Heat, Light and Fire

Your editor had a wonderful time at Listen To The Voice Of Fire held at Ceredigion Museum last Saturday. Seven acts, ten performers, at an event which turned out to be a mix of minimal electronics, free improvisation, noise, avant-folk drone and controlled feedback. Plus there was a projection of computer-based visuals in motion. Double plus, the entire happening was themed around the concept of Japanese ceramics…how many shows give you all that in less than three hours? No wonder the event had sold all the tickets, with eager fans reportedly lining up around the quay to make their way in.

This is the third event under the aegis of Voice Of Fire which Dafyyd Roberts has staged in Wales; last year he didn’t do music, more of a “symposium and concert-alchemy in sound art” where the invited guests discussed pertinent topics. Dafyyd is thus continuing to pursue his long-standing interest in the esoteric field of alchemy, a subject on which he has published. Matter of fact we mentioned alchemy when most of the assembled company sat down on Friday night for a tasty Indian meal at Light Of Asia. Alchemy, I mused out loud, with its strange visual emblems and concealment of abstruse chemical processes within poems, dialogues, metaphors, and fantastic tales full of images of snakes and lions, could perhaps be regarded as an early form of “encryption”, keeping the secret arts hidden from non-initiates. This seemed to strike a chord with my host Roberts, although the “fire” theme in this instance is certainly more applicable to the processes by which ceramic art is baked and glazed in the kilns. This had given Roberts the idea for an ‘object score’, based on the Japanese ceramics held in the Ceredigion Museum’s collection; this angle helped secure funding for the concert (thanks to the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation and Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation) by giving it more intellectual heft, and ere long the famed Japanese performer and composer Toshimaru Nakamura was signed up for the project. He undertook a brief residency for this collaborative recording project and performance package, culminating in the show on 10th March.

“I feel really humbled,” announced Dafyyd to the audience by way of introducing the show, as he toggled between Welsh and English. “I thought maybe five people would come!” Instead, the event was a sell-out, every seat filled with enthused music lovers giving their attention to the music on offer with an admirable degree of respectful silence and engagement; audiences in London, who I often suppose are growing blasé with the array of good experimental music at their disposal, could learn some humility. Indeed it’s this metropolitan ennui that Rhodri Davies has been trying to bypass, as he confided to me around midnight after the show. “Critics are too ready to label our music,” was the strength of his lament, reaching for the terms like Onkyo or Berlin Reduced Playing or Glitch without really engaging with their ears, “and then they complain when what we do doesn’t fit their labels.” For him, it was an emotional time to be returning to his own turf to perform, and his sister Angharad Davies wrote me that it was “exciting to experience that buzz in my home town”.

Swansea, where Rhodri is currently based, is also the HQ of Jenn Kirby; it had been fascinating to watch her set up her equipment, which to my naive eye looks like two boxes with long orange strings, attached to black gloves which she wears. In performance she uses her arms and body to pull the strings and trigger samples, while also singing into her headset and occasionally playing her Danelectro guitar with a violin bow. The sounds she made are a mixture of stuttering signals, ethereal voice wails, and something which I have in my scrawled notes as “scrapey flute in a cavern”. But the unusual sounds are just one part of it. It’s important to see musicians doing it live; one that struck me instantly was how Jenn’s body movements shape her music. The arms move, she squats and bends at the knees, she stands up and down slowly, she circles on the spot. This is to assist the triggers from her orange-stringed device I assume, but it persuaded me I had better pay attention to each performer’s “body language”.

This observation certainly was apt for Ed Wright, a unique performer whose work is completely new to me. To better apply himself to his pedal set-up, he squatted down in a kneeling position like the world’s most determined gardener about to do battle with a troublesome bed of weeds. One free hand then swiped and sawed the air around him, and I felt he was controlling a very angry Theremin with his wild stabs. Spitty, sporadic noise bursts resulted; and a drawing of the very angular ceramic piece he was attempting to “play” in sound was visible to him in his open notebook nearby. Wright rose to his feet to bring his jet-black violin into play, but continued to operate the electronic sputterings with his shoeless foot. This was almost a physical attack; Ed Wright is one step away from a karate or savate expert in sound, and it’s faintly alarming to behold.

Dafyyd Roberts bucked the trend in “interesting body movements” by sitting completely still at a table for his performance, but his focus and concentration was evident in the intense noise that soon emerged and enveloped the audience, soon creating a hypnotic effect with its internal rhythms and rise-and-fall structure underneath the waves of abstract texture. From my viewpoint I couldn’t see much of his set-up though, and guessed he was maybe sending sounds from a laptop through a mixing desk (which I think is now a pretty orthodox way of working and not as shocking as when we first saw the Mego boys bringing us the gospel from Vienna some 18 years ago). Towards the end he gave us a flavour of that “uncontrolled chaos” that used to characterise his feedback experiments as Our Glassie Azoth in the late 1990s.

