Category: Live performances

Happy Birthday

Longstone (1997 – 2017), Smokey Joes, Cheltenham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

Smokey Joes is your go-to restaurant if you’re celebrating your birthday in Cheltenham: an archetypal American diner with all the trimmings: red leather booths, checkered vinyl flooring; table cloths somewhere in between; walls as stuffed with rock memorabilia as the menu is with heart-stopping milkshakes. A jukebox full of 7” oldies like Sally Go Round The Roses. More Lynch than kitsch, its situation in a faceless, city centre sidestreet compounds the peculiarity, but stranger things take place out back, where the picture is of the Wild West time-warped, Burroughs-style, into a video games arcade and inhabited by robots and a cabinet full of Star Wars figures doing the arctic can-can. The juxtaposition of a giant ice cream and a crow sign acts as wry telltale of the appetite that gets its fix in here: the Xposed club. The monthly event – tirelessly organised and promoted by Stuart Wilding – has hosted improvisors great and small, recent notables including Han Bennink and Pat Thomas. As divergent as it gets from Smokey Joe’s devotional offering to American consumerism, the club tenders its own monthly offerings with the best of Europe’s experimental music, staging a cultural balance almost unheard of in a city so often satisfied with middle-of-the-road.

Tonight’s birthday is that of 20-year electro stalwarts Longstone, celebrating their respectable innings in the musical margins. Many may remember the work of Mikes Ward and Cross; noticed by The Wire and Radio 3’s Mixing It in the ‘90s, the duo’s swift shift from local venues to those across the pond surprised them as much as anyone, though it didn’t generate a giant profile in the long term. Judging by the attendance on this Saturday evening though, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of well-wishing in the wings. The place is packed with friends and colleagues – some from as far away as Canterbury – the patrons in question arriving with nothing less than a Speak & Spell birthday cake and bottles of bubbly to toast the anniversary.

Longstone take the stage (well, two tables) at 11pm, prior to which patrons are treated to an evening of studied and soothing oddities including bass clarinetist (and Longstone recruit) Chris Cundy’s splendid solo set for bass clarinet and tape, a recital of a piece by Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw that I’d have sworn was improvised, were Cundy not so immersed in notation, showing zenlike motion-in-stillness through gentle, flickering runs across the undulating tape drone, but broken by the odd lung-depleting exhortation. He’s followed up by the ever avuncular Phosphene aka broadcaster, writer, raconteur and music encyclopedia John Cavanagh, wielding clarinet, VCS3 synthesizer and unaffected English eccentricity in a welcoming melange of glitched pastoralia, poetic lyricism and a turn to more sinister, low-end friendly drone. First joined by a split 7” with Longstone, he remains connected by friendship and a common affinity for off-kilter electronics. Third up is guitarist and long-term Longstone confederate Jon Attwood aka Yellow6, whose sublime and spectral, echo-laden chords hang like wood smoke in winter air, the uncanny resemblance of which to Flying Saucer Attack crystallises in his beat-box undercoated tribute to that enigmatic act.

Listening the main act soundcheck while Billy Ocean and Adam & The Ants occupy the restaurant airwaves was treat enough, but when they do kick off – right after Yellow6 – it’s in matching red & black fleeces (perhaps Ward’s Brickwerk side project was coined under such conditions?) before a bank of buzzing video games. Mario Kart 2’s twists and turns between the Two Mikes offer serendipitous eye candy analogue to those emerging from their banks of dials and wires. They’re visibly chuffed with the evening’s turnout, and their set lacks no bounce as a result. Listeners to their 20-year anthology will have recognised much of the content; it’s a chronological Greatest Hits tour, with bags of physical energy to boot. Some way in, the three recent recruits: Cundy (bass clarinet, vox), Wilding (well-battered percussion) and Kevin Fox (guitar/bass) stake space among the video games to peddle their wares with no shortage of relish. Though occasionally overshadowed by the foreground electronics, the unleashed trio drive the mix across an improvised bridge of the canyon-spanning rope variety – cramming in a Cundy original along the way – and into the second charge of beat-driven hit-smashing, and finally through to the serving of slices of celebratory Speak & Spell cake.

