. Both worked with a rough, raw sound, Yoshikawa’s the result of the simple speaker feedback created by holding a small microphone near to it, but somehow shaped and moulded with considerable skill. Abbott’s focussed more around the amplified sound of distressed metal surfaces, though he also taped a contact mic to his plimsolled shoe at one point, so that his every movement created a loud burst of noise, and when his digital watch alarm started beeping at one point (deliberately? maybe, who knows?) he took it off and threw it into a contact-miked brass bowl so the sound suddenly shot up in volume.
Abbott and Yoshikawa occasionally tipped the volume at the top end, and often created highly pitched, uncomfortable feedback sounds that made my eardums quiver, but not once did their music become anything less than thoroughly enthralling, a constantly changing, curled ball of energy that often dropped into deep crevasses of silence, but never for long, always bursting back into life with twisting, ugly energy. They played with intense focus, every sound mattering despite their raw, untamed nature. This was a great way to follow the constant surprises of the quartet performance and a nice way to end an evening that only served to underline my current feeling of strong optimism towards improvised music coming from London right now. Great stuff. Thanks to all.