“So many effects,” observed a young man sitting behind me, noting the presence of pedals and mixing desks all around the performance area. Did I mention the players were all set on the floor of this former Edwardian cinema / theatre? We were surrounded by exhibits from a golden age of popular entertainment, including a chiming clock which continued to strike the hour and adding its percussive voice to some of the quieter moments of music. The duo of Barrett’s Dottled Beauty had travelled all the way from Aberdeen to perform at this event, and Alan Wilkinson and Gayle Brogan evidently share a taste for melody and mystery in their heavily folk-inflected music. Brogan’s main contribution is her voice, for which terms like “other-worldy” spring to mind; she has to sit on the floor and keep her eyes closed to work her way into a very personal space, while a hand-held microphone suddenly appears to have attached itself to her head. Later she bends into a near-foetal position, whimpering a song whose semi-audible lyrics may have something to do with frost, crops, weather; staple images of agricultural folksong, in fact. Throughout, Alan is the near-exact opposite to Gayle’s free-spirited floating, standing steady and stable like a navigator behind the wheel as he plays. Yet his minimal guitar playing doesn’t feel out of place in tonight’s experimental company, and his turquoise device blowing on the strings (along with Gayle’s loop effects) are admissible as contributions to some sort of post-Cagean experimentation. Barrett’s Dottled Beauty offer us a sort of modernist deconstruction of folk idioms, yet still allow melodies and songs to shine through.

After the interval Tatsuru Arai, making his debut in Wales, had joined us from Berlin in his fine blue suit and carrying his laptop and projector set-up. From what I could see of his screen, there was an array of squares and rectangles floating about along with seemingly random streams of numbers and letters; a Jasper Johns painting in digital form. I could make out the word MATTERS-TON in black letters, which may have been the title of the piece. Heaven knows how anyone could have used this foreboding data to create what he did, but soon CGI images appeared on the screen on the stage and started moving and changing rapidly in time to his abstract digital noise. As to body language, Arai sat completely unmoving as he gave all his attention to the screen of his device. Well, I can dig the cosmo-science themes of his presentation, whose imagery was very reminiscent of planets, supernovas, star clusters and such; themes which were endorsed by the textual messages and robotic voice messages about radiation, mass, energy, and dark matter in the universe. But his heavy avant-techno beats and aggressive noise felt out of place in tonight’s company, and the remorseless repetition of flickering noise and jagged geometric shapes shifting in unnatural ways became very numbing to the eyes and ears. However, I suspect that is the raison d’etre of his work.

At this point I began to sense that Listen To The Voice Of The Fire had enough talent in the room for two quite discrete shows – one complex and noisy, the other quiet and contemplative. Andrew Leslie Hooker may have fallen into either category, but probably the former. I had a chance to speak to him on the morning before the event, and it turns out he’s been involved from an early stage, discussing ideas and concepts with Dafyyd and helping to shape the direction of Voice Of Fire; he’s an unofficial pillar of support. As I heard him play I remembered we now seemed to be quite some way distant from the original “let’s all try and play a ceramic” concept, but I’m not sure if that matters. Hooker’s achievement here was that he produced some intense, extreme and pretty wild noise from his mixing desk (not unlike the set-up used by Toshimaru), without once descending into Merzbow harsh-noise suffocating Hell. Some very surprising pops, clicks and whoops appeared to be leaping out of the speakers, while a pained whine and stuttering sound made it seem like Hooker was almost bending the sound like sheet metal with a pair of pliers. As to body movements, the elbows were doing all the work – his arms darted in and out as he sliced away like a very pro-active surgeon. I could see Toshimaru paying rapt attention to this highly engaged performance (see sketch). Andrew said he likes to “scramble” his mixing desk just before he goes on stage, turning all the knobs to a random setting so he won’t know what EQ will result. I understand about half of that, but I do appreciate a man who knows when to let go; we already have enough control freaks in the world who tweak the life out of their overly-manicured music.

The headline act was the trio of Toshimaru Nakamura, Angharad Davies and Rhodri Davies, playing (respectively) the no-input mixing board, the violin, and the prepared harp. I wish I could convey something about the sheer beauty of their performance. Clearly there’s a lot of human depth behind it; experience, respect, collaboration, friendship, family. Everything just aligned perfectly from the opening moments and got better from that point onwards. I think the assurance and sheer craft in the playing of all three was one thing that came over strongly, but it’s rare to get this degree of interlocking, the sense of moving-as-one-body in perfect harmony. After a while it’s as though the instruments themselves disappeared; just three bodies making small still and deliberate movements in the zone of concentration. Even the moments before they started playing were something to savour; it’s that moment when you can see the music welling up inside the performer, before a note is made. Music is as natural as breathing. I’ve only seen that happen a few times, and must assume it’s something that’s rare, and hard-won. If any of this makes it sound like the music was cold, stiff, and intellectual, let me assure you it wasn’t. My mind kept going back to the voice of Toshimaru, who had gone out of his way to order the hottest item on the menu at the Light Of Asia – he went for the full-strength Naga, and the waiter said he’d instruct the chef to pull out all the stops. Was Toshimaru satisfied? “It’s good,” he smiled as he enjoyed his meal. “The heat is good! The heat is good!”

Sketches by Ed Pinsent. For proper photos of the event, see Dafyyd’s site.