Photographs by Mike Ward/Sarah Bowden

Love Over Gold: This Is Not This Heat Live

This Heat at the Barbican Sat 4 March 2017

Second outing for this unusual musical venture which calls itself This Is Not This Heat; two original members from the trio This Heat, plus a number of additional musicians drawn from the worlds of art-rock, free improvisation, and just plain good music. Not the first outing; it came, out of nowhere almost, to Café Oto for a two-night residency in February 2016, which I completely missed. Reports were good – emotions ran high; loyal fans in tears, listeners travelling long distances from beyond the seas to catch the event.

I was overwhelmed by the Barbican night, the power and the beauty of the music. The songs and tunes from the band’s concise output (2 LPs, one 12-inch) which I know so well were running through my head, playing in parallel to these new versions performed on the stage. I’m going to try to account for why it was such a success.

Collaborative, for one thing. Musicians including James Sedwards, improvising bass player John Edwards, violinist and keyboard player Merlin Nova, drummer Frank Byng…not to mention star names Thurston Moore and Chris Cutler. These players are not only able to produce highly convincing versions of the “original” arrangements, but also brought new ideas, new “textures”, to each piece. Purists may have wanted an exact replica of the albums This Heat or Deceit performed on stage, in the manner of acts at the South Bank (which I have seen and enjoyed) that gave us Forever Changes and Pet Sounds, classic albums re-created live on stage, by well-drilled experts. Instead, we got much more, something much deeper.

When I think of added depth…I heard it in the tunes, and most importantly, in the songs. Oh the songs! This Heat wrote great songs! 1 I almost forgot how, on record, there’s such a striking mix of voices, high and low tones, weird harmonies clashing, the grain of many voices, unexpected intervals that leave you breathless. That rich quality was built on, by the trio of dedicated vocalists Jenny Moore, Luisa Gerstein and Laura Groves, joining Hayward and the other singers; a polyphony of voices. The harmonies now became unbearably beautiful. Conversations, previously obscured in the original recordings, suddenly came forth. Meanings were enriched, and deepened. Obscure lyrics – beautiful poetry – were suddenly now audible, and readable like books. Most prominent successes to illustrate this: ‘Music Like Escaping Gas’ (“There She Blows…”), ‘The Fall of Saigon’, and ‘Independence’. And how could I forget ‘Sleep’, on stage a bittersweet delight of unbearable poignancy, an achingly brief moment which you wish you could have put in a bottle like vintage wine. Heck, all the songs benefited from this process of blending avant-garde doo-wop and Gesualdo madrigal singing, by way of angst-ridden post-punk groanings. I’ll say it again – This Heat always wrote great songs, and didn’t just make a “noise” or free-form experiments in the studio. Let’s move the spotlight away from Scott Walker’s latest over-contrived pieces for one moment, and give Charles Hayward his due as a composer.

Pause. Perhaps my readers would like a more prosaic account of the evening at The Barbican. Well, This Is Not This Heat came on after the interval, preceded by two solo sets by the original members. The one by Charles Hayward was a mix of icy-cold romantic and melancholy songs with him performing on the grand piano and crooning. But he also moved strangely about the stage rattling percussion. Even more strangely wheeling a speaker around in a pram. The speaker made a droning sound. Hayward wailed like a baby, but this seemed to have been part of a much wider domestic narrative about a sad commuter returning to his “happy” home in the evening. A bleak view of life to be sure, but an honest one. Hayward was not one for effusive communication with his fans, and entered and left the stage with a very becoming deal of modesty. Charles Bullen, who now cuts a remarkable figure with his Victorian whiskers, was even less demonstrative. Barely looking at us, he sat behind his table on which may have been mounted a prepared guitar of some sort, and set to work with deliberation. What emerged was incredibly minimal tones in a slew of repeated phrases that nearly drove this listener mad – a kind of restricted cross between electronic Gamelan and Terry Riley. Yet something struck home. Overheard in the lobby afterwards: “Yeah, but you can still hear This Heat in that stuff, somehow.” Good observation, stranger. In between these acts: screening of a film by the 1970s structuralist film-maker John Smith called The Black Tower. unlike Peter Gidal and the more hard-core members of the London Film-Makers Co-op, Smith decided to meet the audience halfway, and went back to telling stories in the 1980s, hence this unsettling suburban fable about the pernicious and unseen effects of an unknown outer force (most likely a metaphor for monopoly capitalism).

