Category: Live performances

Ligeti Morphed: a sometimes spellbinding performance of acoustic and electronic music combined

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Ensemble Offspring with Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng, Ligeti Morphed, Sydney Festival / About An Hour (CarriageWorks, Eveleigh, 13 January 2013)

Acoustic and electronic music come together in this concert using works by composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923 – 2006) as inspiration and foundation. The venue is a former railway yard recently converted into a centre to develop and present works of contemporary music. Four members of the experimental classical music group Ensemble Offspring performed on violins and percussion on a cramped stage with Oren Ambarchi on guitar and Martin Ng on turntables. Surrounded by black curtains on three sides, the musicians were almost dwarfed by a shadowy atmosphere that was a little on the sinister side. Distant rumbles of trains outside – there are busy railway lines behind the venue – added a spooky effect. The hall was not air-conditioned and, with every seat taken, the air was palpably hot and sweaty and people were frantically fanning themselves with copies of the program.

The Ensemble Offspring musicians primed themselves and us with their rendition of Ambarchi and Ng’s “Simulacra 7 “, a pleasant droning piece. The original piece was playing in their headphones and the women responded to the music with their answers on violin, cymbal and one other percussion instrument (jeez, I already forget what that was). This was followed by a relatively conservative performance of Ligeti’s Piano Etude #2 ‘Cordes Vides’ 4′.

The best was yet to come and we got a taste of it with the two percussionists, Bree van Reyk and Claire Edwardes, hitting and drawing on the skins with their version of Ambarchi and Ng’s “Woods 15′ “, a surprisingly deep droning piece that could have been mistaken for two rumbling cargo jet aircraft coasting through the sky. Van Reyk and Edwardes later swapped whacking drums with pom-pommed sticks for whacking marimbas with pom-pommed sticks on Ligeti’s “Continuum (2-marimba version) 6′ ” and this, even more so than the drum duet, was an exercise in intense concentration, split-second anticipation and timing, and intuitive knowledge of one’s own and her partner’s sections of the music as the musicians set up on-going repetitive loops of minimalist thrumming of the bars that change continuously. The actual music itself was not so remarkable as the echoing bell-like metallic resonance that reverberated overhead and carried through the air.

Ambarchi and Ng joined the musicians on the last two pieces of the program, of which the rendition of Ligeti’s “After Atmospheres 16′ “, based on the piece that was used in the Stanley Kubrick flick “2001: A Space Odyssey”, was the major highlight of the entire set: powerful thunder and gentle rain-showers were simulated during the course of the music, the women blew peals of shrieks on toy woodwinds, Ng coaxed some surprisingly deep and heavy drones from his turntables and Ambarchi flipped vibrato flecks and other gentle effects from his guitar. Of all the performers, Ambarchi seemed the quietest but he was working hard on his sampler and guitar and I was sitting closer to Ng than to him so the relative distances between them and me would have made a difference to what I was hearing.

Unlike some recent live performances I’ve seen where chunks of minutes got chopped off from the set time – I’m still annoyed at the time I went to see Noam Chomsky talk at the Sydney Opera House and the time allocated to him was whittled down from 90 minutes to less than an hour – the musicians stretched 60 minutes to 90 minutes so they literally gave 50% more than they were obliged to. Unfortunately this meant that when they finished, the entire row of people sitting with me stampeded over me during the applause to catch the next item on the Sydney Festival program so, erm, Oren and Martin, if you’re reading this and you guys noticed that I was a bit slow to get up and clap, that was probably because I had been run over without even the privilege of being startled to see my whole life flash by in oncoming headlights.

One aim of the set was to produce sounds that, combined together in real time, evolve into new sound textures and moods of their own accord. In this, the musicians weren’t always consistently successful and it was actually easy to tell who was making what sound in later performances; but when they hit the mark together and held it, then the result was spellbinding.

Die in Terror

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We very much enjoyed an uncanny night of music at Café Oto last night. (See here for a great poster). This was the first venture of The Sound Projector to this London venue with which all of the capital’s underground cognoscenti are abuzz, and quite rightly. We were there to see a performance by mudboy, who unbelievably was supporting a rare appearance by The A Band, who (rather than simply reforming) simply seem never to have gone away. Slow Listener came up from Brighton and surprised me with his table-top setup which looked like an arsenal fit to deliver an onslaught of harsh table noise. Instead, a concise set of beautiful processed drones issued from these pedals and mixing desk, guided by his steely white talons. Upon completion his equipment fitted neatly into a compact blue backpack and he was ready for the train ride home.