Then This Is Not This Heat after the interval. A crowd-pleasing ending with green laser lights. Who would have thought that it would be possible to play ‘24 Track Loop’, originally a concoction of the studio mixing desk, on stage? Hayward may say it’s now possible to do that because technology has improved now, but I think there are other factors, other reasons that have brought matters to this point.

To try and explain what I mean, let’s revisit that collaborative theme. At one level, I think it means something that it takes 14 musicians to build one This Heat, indicating the power of the original trio must have been…quite considerable. But I am probably imagining those 1980s gigs (I never saw the band at the time) to have been more than they were. But perhaps it also takes 14 musicians to create this reconstruction, this reimagination of the songs and the tunes, to make them even greater than before. The nuances and details are all there on the original records – incidentally inviting one to go back and re-examine those grooves, where not a single second was wasted in communicating through sound, gesture, word, music, editing, layering…

The team effort also says something to me about how, through music, we can build on stage a working model of how human relations could change, how society could work better. Even if it’s just for two hours on stage, we can learn from it. John Stevens, the UK improviser, believed strongly in this possibility, and manifested it in all of his directed team efforts, harnessing the energy of great musicians to show a way of living, working and doing that was a model of how a co-operative society could work. I’ve always thought This Heat believed in that too; at the Barbican, they proved it.

Some media write-ups and appraisals have pointed out the gap between the original This Heat and this event; for instance, the concert handout tells us it’s been 40 years since the band’s first gig in 1976. Well, maybe this isn’t really a gap; I would argue that it has in fact been a necessary waiting process, a maturation. The band This Heat had to exist in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to influence musicians Thurston Moore and many others (becoming a “cult” band, I suppose, much as I hate that term), and the impact of their work sunk into the culture in a gradual way. Think of it as a slow release of benign energy, a healing and changing power. The time is now right for that cycle to complete; by bringing their own history, with This Heat DNA mixed into it, the 14 musicians were able to realise the “perfect” version of This Heat we saw in March 2017. If I am right in these fervoured ravings, maybe the event says something about the way culture ought to happen; it’s not instant, it’s slow, and mysterious, but when it works – it’s a glorious and unstoppable force for good.

Comparisons therefore with, say, Young Marble Giants, and their reunion gigs, are probably not in the same league. I love YMG and their 1980 album. But somehow their music got hermetically sealed into a 1980-1981 time capsule, and its influence has not really rooted itself in culture, other than being a reference for “hip” bands to name-check, often by people who have little real understanding of their music. I am fairly sure their “reunion” gig at Meltdown in 2015 (I did not attend) would have been pretty much the exact same songs played the exact same way, with no evidence of a deepening process. Sure, a rock fan addicted to the cult of personality and some idea of “authenticity” might well say that seeing the “original members” trumps everything. But This Is Not This Heat gives us a different angle on that. This is Not This Heat, it’s This Heat Plus.

  1. Hayward has spoken movingly of the songs greeting him like old friends, saying “where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you”.

Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival

Woven Entity and Julie Kjaer
Woven Entity and Julie Kjaer

Report by Paul Khimasia Morgan
Photographs © 2015 by Agata Urbaniak (All Rights Reserved)

Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival assembled a true picture of contemporary 21st century jazz and presented a handful of its component parts with clarity and integrity.

Recently, there has been talk in certain areas of the music-related print media of an ongoing crisis in contemporary jazz. It has been pointed out that there is, in the early 21st century, a reliance on the regurgitation of 20th century forms which has led to the current malaise in both content and worldwide decline in the popularity of jazz. You could cite Wynton Marsalis’s backward-looking stance; here’s Eddie Myer in September’s Sussex Jazz Magazine: “At least by re-stating the primacy of the tradition, Marsalis contributed to an affirmation of jazz’s core values that went some way towards re-invigorating it as a cultural and commercial force. But he’s also proved to be a divisive figure to many in his inflexible insistence about what constitutes ‘real’ jazz.” Indeed, to some enthusiasts, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus are lauded to the exclusion of all others and jazz itself comes to a halt at Miles Davis’ “second great quartet” performances around 1965.

Perhaps this can be defined by the current uncertain identity of jazz itself. Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival director Daniel Spicer quite rightly pointed out in a recent interview; “… I wrote an article for The Wire in which I was bemoaning the corporatisation of jazz. So I was moaning about Jazz FM being mainly a station that plays soul and funk with not much jazz. And I was also moaning specifically about what passes for a jazz festival, in the UK and elsewhere – it’s a global thing these days. I was moaning about Love Supreme [festival]… The fact that they have the nerve to call it that… Also, I disagree with what the London Jazz Festival has become as well, especially now that it’s known as the EFG London Jazz Festival, which means they get funding from a Swiss bank, which specialises in helping people avoid paying tax. I’m not sure if that really chimes with the spirit of jazz. It’s the sound of an oppressed people – I can see some disjunction there.” Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival goes some way to address these misgivings. As their website says; “…it proposes a genuine alternative to more mainstream festivals, providing a platform for the truly left-field – while maintaining an emphasis on music that isn’t afraid to swing”.

Brighton is the perfect place to host a jazz festival. It has its own jazz venue; The Verdict on Edward Street, plus regular live jazz in bars like The Mesmerist, Bohemia and Casablanca; organisations like Brighton Jazz Club, Brighton Safehouse, plus Brighton Jazz School and Chichester Jazz College not far away.

The Festival brought together a host of international musicians. Director, Daniel Spicer, utilising his experience of writing and interviewing musicians for years for publications including Jazzwise and The Wire, and his involvement in organising concerts for touring units at a co-operative venue in Brighton, has assembled his wish list from jazz luminaries, journeymen, minor legends, relative newcomers and established names. He is also known for presented the jazz-centric Mystery Lesson show on Brighton’s Radio Reverb, so it’s a short stretch to impresario. He is aided by a team of organisers who are all working musicians/artists themselves. Buried under the weight of admin – hotel bills, plane tickets, bar tabs, funding applications, trips to the printers and so forth – are Ingrid Plum, Luke Twyman and Holly Jarvis. All three are artists in their own right; Twyman is a designer, Plum and Jarvis are musicians.

Thankfully (for me at least) there is no sign of either electric guitars or digital keyboards over the two days; the acoustic instruments are all amplified through the capable venue PA. If I have one quibble, it is that it would have been nice to hear some music acoustically; although large enough, the venue was not so cavernous that the instruments wouldn’t have been heard. Also, mainly on the Saturday afternoon, there were a couple of occasions of uncontrolled feedback due, possibly, to the overall level of the PA being unnecessarily high (when Mette Rasmussen stepped away from her mic during her and Steve Noble’s set on Saturday evening, her maximalist saxophone blasting was surprisingly quiet in comparison). Mostly the groupings are small, which ramps up the intensity of the performances.

Woven Entity and Jule Kjaer
Woven Entity and Jule Kjaer

Friday’s crowd is near capacity and with the Saturday sold out, the only weak link in the chain is, perhaps, the venue itself. Set up with raked theatre-style seating, with the decision to leave all house lights completely off during performances resulted in many a precarious journey up and down the stairs especially for those entering the venue from the brightly lit bar; not wanting to miss anything while their eyes were adjusting to the dark. Not ideal, especially as the festival appealed to a wide age range – many older attendees were visibly struggling.

The kick-off outfit of the fest is London improvising outfit Woven Entity, joined tonight by Danish saxophonist and flautist Julie Kjaer. And what a great way to start. Totally anathema to the commercial jazz that organiser Daniel Spicer rails against, Woven Entity produce combustible jazz-inflected free improvisations which draw equally upon post-punk, afro-jazz, electronics and “eccentric ethnological forgeries”, and were the only act tonight whose product I, personally, felt absolutely compelled to purchase from the well-stocked merchandise tables. Woven Entity feature fermenting percussion, are not afraid of modulation and have the only electric bassist in attendance this weekend. Laid back, certainly, but they come alive when Julie Kjaer plays. Woven Entity make the most sense when they have access to a soloist; the YouTube video of their performance at Stoke Newington’s The Others captivates me more than the document of their Brighton Safehouse performance (both filmed earlier this year), mainly due to the presence of a saxophonist.