The A Band have long existed as a rumour for this listener, despite ownership of a Qbico LP by this UK freakoid collective which I haven’t yet dared to spin. Neil Campbell (one prime mover of The A Band) said this to me in 2005:

NC I played in the A Band at the end of the eighties, early nineties.

EP I’ve heard of that. Tell me more about that.

NC It was just like really where we started playing big-band improvised things, and we’d have children playing, and people who didn’t know how to play. There’d be a core of us who were into, I guess, left-of-centre music and would just rope everyone in.

EP Who else was in it, besides yourself?

NC That you would know? Richard Youngs, Stewart Walden, Jim Plaistow, Stream Angel, there was loads of people. It had a much more, I don’t know, for want of a better description, performance-art Dada edge to it than Vibracathedral. We’d be playing this droney music and we’d have someone doing a live action painting, naked, eating fire. So it was kind of daft. But we had this core of rocking sort of thing. We made a few records, by default, I think! It was much more, anyone can join in and that. I think that some people perceive what Vibracathedral do as being that as well. Every now and again, particularly when we were first playing out, we might get a hippy come up to the front trying to bang a drum with us. We’d have to put him off, whereas in the A Band, we’d have given him a guitar. In the A Band, we’d have left the stage and got him to play instead.

None of this prepared me for what I beheld at Café Oto, where I counted about eight beautiful people on stage who proceeded to run riot and perform some of the most anarchistic and humanistic free music I’ve seen and heard for a long time. Players run on and off stage, swap instruments, drop out and drop in, engage audience participation, and are clearly having a great deal of FUN (a phenomenon I rarely witnessed in years of attending Company Week, I’m here to say). A guitar player and a tall white-garbed fellow who played a saucepan (both with shoulder-length hair and beards) acted like the sort of mischievous pixies I’d always hoped Gong would be like on stage, while a stunning young lady with red hair dressed like Wilma Flintstone played the Theremin with studied lunacy. Plus live electronics, toy trumpets, toy accordions, upright bass, drums, coconuts unexpectedly clopped in your face…most telling of all perhaps is to hear their onstage dialogue before and after the music (in that most intimate of settings, you have no choice); they clearly speak a shared private language, which all but excludes us outsiders. The music (although mixed with too much top end; I wasn’t the only audience member with fingers jammed in ears on occasion) was totally glorious, streaming free-form genius and also (thanks to the instrument-swapping tactic) packed with dynamics, ideas and tons of sheer FUN. Far more exciting than some more solemn large-scale collectives who purport to offer us similar doses of freedom. “This is the real thing!” bellowed mudboy in my ear, between mouthfuls of Doritos, and he was totally right. Sheesh, can you imagine spending a weekend with these guys? Exhausting!

mudboy‘s stage act (first time I have witnessed it) entails, much as I suspected it would, a great deal of psychological and physical preparation on his part. It’s a ceremony. When he got started he ensured that all house lights should be dimmed, then lit bundles of incense, placed small blue lights in impossible parts of the ceiling and tables, rang bells, donned his ceremonial jacket with his adopted name sewn on back, and emitted backing tapes of eerie drones and nature recordings. Then climbed up on tables (chairs thoughtfully deployed to enable this, minutes before) to declaim Walt Whitman styled poetry through a radio mic. Smells and bells and a sermon – isn’t this a ceremony from the Catholic church? At length his portable organ sonorously groans forth, producing loud marching music and beautiful swirling drones which somehow inhabit the same sound-world and dimension. Within a matter of 25 minutes, mudboy had totally transformed our surroundings – visually, aurally, nasally (!), but also in some deeper psycho-pagan-ceremonial way which I still cannot understand. I soon had to flee in terror to ride the bus home. Further terrors of the London night awaited me outside, but none so strange as what had taken place in that secret darkened room!