Sarah Gail Brand Sextet
Sarah Gail Brand Sextet

In stark contrast to Woven Entity are the festival’s largest grouping, the Sarah Gail Brand Sextet. Putting the music aside momentarily, having never witnessed Ms Brand in concert before, I was somewhat surprised to witness her attempts to communicate with the audience as if she were a comedy compere. Her efforts went over my head and those of the majority of the audience, which was a shame in a way because the music didn’t need it. Putting that aside, however, her compositions – apart from an unrecognisable (to me) REM cover – were fantastic. Crowd-pleasing for sure; running the gamut of trad, be-bop, showy, free and atonal, but flipping between the styles so fast and with emotional depth.

Kiermyer-Birchall Transcension
Kiermyer-Birchall Transcension

Heading the Friday was Kiermyer-Birchall Transcension. This quartet was a specially-commissioned meeting of Canadian drummer Franklin Kiermyer and British saxophonist Nat Birchall, joined by Americans Davis Whitfield on piano and bassist Nimrod Speaks. The skills on show by all four were exemplary. Nat Birchall has a stated John Coltrane influence, although I would say both John and spouse Alice Coltrane, especially in the use of bell clusters and general mood tonight. For more evidence of this, check out the track ‘Dance Of The Mystic’ from his 2011 album Sacred Dimension. Listen here. The inclusion of harp on that track puts me firmly in mind of Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda. And this is certainly no bad thing. The word “spiritual” gets bandied about a fair bit and Birchall is no exception, but having witnessed this group’s playing, I can’t dismiss it. For me, Kiermyer puts in a very close second-most-impressive percussion performance of the festival behind Saturday’s performance by Steve Noble.

After-show festivities, including the promise of jazz DJs and live poetry readings are hosted in the basement of The Bees Mouth, a bar around the corner, but as I am dependent on the train to get home, I miss out.

Verity Spott (performing with The Westhill Blast Quartet)
Verity Spott (performing with The Westhill Blast Quartet)

The next day, walking through the Clifton area of Brighton from the train station, I marvel at the unusually clement weather and grin at the fact I am willingly going to spend the rest of the day and evening in a darkened room with a couple of hundred strangers instead of making the most of the seafront. The Westhill Blast Quartet live up to their name; a blast of free playing that makes the first pint of the mildly hungover early crowd taste that much sweeter and makes the second day of the festival lift off nicely. Westhill Blast Quartet are: on saxophone, Ron Caines (formerly of 60’s progressive rockers East of Eden); on drums, Andy Pyne (of Map 71 and head of the Foolproof Projects label); and on many and various percussion and eastern horns, festival organiser Daniel Spicer. Their usual double bassist Gus Garside (ARC, The Static Memories) is mysteriously absent, but the very capable Verity Spott deputises on cello. In fact, Spott, along with Spicer’s rapid-fire percussion objects, is one of the most compelling aspects of this grouping tonight. There’s plenty of saxophone and pipe duelling courtesy of Caines and Spicer for purists, but it’s the interplay between Pyne’s caressing touch on the drums, Spicer’s bits and bobs from his percussion table and Spott’s exuberant playing that makes it for me.

Yana
Yana

Yana are vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, double-bassist Dave Kane and on drums, Joshua Blackmore. Yana are a highly technical proposition from the word go – Mwamba’s lightning fast dexterity on his vibes propelling the trio into the realms of raw, punk attitude from time to time. In a particularly fast and heated exchange with the other musicians, Mwamba shouts out to augment a loud and aggressive passage. Kane is equally capable of speed and aggression or, briefly, dub pastiche. Such is his versatility demonstrated tonight that it comes as little surprise to hear that he is playing in London in a grouping with Mark Wastell the following night. Occasionally, there are touches in Yana’s music, of Afrobeat in the vein of Chicagoans like Bundy K Brown and John Herndon, HiM, or Chad Taylor’s marimba and vibraphone work with Rob Mazurek. Like Stereolab’s Cobra And Phases… might sound, stripped of all superfluous electronic noodlings. The only blip in their performance is when Mwamba attempts to sound his vibes with the foam insert from its flightcase – possibly he was attempting to lighten the mood a little, but having produced barely any sound from this bizarre strategy, he quickly picks up his mallets again.

Mette Rasmussen and Steve Noble
Mette Rasmussen and Steve Noble

The stand-out performance of the festival for me, was the duo of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and London-based drummer Steve Noble. Noble is somewhat of a stalwart of the London improv-scene as well as being highly regarded and in demand internationally. His numerous collaborations read like a Who’s Who of the Improv world; Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Tony Bevan, Dominic Lash, Alan Wilkinson, Lol Coxhill, John Dikeman, with Alex Ward and John Edwards in his regular grouping N.E.W., the London Improvisors’ Orchestra, Ikue Mori, and, unexpectedly, Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))). Mette Rasmussen plays a form of ecstatic jazz, liberating her saxophone from being purely a solo (and endlessly soloing) instrument to produce the perfect high-octane accompaniment to Noble’s quicksilver percussion sound-searching. Rasmussen is one of the younger performers this weekend whose mildly punky appearance and tender years belie her natural talent and transcendent approach.

William Parker, Hamid Drake, John Dikeman
William Parker, Hamid Drake, John Dikeman

Summoned by text to get home and help deal with a minor family emergency, I had to leave just prior to the Rachel Musson Quartet set. Musson is joined by Corey Mwamba of Yana on vibes, bassist Neil Charles and percussionist Mark Sanders. This meant I also missed out on the big names: William Parker, Hamid Drake, John Dikeman. Gutted. The big names. By all accounts, it was extremely good; by turns intimate, joyful, and transcendent.

The side-effects, if there are any, of “going big” and basing an event of this type on arts council funding and therefore needing to augment the application process with separate, independent funding initiatives, (Indiegogo crowd-funding in this case), means there is perhaps a need to offer incentives to the people who might put their hands in their pockets. Consequently, there was an unmarked but distinctly tangible “VIP seating area” – table seating at the foot of the stage – with, I was reliably informed, “free champagne”. This information I got first-hand from Geoff from Brighton promoters of electronica, The Spirit of Gravity, who apparently accidentally wandered into the VIP area unchallenged and was handed a free glass of said beverage.

So, musically, Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival was a massive success. However, the knives are already out. It’s a pity that the local press couldn’t quite feel charitable enough to actually send someone who enjoys jazz to report on the goings on. Hilariously, John Keenan of The Argus had this to say: “Steering clear of any concession to mainstream sensibilities, this two-day festival showcased avant garde experimentalist musicians who regard accessibility as a misfortune to which unwary players are apt to succumb”, before going on to spend the remainder of his piece in praise of Sarah Gail Brand’s performance on the opening night, whose music is nothing if not accessible. I get the feeling it’s unlikely he stuck around for Saturday’s performances.

Mention should also go to the comprehensive merchandise stalls in an ante-room to the bar where as well as an official festival stall holding titles by all the participants, there were also stalls from local independent publisher Slightly Underground and Brighton Jazz School.

I’ll leave the last word to Daniel Spicer: “…turns out, if you do a jazz festival and pretty much forget to eat for the whole weekend, running largely on tobacco, ale and enthusiasm, you end up feeling a little shady come Monday”. Hopefully that won’t stop him doing it all again next year. Bravo!

Agata Urbaniak’s photographs:
Day 1
Day 2

Gala: a tragi-comic chamber opera by Ergo Phizmiz

Source: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/gala
Source: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/gala

Last night we went to the Arcola Theatre where we saw Gala, an unusual operetta devised and written by Ergo Phizmiz, our favourite UK polymath of song and music who may be known to some of you through his collaborations with People Like Us, but he’s also an uncategorisable genius who has managed to mould his eccentricity, preoccupations, and other tics into entertaining and user-friendly forms. Gala is a short piece about Salvador Dali’s wife, a fantasy snapshot extrapolated from a few known facts about the celebrity lifestyle enjoyed by this rather – erm – “colourful” character in the 1970s. As presented in Ergo’s vignette, Gala was besotted by the young singer who starred in Jesus Christ Superstar (a tacky hit show on Broadway at the time) and invited him to their fashionable soirees in the Dalis’ New York apartment…and this becomes the cue for a lively portrait of decadence and weirdness, enriched with pervy sex. How can it miss?