In a Tobacco Trance…

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Saturday 25th April 2009: made my way to the DIVUS Gallery in Shoreditch to see a performance by my good friend Scott Foust, appearing with Frans de Waard as The Tobacconists. The duo take their name from their shared enthusiasm for nicotine consumption, and in the spirit of the event I myself was pleased to accept a thin Brazilian cigar from de Waard, whose personal preference is for pipe tobacco. As we puffed on the Divus Gallery balcony in the brisk April air, he told me that Holland is not immune from the smoking ban epidemic which appears to be determined (as I would see it) to make the entire world abide by the same rules of political correctness. In Holland, it seems you’re not allowed to smoke in your own home if visited by a non-smoking plumber, for example. The duo are just at the end of their European tour, where they’ve been playing venues in Germany and Belgium, apparently to general audience indifference and lack of money. Their six-tune set went down very well with the small but appreciative London audience however, and the duo have clearly had plenty of time to hone these instrumentals to perfection. Live performances using laptop, keyboard and mixing desk are underpinned by Foust’s backing tapes, and the pieces – some with very vivid titles, which Foust is careful to announce in each case – are exciting combinations of electro-acoustic music, with sound effects, samples, and even drumbox beats for ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, and all is packed with drama and dynamics. The two performers couldn’t be more different in their approach; Dutch genius de Waard sits impassive, simultaneously manipulating a Powerbook and a small contact mic with studied concentration, while Foust – dressed in his characteristic bright yellow costume – busies himself with prepared cassette tapes, bobs up and down (even when there’s no rhythm involved), leans on keys, sups beer, lights a Dunhill, mutters a quip about Cecil Taylor, and warmly acknowledges audience response with an enthused raised hand and a smile. This was Foust’s first visit (from Amherst, MA) to the UK, and many old friends turned up to see him; in the audience were Darren Harris and Tim Goss from The Shadow Ring, Stefan Jaworzyn of Ascension, and Pete Johnstone from Second Layer Records. A tip of the hat to Allon Kaye of entr’acte for organising this event, although (as he disclosed to me) he rarely makes any money and the audiences are small, even when exhibiting a great show by Lionel Marchetti. See here for Allon’s photos of the two days (day two was a film show and performance art by Foust).

I Agree to Everything: Ubu Roi by David Thomas

David Thomas and assembled company of talent performed Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi at the South Bank last night (24th April 2008), the first of two such performances. It’s a multi-media experience, offering a semi-theatrical version of the famous Alfred Jarry play along with live music by Pere Ubu, and back-projected animations by The Brothers Quay. It’s about the worst thing I’ve seen on stage in my life, yet I still feel able to recoup some remnants of aesthetic value from the chaotic experience. There’s something perverse about art that is deliberately bad which can still offer some sort of appeal. Some art lovers have no time for most of René Magritte’s work, yet love his ‘vache’ period – a short spell in his career when he turned out crude daubs of the most deliberate vileness, perhaps simply to get up the noses of the power elite of the artworld.

If attempting to capture the true spirit of Jarry’s incendiary, bourgeois-hating absurdist tactics, Thomas may have had it in mind to create something that flew in the face of conventional “good taste”. He succeeded. Everything was bad; it was like watching a bad school play. A catalogue of disasters included missed cues, fluffed lines, missing props, missing scripts, bad lighting, inept positioning of the cast, inaudible lines spoken off-mic, and so forth. It became clear in about five minutes that all of this was, of course, totally deliberate. Thomas decided to present a version of a performance that was going wrong, with himself cast not only as the lead Ubu Roi but also as the irascible, bad-tempered, alcoholic director of the play, constantly breaking character to shout, swear and push around the cast who were getting it wrong. A Brechtian device. But also a very laboured one. And it didn’t exactly add any dramatic tension to what was already an incomprehensible reading of the play; most of the lines, despite amplification, were inaudible, with Thomas himself being the worst offender, electing to speak Ubu Roi’s lines in a strangely twisted accent, swallowing every other word.

Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi was also incredibly boring to watch. The main visual relief came from The Brothers Quay, who seem to have forsaken their usual stop-frame animation of sculpted miniatures in favour of digitally-manipulated imagery. Key imagery from the play – knives and forks, Ubu on horseback, the mouth of a cave – was rendered into sumptuous and glorpy shapes which moved with the sinuous delight of the red blown-glass horse that Ubu was riding. If you wanted movement from the performers on stage, it was happening – but was mostly invisible, due to the appalling lighting. I have to hand it to the talented cast (including Sarah Jane Morris as Mere Ubu) who were trying their utmost with some imaginative stylised walks and body movements, but their work was all but wasted, due to the indifferent stagecraft and design. One potentially inspired moment of absurdity – a man leaves the stage with a cardboard box over his head, then returns with the head of a chicken – was simply thrown away. The majority of the text was done as a reading, Ma and Pa Ubu standing frozen behind upright mics at the front of the stage. All very anti-theatre and anti-good taste, I’m sure. Also stilted, dull, and lacking in tension.

As to the music, I’m not whether any of the five performers who strode on stage so purposefully posing like Egyptian hieroglyphs were anything to do with past or present incarnations of the band Pere Ubu. Some doubled as actors and extras. They were mostly there to provide musical backdrops, sound effects, and a few perfunctory songs which were intended to illustrate the original story.

After all this negativity, I should once again make the point that Thomas was clearly out to contrive a night of bad entertainment; every “mistake” we saw on stage was, to some extent, done on purpose. And by acting out a second fiction as the out-of-control director freely roaming the set and yelling at the audience to ‘go home’ at the end, Thomas added another layer to the package, even if it wasn’t quite as dangerous as intended. (For full success, the audience should have been incited to riot, but that’s less likely in 2008 than it was in 1896). And what made it all worthwhile for this viewer? For a few precious seconds, hearing Thomas in full baritone majesty belching out that one word he was born to deliver, admittedly with the help of some digital-delay and background sampler effects: “MERDRE!!!”

Down in yon Parkway

3-bright.jpgMuch to my great shame I have never been to Cecil Sharp House in all the time I have lived in London, despite professing my interest in hearing and studying the folk music of the United Kingdom. However on Saturday 1st December 2007 I made the trek to North London to meet my friend Chris Campbell, so that we could hear the singing and playing of Sharron Kraus. Chris introduced me to the music of the great Alasdair Roberts some years ago, and assured me that Kraus was cut from the same cloth – a late-late revivalist, young, and maintaining continuity of folk traditions (albeit by sourcing recordings, rather than by doing it orally), and also pegged by some as a practitioner of ‘dark folk’. The latter is a purely associative term, but I suppose it may be attached to anything from an interest in murder ballads to the secret and buried histories behind certain festivals and dances. Stumbling around the back streets parallel to Parkway, Chris and I arrived too late to get a free Hobby Horse CDR, but we did get a tasty mince pie with our hot coffee.

Kraus turned out to be a superb singer, and a gifted played of the hammered dulcimer which she cradled on her lap like the rudder to a magical ship. Plus she plays the guitar, and is in such sympathy with the folk songs she sings that they almost become part of her own life history. Which is as it should be; I think there’s a lot to be said for taking ownership of these songs (which are ours anyway), and incorporating them into your own voice and body so that they may resonate still in the 21st century. There’s no point in pretending (or wishing) that we’re all still pre-mechanised farmers in 18th century Dorset, although I know there are folk singers who want to preserve that voice at all costs.

For me, Kraus really took off in the latter part of her set where she sang, aptly enough, a number of old Christmas Carols, wassailing songs, and songs associated with the winter seasons. It was her recordings of the wassails, heard on Stuart Maconie’s radio show, that convinced Chris Campbell to make this trek; something about her rousing voice contrasted starkly against the striking drums and tambours really struck a chord with him. Kraus’s simple, direct and beautiful version of ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ (for which she duetted with Nancy Wallace) moistened this listener’s eye in about two seconds. Likewise her version of ‘Down in Yon Forest’, famously recorded by Shirley Collins accompanied by her sister’s portative organ. If she’d sung ‘Lullay My Liking’ too, they’d have had to cart me out as a blubbering wreck.