Thea Martin played Gala as a brilliantly imperious character, attempting to maintain her own sense of self-importance even as the lifestyle of the Dalis is in decline – as shown by the figure of Dali himself, played by Jeremy Court, a burnt-out case confined to a wheelchair throughout the whole show. I liked the way Thea Martin would fly off the handle at key moments (e.g. shouting at the maidservant, played by Natalie Morgan) to suggest she’s barely in control of the situation, and almost a slave to her own lust. In my ideal world, Gala would have been played by a young Kate Bush – the character is not far from the half-mad impulsive and destructive characters from such songs as ‘Baboushka’ or ‘The Wedding List’.

Adam Dindorf played the Jesus Christ Superstar character with just the right note of egotism and unearned sense of entitlement, further highlighting Gala’s own insecurity. Dindorf’s singing wasn’t note-perfect, but more importantly he projects to the audience well, enlisting sympathy from the front rows. His “back story”, as explained by Ergo in a short preamble, is that Gala made numerous doomed attempts to turn this person into a famous rock star, despite his lack of talent; almost like an inverted version of The X Factor before the fact. Needless the say the character turns out to be on the make, and Dindorf’s stage craft is flawless when he writes himself a cheque from the Dali account and swiftly absconds.

The erotic affair is executed on stage with a singular dramatic coup. As Gala and Jesus Christ Superstar couple under a furry rug (the real-life Dali woulda loved that Freudian symbol), at the same moment the wheelchair-bound Dali is serviced by the unwilling maidservant who dons a black glove to apply hand relief to the old man under his blanket. Two climaxes are reached simultaneously on stage, through song and vocals, and it’s a moment that’s triumphant, hilarious (Dali’s curled-toe slippers suddenly appearing from under his blanket as his excitement mounts) and deeply poignant. The latter, mainly because the deluded Gala’s apparently unable to see how she’s being conned, and also underscored by Dali’s rather sad solo speech about how he tried to make his every waking moment into an erotic one. Jeremy Court’s triumph has been to convey something of the faded grandeur of Dali while performing under highly restrictive conditions. On the other hand, one acting lesson I do remember is “always USE your chair”, which presumably applies to wheelchairs too. A mere raise of the head towards the standard lamp, with the accompaniment of Spanish flamenco chords from the piano, gives us a glimpse of the former haughtiness of the Dali of the 1920s.

Did I mention the whole play is done in song? Ergo Phizmiz’s conceptualisation has been to present the work as an updated Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, playing the music to his own songs as the pianist live on stage. I think the G&S comparison is apt if we remember that Ergo once contributed to Radio Boredcast (a conceptual sound art event organised by Vicki Bennett) by reciting and singing several of these operettas entirely from memory. He didn’t need any sheet music tonight either, and played the whole score without a break. The other moment that reminded me of G&S was the appearance of the Dali Courtiers – the sycophants and arse-lickers, as Ergo described them – who attended these New York parties just to fawn and swoon over Gala’s antics. When these five freaks made their entrance and started singing, the whole production just took off like a sky-rocket. A shame this was 10 minutes before the end, though; if G&S had been writing this, this chorus would have appeared right at the start to warm the audience up, like the “gentlemen of Japan” in The Mikado.

The sycophants’ delighted grins soon turn to disgust when…but I won’t reveal the play’s twist ending, in case you ever get a chance to see this. Many thanks to Luis from Care In the Community Recordings (he funded the production) for the invite to this unusual event.

Luis of Care In the Community adds “The extras who I got in were an interesting bunch. One was Serafina Steer, another the artist performer Jenny Moore (who is a v interesting artist). Also Tom Woolner sculptor/ performer. And artists Simon Clark and Sarah Anderson. Sarah, Jenny and Serafina have just formed a new band. Also apart from producer I was artistic director. I officially produced it for I-D.A Projects (a not for profit organisation).”

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!!”