Also on the bill were The Owl Service, who disappointed despite some clearly talented players (like the quite-good violinist) in their ranks; they seemed to lack the clarity and focus that Kraus owns effortlessly. She has a clearness of intent that guides just about each song she sings, whereas The Owl Service don’t quite know how they’re going to approach their material. The overall confusion was compounded by their electric guitarist, whose Slayer t-shirt betrayed his other musical allegiances, and who used one too many pedal FX for my liking. I can also recommend Trefusis Hall as a venue, with its delightful informality on the day (food and drink allowed in the arena, and a friendly sedate audience), and picturesque antlers mounted on the walls (perhaps masks to be used in some ritual animal dance). If only we could have dimmed the strip-lighting somehow. With the general run-down appearance of the basement levels in Cecil Sharp House, it felt a little like being in a school assembly hall!

The instruments went crazy

Charlemagne in colour by Ed PinsentOn Friday night (30 November 2007), I saw Charlemagne Palestine‘s performance at the LMC Festival of Experimental Music. The Cochrane Theatre somehow seems a most fitting venue for the music – small and intimate. This probably worked in favour of the quieter more minimal acts; in fact Clive Graham and myself were refused entry to the auditorium because Robin Hayward was parping his tuba so quietly, and it wouldn’t do to disturb the audience’s enjoyment of that. Earlier in the evening, Clive handed Palestine a reel-to-reel recording of an early 1972 work of his, which had somehow found its way into the Daphne Oram archive. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Charlemagne. Actually this is the fourth time I’ve seen him in the UK. He was playing a piece for two harpsichords, and although there has been a version of Strumming Music for Harpsichord (played in 1977 at the Purcell Room by Elizabeth Freeman, one of his students), I don’t think what we heard was quite the same thing. In any case it took a good while before we got to the music, what with the man’s generous effusions.

He began by playing the glass harmonica, alternating between a glass of cognac and one of water, and sounding voice tones in sympathy. Then a chatty introduction turned, quite spontaneously into an impromptu ceremony where he passed his glass of cognac among the audience looking for all the world like a colourfully-garbed priest of the street. Comically aware of the irony, he remarked out loud “I hate to commune…I’m a Jew!”, while eager members of the audience put their hands up in hopes of a sip from that warming vessel. Palestine explained, possibly embroidering the past a little, that his musical ceremonies in NYC in the 1970s could take anything up to half a day, and would involve a brandy balloon of a much larger size, which contained an entire bottle of Remy Martin passed around an equally enthused audience of culture-hungry New Yorkers. Palestine admitted he feels cramped by modern music festivals, which are like a “pot-pourri” and tend to allow at most 30-40 minutes for each performer; he needs more room to stretch himself, and drew parallels with installations at art galleries. He went on to boast of how he had once written a nasty letter to Morton Feldman, who at the time was I suppose a somewhat more successful and semi-establishment composer of the New York school. Feldman had spoken scornfully of the ‘downtown’ musicians (of which Charlemagne was one) and their 4-hour durational works. Yet soon thereafter, the story goes, Feldman had switched from composing 20-minute pieces to composing much lengthier 4-hour works. Palestine happily took the credit for influencing that development!

At length, surrounded by his customary bears and other soft toys fair bursting out from his red wheeled suitcase, garbed in a wide-brimmed hat and colourful Mambo shirt, Palestine delivered himself of the harpsichord music. Simple two-note strumming patterns quickly developed into complex rippling patterns, the likes of which you or I couldn’t hope to invent. His music continues to sit somewhere between composition and improvisation, but it’s entirely dependent on having the man himself physically present to do it. Nobody knows what he’s going to do but himself! Alternating between the two instruments – the “yin and yang” as he called them – demonstrated their individual characteristics and voices. The familiar mesmeric haze was summoned in short order. But it got really interesting when he started attacking the bass notes with violence and gusto, causing wooden hinged parts of the harpsichord lid to rattle and vibrate, visibly jumping about and contributing an unexpected percussive noise. Somehow, these old instruments became prime noise-makers that Merzbow himself couldn’t match. The supplier of the harpsichords, invited on stage to take a bow, couldn’t help but perform a quick examine of the woodwork to make sure that no damage had been sustained. Charlemagne meanwhile was still enthusing about the whole thing 15 minutes later in the lobby. “Did you hear that?!” he boomed loudly to anyone who would listen. “None of that was supposed to happen! The instruments went crazy!!”